Two years ago I reviewed the Kia Rio, and I was pleasantly surprised. Later that year I reviewed the Kia Optima Hybrid, and I was impressed. This past week I’ve had the chance to review the 2014 Kia Soul, and I think I am in love. It was hard to say goodbye to our review car!
The Soul is a VERY polarizing design. I haven’t met anyone who is indifferent towards it-instead everyone either loves it or hates it. A quick poll of the Gear Diary team showed that most of them were at least open to it, though Dan said it reminded him of his brother-in-law’s pug…”so ugly it’s actually cute”. Travis voted ugly, as did Mike, while Chris and Joel thought it was cool looking, and Judie said she went from thinking it was ugly to liking it after a test drive at a Kia event. Meanwhile, my coworkers at my day job are equally divided — one person absolutely flipped with jealousy that I had one to test, while another was impressed with the interior but hated the exterior. My mother had the best response, with a polite “Now that’s an interesting vehicle in your driveway.” I’ve already admitted I’m in love, so yes, I like the style immensely. But I like boxy cars (our “family” car is a Ford Flex, so we’re not afraid of large boxes on wheels), so I was predisposed to like the style even before I drove one.
Still, even if you don’t love boxes on wheels there are lots of little things to like about the exterior of the Soul. For starters, our tester came with bright LED headlights, which performed well and looked quite cool. The swooped edges of the lights helped smooth out the boxiness of the car itself. Despite riding like a car, the Soul sits almost as high as a compact SUV, so if you like having a higher view of the road you will like this design. The back hatch also has some superfluous but stylish touches like a two-tone color palette. This is new with the 2014 Soul, and in my view it does add a nice visual change, making it look less like the back of a cargo van and more like a purposeful design. Overall, it looks great, and if you think brown is too boring you can get it in “Alien” or “Solar Yellow”. Just be prepared that someone may try to hail for a ride you if you drive by in a bright yellow vehicle!
There are really two main reasons to like the Soul; the experience of driving the car and the amount of technology Kia crams into every aspect of the experience. The tech side is one you can find with almost all Kias, but driving the Soul is where it all comes together. I drive 20 miles each way to work, and my commute takes anywhere from 25-45 minutes depending on traffic. Almost all of it is highway, with some very short bursts of local traffic as well. My regular car is a 2008 Prius, and while it’s a perfectly fine car, the Soul easily outstrips it in highway driving. It’s not that the Soul is a powerhouse at flying down the road, it’s just that it’s quite responsive and easy to maneuver in and out of traffic. So far, I’ve averaged around 25 mpg, which is towards the low side of what the Soul is rated (24 city/30 highway), but it’s important to note that we’re in the middle of a severe cold snap. It was 6 degrees Fahrenheit when I started the car one morning, and that kind of cold is bound to affect gas mileage.
The Soul uses a continuous variable transmission The Soul uses a 6-speed automatic transmission, though you can manually shift if needed — like in bad weather!
I was impressed with how the Soul handled highway driving, but what really pleased me was how the Soul handled local traffic. First, I’m going to apologize in advance to our writers Perry and Stacey, and anyone else from Livingston, NJ reading this, but your town is awful. I had to run into Livingston for work, and I’m convinced everyone there just forgets how to drive once they enter the town boundaries, because it was an utterly white-knuckle experience. Cars were pulling out of driveways without looking, people were randomly crossing with no crosswalk, and there was a great deal of sudden stop and go traffic for no reason. The Soul handled all of this like a champ. It stopped quickly and responsively, and I had no problems changing lanes quickly or dodging SUVs that apparently thought they owned both lanes at once. My Prius always feels a bit mushy at responding quickly, like I’ve asked it to go above and beyond and it’ll do it but juuuuust in the nick of time. The Soul was so responsive it’s like it knew before I did what needed to happen. It also helps that the Soul has excellent viewing angles, and I didn’t encounter any blind spots or areas that were difficult to see.
My last day with our tester model allowed me to see how the Soul handled poor weather conditions. When I left for work, there was probably an inch or so of nasty, slushy snow on the ground, and it snowed throughout the commute. Exit ramps were especially treacherous, and side roads were unplowed. I was able to manually put the Kia in first and second gear, both of which made me feel much safer. The car really felt like it was hugging the ground, and I didn’t feel unsteady or like I might slide off the road. Honestly, I am not sure my Prius could have handled the drive at all, let alone as smoothly as the Soul did. I started the review thinking that a car positioned as a crossover (as Kia does with the Soul) that sits as high as the Soul does should have an all wheel drive or 4-wheel drive option. I still think that would justify the price of our tester a bit more (see pricing below), but the front wheel drive handled some seriously nasty weather with ease. If you’re not consistently climbing mountains in it while buckets of snowfall, the Soul will likely get you from place to place with a minimum amount of slipping and sliding.
The Technology and Interior
So the Soul is a solid car to drive, and that’s one tick in its favor. Then you get to the features, and it really becomes a great car. My tester was the ! (Exclaim) level, or the top-tier trim, with every option installed. The features ranged from the utilitarian to the luxurious to the fun, and take the car from a box on wheels to a pretty impressive package.
The utility technology and design is pretty great all by itself. The Soul is equipped with Kia’s fantastic backup camera system, which uses a red/yellow/green graphic to indicate how close you are to objects behind you. It is also equipped with Kia’s UVO system, which includes roadside assistance on call. I didn’t test this, as I didn’t want to waste their resources, but it is only a button press away. The GPS was excellent, and I found it to be quite accurate and clear. In a nice bit of synergy, when the car was low on fuel the GPS offered to find the nearest gas station. I also noted the GPS maps were powered by an SD card, so upgrading the maps should be a snap. Bluetooth calling was flawless, and the voice recognition system handled dialing by voice with ease. My favorite little “utility” feature was definitely the power mirrors-with the press of a button you could fold the side mirrors in for safety in garages and tight parking spaces. If you don’t appreciate why this is important, you’ve clearly never lost a side mirror to a parking garage pillar.
