Last redesigned for 2014, the 2017 Kia Soul gets a new engine added to the lineup, a turbo four that brings more power. The compact hatchback has great packaging inside its boxy body and handles surprisingly well on winding roads.
For 2017, there are three different engines in the three models. The base model gets a 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 130 horsepower, mated to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. It’s slow.
The Plus model, which Kia calls + but we’ll use the word for, takes a 2.0-liter four that makes 161 horsepower, mated to a six-speed automatic. It’s quicker, but the transmission searches around for the gear it wants, too much, with both this engine and the base model’s.
The Exclaim (!), gets the new engine, a 1.6-liter turbocharged four making 201 horsepower, that’s also used by the Hyundai Elantra Sport. It’s mated to a smooth seven-speed dual-clutch automatic manual transmission. This engine delivers spirited performance when driving quickly, but the turbo lags at low engine speeds making the car feel lethargic when loafing around town.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, with brake assist and hill-start assist, even on the base model. They work well, easy to modulate for smooth, controlled braking.
Fuel mileage is good but doesn’t match the best competitors, probably because Soul’s boxy shape is less aerodynamic. The base model with the 1.6-liter engine with the automatic rates 25 miles per gallon City, 30 Highway, and 27 Combined by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Plus with the 2.0-liter rates 25/30/27 mpg. The new Exclaim with the 1.6-liter turbo and seven-seed dual-clutch gets 26/31/28 mpg. There’s also a Soul EV.
For a compact, Soul scores well in crash testing, with five stars overall from the NHTSA, and the top Good scores from the IIHS. Six airbags are standard, and a rearview camera is standard on the Exclaim and Plus. There’s an available safety suite including blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, and forward collision warning.
Kia Soul ($16,100) comes with cloth seats, air conditioning, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and a 60/40-split folding rear seat. Manual transmission is standard, automatic is available ($17,700).
Soul+ ($19,800) gets upgraded cloth upholstery, a 5.0-inch touchscreen, rearview camera, 17-inch wheels, and body-colored bumpers and trim.
Soul! ($22,800) comes with the new turbo engine, 18-inch wheels and sporty exterior bits. Inside, there are leather seats and piano black trim, a 4.3-inch LED instrument cluster, and keyless ignition.
All Souls get a great warranty: 5 years or 60,000 miles, and the powertrain for 10 years or 100,000 miles. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
The Kia Soul’s shape is still perky, but not so fresh any more. The proportions are right, as the sharp angles on the chunky sheetmetal work with the roofline. The windshield pillars are abrupt while leaning back a bit, keeping the profile from being overly square.
The Soul needs the body-colored trim in the Plus and Exclaim models, to smooth out and enhance the shape.
There is a sea of black plastic in the dash panel, with some chrome and glossy trim to add contrast. There are some unexpected upscale touches, such as the steering wheel, gauges, and some soft materials. The instrument panel is low so the driver looks downward at it. The centerstack with its controls is canted toward the driver. Speakers sit on top of vents at the edges of the dash.
The seats are firm and supportive, but a tall driver might find himself too high, and there might not be enough support for long thighs. The Plus and Exclaim have a folding center armrest in the rear. But the best part is, there’s an amazing 39 inches of rear seat legroom, more than many SUVs.
Soul offers a good level of standard equipment for a base compact, but there’s no cruise control or center front armrest. The rearview camera is available in a package costing $2000, a high price for a basic safety feature.
There’s good cargo room inside, with 24.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and with them folded there’s a vast 61.3 cubic feet; the Soul is like a tiny cargo van.
The Soul gets back to being an inexpensive compact car when it comes to interior noise. The Exclaim’s turbo motor drones into the cabin, and begins to howl when the engine tops 4000 rpm. The other two slower engines are louder.
The base 1.6-liter engine is slow. One hundred thirty horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque is minimal. But if you don’t commute on the freeway, it keeps up. For an entry-level new car, considering the cargo capacity and cool factor, the base model with the six-speed manual is a good car for the money.
The 2.0-liter only comes with the six-speed automatic transmission whose downshifts are responsive and quick, although at freeway speeds, it shifts between fifth and sixth gears too much. It can be locked in manual so it only upshifts at redline, but that probably won’t keep it from downshifting from sixth to fifth.
The new turbo engine, built by Hyundai, makes 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, enough so there’s torque steer if you stand on it. With this engine, the Soul is a quick car on a winding backroad.
However, when driven slowly, running errands around the neighborhood, it can feel lethargic and unwilling, and with non-linear acceleration. Throttle response is sluggish when transitioning from coasting to slow or moderate acceleration. Push on the accelerator harder and it then it surges with more gusto than wanted. In short, the car feels sluggish.
Underway, Soul is neither as tippy as the boxy profile suggests nor is the ride as busy as the short wheelbase suggests. Twin-path dampers deliver good control, confidence in corners, and isolation from small bumps. The Soul offers reasonably responsive handling, braking and acceleration when driven quickly on a winding road, where it can feel sporty and fun, and there’s a Sport mode that firms up the steering, but the Soul is no VW Golf or Mini Cooper.
The transmission can be so slow to transition from Drive to Reverse and back to Drive that it reminds us of an old movie where the sea captain moves the power lever from Half to Full, an engineer below deck sees the lever has moved and then shouts “Full steam ahead!” to another seaman who moves a lever to increase engine speed. This can seem tedious when in a hurry.
The Kia Soul does indeed have some soul, along with some compelling traits. The base model, even with its speed-challenged 1.6-liter engine and six-speed gearbox, offers a good value. The new 201-horsepower turbo with the seven-speed dual clutch transmission makes the Soul an enjoyable driving companion when the revs are kept up.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough reporting from New Jersey.