Review: 2020 Kia Soul
It’s still very unique – the Soul still has a ton of appeal.
THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: Cool looks, roomy interior, lots of tech
- What’s Bad: Powertrain a bit of a letdown, some infotainment quibbles
I was recently in Japan covering the Tokyo Auto Show. It was a great event with all the cool stuff you’d expect; concepts, some cool Japan-only releases like a flying broomstick and an entire booth dedicated to the Tomica line of diecast toys, complete with a 1:64 scale model of downtown Tokyo itself.
The most interesting booth for me, however – except, of course, the Tomica stand, duh – was the Daihatsu stand. There stood five concepts, all part of the kei segment of cars. For the uninitiated: kei cars are tiny little things no longer than 3,490 mm and no wider than 1,490 mm; for reference, the Nissan Micra – one of the smallest cars sold in Canada – is 3,828 mm long and 1,666 mm wide. They can also have engines no bigger than 660 CC and are often boxy in shape to maximize the interior space that tiny footprint allows. They look cool, they’re tech-laden and they’re a car I’d love to see in Canada.
As of right now, what you see in these photos is probably the closest thing we have to a kei-type car, even though the Kia Soul is Korean. At 4,196 mm long and 1,801 mm wide, it’s bigger than those cars but the proportions are just about what you’d see there, save for a slightly longer hood. The vertical tail lamps, squared-off corners, wheels pushed far to each corner leaving almost no overhang, front or rear all contribute to a very unique silhouette. It manages to convey a sense of coolness without the weirdness associated with similarly veined stuff we’ve seen here over the years such as the Nissan Cube or Scion xB.
It’s always looked this way, but some things have changed for 2020 as the Soul has entered its third generation. The shape’s still the same, but the details have changed. The headlights are narrower as they borrow a little from the Stinger sedan and the taillights are still vertical but don’t climb the A-pillars so much as they frame the entirety of the rear tailgate’s top half. The front bumper of my GT-Line tester, meanwhile, is dominated by a baleen whale-like grille. Make no mistake; this is still a Soul, but with all this aggressive detailing, I get the strange feeling that all of a sudden, it’s trying a little too hard.
The wheels are cool, though, and inside, the rounded corners to the centre stack, climate controls, and gauge cluster housing look properly modern. The speakers no longer form stacks atop the dash, but the way they now integrate with the vents in the same assembly is still a very unique – and cool – take.
Remember how the last Soul’s door speakers had illuminated bezels that you could change or have “dance” with your music? No? Well, it did, and this latest model has taken that a step further and used soft mood-lighting throughout the cabin for a similar, yet much more 3D effect. Which is nice, because otherwise dark plastics are kind of the order of the day here and this helps brighten things up a little. It can be turned off, of course, which is important.
Other tech includes a 10.25” infotainment display that connects you to a 10-speaker, 640-watt Harmon/Kardon audio system that has support for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s a properly powerful system. Indeed, it had better be what with the whole “car as disco club” vibe the Soul presents. This may be a compact hatch at heart, but goodness me if it isn’t a properly equipped one.
I do wish the backup camera was sharper, though. Like, a lot sharper. As in: I feel like I’m looking at my parents’ old tube, and I can now get a 50-inch flatscreen HD display for about $250 and this is the best you can do? I never thought something like this would bother me but then you add water droplets or grime and the situation gets worse, to the point where the camera is borderline useless. It’s not like Kia doesn’t have the tech; when I tested the Telluride, for example, I don’t remember the camera being this bad, whether it’s the same camera tech or not. It’s a strange thing, but if Kia could get it right, they’d have one of the best infotainment/safety systems available today.
One of the main reasons the Soul is shaped like it is – other than the coolness factor – is that it makes for lots of usable space inside. Squared-off corners mean maximum space is being used and as a result, the Soul is one of the roomiest compacts you’re going to find today. That’s the case even more so now than previously. It’s longer in overall length and has a longer wheelbase as well, making for more room inside for occupants. There is also 663 litres of rear cargo volume if you lower the adjustable cargo floor, and 1,758 L if you fold the rear seats. I’ll take that from my compact, I’ll tell you what.
Plus, the seating position is nice and high (a little too high for taller folks like myself, it must be said), making for a great view out through the big, tall windows. This really is the perfect city car when it comes to accessibility and ease-of-use around town.
Actually, it’s more than that. The view out is so good, the steering so well-tuned and the blind spots so minimalized that I actually found myself almost enjoying my time spent in traffic. I can’t explain it; there’s just something intangibly good about threading a car like this in these conditions. Back seat passengers did complain a little about the bounce over the rear axle, however.
Things change a little on the highway as speeds increase. For 2020, Kia has done away with the Turbo version of the Soul in Canada, but we do get a new powertrain: a 2.0L inline-4 good for 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque (down 54 and 63, respectively, on last year’s turbo models) running off the more efficient Atkinson cycle. That’s great for inner-city efficiency, but it did leave me wanting a little in the power department as I started to attempt more high-speed manoeuvres.
Of course, when it comes to a car’s powertrain the engine is one thing, but it always has to be spoken of in-concert with the transmission. Which, like the engine, comes in one form and one form only: an “intelligent variable transmission”, which is just Kia speak for a continuously-variable automatic (CVT). That means no gears are swapped making for smooth and efficient progress, which is good for most situations. Like the engine, though, when you want to get on it, the CVT doesn’t really play ball. That’s not a Kia thing, it’s a CVT tech thing and barring Toyota’s smart system that has an actual traditional first gear, CVTs are going to be like this, and you can like it or lump it.
After all this, though, is this Soul fan going to “like” or “lump” the latest addition to the family?
It’s a tough one for me. When I drove last generation’s turbo version (you can still get that motor in the US, by the way – go figure), I wrote in these very pages that if it were offered with a manual transmission, I’d have to seriously consider it against one of the perennial leaders in the performance-lite compact category: the Honda Civic Si, which also became turbocharged for its latest generation.
I can’t say the same for this version of the Soul, though. It doesn’t quite have those chops without that motor and the old car’s traditional six-speed auto. However: when you think of it, the Soul continues to excel at what will likely appeal to most buyers: it’s roomy inside, tech-laden and makes driving ‘round town a cinch. Add the funky styling – and barring anything I’ve said, it’s still very unique – the Soul still has a ton of appeal.
2020 Kia Soul GT-Line
Body style: 5-seat compact CUV
Drive method: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive
Engine: 2.0L Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder, 147 hp @ 6,200 rpm; Torque: 132 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
Cargo capacity rear seats up/down: 663L/1,758L
Fuel Economy: 8.6/7.1/7.9 L/100 km city/highway/combined
Observed fuel economy: 8.7L/100 km
Price: $29,795 as tested
Website: Kia Soul