As a car maker, Kia's been on an interesting ride — no pun intended — over the last few years: the manufacturer has churned out a couple of really excellent cars as of late, with the Kia Soul among the bunch. It is just one example of the effort to make the brand friendly to young car buyers hoping to find something cool and unique to drive around in.
You've all seen the commercials with those wacky anthropomorphic hamsters, usually accompanied by the song-du-jour of the moment (currently it's Lady Gaga's Applause); this time around, the hamsters get in shape, suddenly becoming stylish and hip, while still maintaining their cheeky hamster vibe. That same spirit is evident in the newly designed 2014 Kia Soul, which we had the pleasure of driving around during a First Look weekend presented by Kia, in San Diego.
Compared to the previous year's model, the changes to the 2014 Soul seem subtle… at least until you look at both side-by-side. Then, the differences become readily apparent: outside, the Soul is bolder, both via more aggressive body lines and bolder color; inside, the changes are even more pronounced, with a way more premium interior and design cues that follow the external changes.
There are a lot of geometric cues in this new model; they're nuanced, but you'll see a lot of circles throughout the car's design. It's still aggressive-looking (Kia wouldn't want to lose that core 18-29 male demographic that loves this car), but the changes make the care much more modern-looking, with rounder lighting all around and a much curvier look than it's been known for. Again, the changes are pretty subtle if you're not looking at the new and old Soul side-by-side, but when you see them together, it's clear what Kia's going for this time around.
Kia chose to change the Soul's design based on the Kia Track'ster concept car we saw back in 2012, which apparently wasn't an easy task. Kia Chief Designer Tom Kearns states, "The all-new Soul was one of the more difficult assignments we've taken on. Striking the right balance between the wonderful design of the original car with the audacious proportions and stance of the Track'ster was daunting."
The result? A Soul that's slightly longer, wider, and shorter, but with increased wheelbase and leg/head/shoulder room. That wider stance and slightly lower center of gravity was slight, but made a difference when taking turns and curves during our drive along.
San Diego was a wise choice for Kia to show the car's capabilities off; as we drove, the urban landscape of the seaside city quickly gave way to canyons and winding roads as we drove inland. The 2014 Soul fit right into both environments, offering a smooth ride with minimal road noise. Since we drove the Exclaim(!) model (Kia's top of the line offering for this year's model), we were able to take advantage of the 8-inch capacitive touch screen inside the car, pulling up directions to each destination easily and without issue using Kia's custom Android-based navigation software.
There was one odd quirk while we drove, which was that the Soul seemed to want to alert us of upcoming bends in the road with a "Curve Ahead" announcement. That would be fine if it worked properly, but unfortunately, it didn't quite perform as intended, and seemed to alert us randomly, sometimes without an actual curve. Kia officials mentioned this "feature" would not be present in actual showroom models, but it was weird nonetheless.
While we're discussing that touchscreen, we should also mention the interior in the new Soul is vastly improved from previous models. The 2013 Soul's interior felt cheap and plasticky, and the seats weren't comfortable for extended periods of driving. Now, the inside of the car feel worlds better, with re-contoured seat foams and improved materials everywhere. Before, we would have argued the Soul was a car you'd buy for college, and then upgrade when you got out. Now, the Soul feels like a much more mature ride, especially inside the cabin, which we appreciate. The model we drove was, again, the top of the line, and we were treated to luxuries like heated/cooled leather seats with venting, a panoramic sunroof, and a heated steering wheel.
If you were frightened Kia would leave behind the light rings in the speakers (as previous models have had), don't worry — those are still here, along with much improved door panels, speaker grilles, and gauge displays. As for those of you hoping for either huge leaps in horsepower or vastly improved fuel economy? Prepare to be a little disappointed. The car's heart is largely carryover from previous years, though the engines have been tuned for low-end torque. That's not necessarily a good thing, though, as the smaller 1.6-liter engine drops from 138 to 130 (the 2.0-liter retains the same 164 horsepower, bit hits it 300 rpm sooner). Fuel economy is around the same as last year as well, with the 2014 Soul hitting around 24/30 mpg city and highway, which isn't super impressive (but at the very least isn't a drop from previous years). Also important to keep in mind: the Soul is at its core a crossover designed for urban life, and its 4-cylinder engine reflects that, so don't expect the Soul to barrel uphill like a V8 truck or an AWD SUV.
Overall, the 2014 Kia Soul offered a very nice driving experience in our time with it. Of course, it's a much more crowded market today than it used to be, with the Mini Countryman, the Fiat 500L, Honda Fit, and more all competing for a slice of the pie; however, with Kia's vastly improved interior and upgraded handling/ride quality, we expect the 2014 Soul to do very well in its genre, and perhaps expand its market beyond its core demographic.