Our review Soul had a pretty amazing set of luxury features for an affordable car. It had heated and cooled leather seats, a heated steering wheel, and a panoramic sunroof. It was hard to return to my non-heated seat car after being spoiled by the Soul! The heated steering wheel was also pretty great on cold days. Keyless entry and ignition was another nice bonus to find on the car. It’s such a minor thing, but getting in a car and pushing a button to start the engine just feels very Jetsons-esque, or like you’re about to launch a spaceship. It’s fitting that a car designed for fun and luxury would have push button start! But the highlight by far was the panoramic roof. It was way too cold to open the window, but I left the shade open while driving. It made the entire car feel roomier, plus it was great to get a small amount of natural light during my drive. Sarah absolutely fell in love with it as well; it’s hard not to love the experience of getting into a car where most of the roof is clear.
Almost everyone who heard I was reviewing the Soul made a comment about the ubiquitous hamsters in the commercials. The hamsters are clearly having a great time, and it’s not hard to think it’s because they’re enjoying the Infinity speakers and HD Radio in the Soul. Or maybe it’s the SiriusXM or the Bluetooth streaming media. Perhaps they enjoyed that the lower speakers on the front driver and passenger doors light up with rotating colors. Or maybe they’re just super excited they get to wear suits and drive a Soul instead of living in a cage with wood chips. In any case, the entertainment features of the Soul were excellent. Streaming over Bluetooth was smooth, though sound quality obviously varied depending on the source (Pandora, for example, sounded far weaker than locally saved music). SiriusXM sounded fantastic, and the speakers were all quite powerful and crisp. Between the speakers that lit up and the many music options, the Kia Soul felt at times like a giant driveable speaker, or a small music party on wheels. I can definitely see why the hamsters were so happy! One oddity, — there’s no CD player, so you’ll need to load up your iPod or smartphone with music.
The Soul’s interior design showed the same eye towards utility, luxury, and tech. It’s little things that made a big difference; for example, the ports for car chargers and USB plugs are at the bottom where the dash meets the middle console, and right below them is a small tray that’s perfectly sized to hold a smartphone. This way you can charge or connect your phone to the car and not have wires stretched all over the place or use up a cup holder to contain your phone. You can use the huge, responsive touchscreen to navigate the various GPS and media settings, or you can use the array of buttons around the dash and on the steering wheel. To help keep your eyes on the road, there’s a tiny LCD sandwiched between the RPM and speedometer dials directly in front of the driver-this way your eyes aren’t drifting to the touchscreen to get basic information on what’s going with the status of the car. All these are basic ways to make the car easy to drive and control, and then Kia adds little touches that make it both fun and fancy. Starting the car includes a graphic of a Soul on the driver’s dash LCD with a “system checking” message, which is both useful and cute. Every button on the car felt right, with a satisfying amount of travel and clickiness that just screamed “well made”. And everything you need as a driver is laid out nicely on the wheel, making it easy to change the GPS settings or skip a song without taking your eyes off the road.
The Bottom Line
In case it hasn’t been abundantly clear so far, I found plenty of reasons to love the Soul. There was just one thing that kept me from driving directly to the local Kia dealership after our tester car was returned, and that’s the cargo area. It’s really tiny. Granted, the Soul is not a huge car, and Kia chose to give the backseat plenty of space, but if you need cargo space AND passenger space the Soul is not going to be a good fit for you. The back seats do fold down, and when they do there’s plenty of room in the car. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law coincidentally rented a Soul recently on a vacation to Colorado, and they praised the Soul as well. They had no problems fitting all their snowboarding equipment in the car because they folded down the back seats, which makes sense since it was just the two of them. I tried fitting our BOB jogging stroller in the cargo area with the seats up, and it barely fit. There is no way we could fit anything else in there with it, even a few bags of loose groceries! Add in a car seat and you lose the ability to fold down the back seats, so don’t expect this car to be a powerhouse family hauler.
Cargo space is really the main flaw with the Soul. It’s a fantastic car and loaded with a jaw-dropping list of features for the price. Admittedly, our tester was a little pricey at $26,195, but that’s if you fully load the ! model. Go down one trim to + and you can pick up the technology package without the folding mirrors, LED headlights and you get a smaller wheel, but you’ll come in at the $23,000 range. If we assume most buyers end up at the midrange product, you’re getting a pretty amazing setup for that price. GPS, Infinity speakers, panoramic sunroof, rear camera, and a well-designed, incredibly fun car; I’d say that’s a pretty great deal. Not that the ! trim isn’t great, but when you get above $25,000 in a crossover, you end up with some competition from other compact SUVs that offer all-wheel drive and more cargo space.
Some people hear “Kia” and think “cheap”. But after spending time with the Soul, I hear “Kia” and think “freakin awesome”. There’s nothing cheap or flimsy about the Soul, and there’s nothing weak or phoned in about their technology package. They’ve put together a very impressive product that has every bit of high-end experience you’d expect as well as many you wouldn’t, and it’s worth considering if you want your car to be as tech-savvy as you are!
MSRP: $26,195 as reviewed; trims start at $14,900-customize yours at Kia.com
What I liked: Fun to drive; very responsive in poor driving conditions; interior is well designed with a fantastic tech package; looks cute; large touchscreen made GPS and rear camera viewing a snap; panoramic sunroof; excellent speaker system; multiple media choices
What Needs Improvement: No all-wheel/4-wheel drive option; small cargo area
Source: Manufacturer provided review unit on loan