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PowerSteering: 2018 Kia Soul Review

PowerSteering: 2018 Kia Soul Review

By Liz Kim, December 11, 2017

Introduction

“But he’s got a great personality!” When it comes to blind dates, this is the default description for someone who may be lacking in the looks department. 

The Kia Soul, a compact multi-purpose vehicle type thing that’s not quite a subcompact crossover because of its lack of all-wheel drive, and not quite a hatchback because of its towering height, is not only a vehicle with character brimming from every crevice, but also has looks spanning the range from adorable to awful, depending on whom you ask. And just last year, Kia gave the Soul even more wit by slapping a turbocharger on the engine to make it even more personable.

2018 Kia Soul front quarter left photoThat last change, offered solely in the top trim level, resolved a major complaint with this spunky little car. Therefore, for this review, J.D. Power evaluated a 2018 Kia Soul Exclaim equipped with optional floor mats. The price came to $23,820, including the $895 destination charge.

What Owners Say…

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Kia Soul, it is helpful to understand who buys this vehicle, and what they like most and least about their Souls.

More women than men own Kia Souls, with 52% of Soul owners identifying as female. Compared to the Compact Multi-Purpose Vehicle segment, 46% of owners are women. 

Soul owners are about the same age as compact MPV owners (60 years vs. 61 years for the segment), but they enjoy substantially lower median annual household income at $59,286 (vs. $78,682). This drastic difference might be explained by the vehicles in the competitive set, which include the Ford C-Max and Toyota Prius v, dedicated hybrids that may appeal to more affluent buyers. 

Roughly the same number of Soul owners and compact MPV owners identify as Price Buyers, seeming to confirm that lower median annual household income amongst Kia buyers is not, within the segment, dictating their choice in a vehicle. Furthermore, compact MPV owners are more concerned about fuel economy and environmentally friendly vehicles than Soul owners are, reflecting the presence of dedicated hybrid models in the competitive set.

In other respects, Soul owners and compact MPV owners are aligned with two exceptions. Soul owners are more likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (72% vs. 60%) and that they like a vehicle that offers responsive handling and powerful acceleration (82% vs. 76%).

Owners report that their favorite things about the Soul are (in descending order) the exterior styling, interior design, driving dynamics, seats, and storage and space. Owners indicate that their least favorite things about the Soul are (in descending order) visibility and safety, the infotainment system, the climate system, the engine/transmission, and fuel economy.

What Our Expert Says…

In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the Kia Soul measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2017 APEAL Study.

Exterior

The Soul is a vehicle of cartoonish proportions, all designed to set it apart from its competitors. It’s boxy from the beltline up and slightly lumpy down, with the wheel arches and the front headlamps adding blobby elements to an otherwise squared-off vehicle. The front grille (which isn’t one, actually) looks too small and the lower air intake looks too big. 

Kia jazzes up the Soul Exclaim’s already extroverted exterior with red accent lines to denote the engine’s extra boost and bigger 18-inch wheels to give it a more assertive stance. The Soul is one of those cars that you either like or hate, but even haters might grow fond of it after driving it for a while.

Interior

Consider the base Soul. It has a tiny starting price of $16,995 (with $895 destination), but it comes with a much nicer interior than you’d think a car of that price might include. In fact, the quality level easily makes sense in my more expensive test vehicle, or even a car priced closer to $30,000. 

When compared to compact crossovers like the Chevrolet Trax or the Toyota C-HR, which are full of cheap materials, the Soul’s interior quality stands out even more. The cabin is comprised of appealing soft-touch materials and sturdy, nicely finished plastics, and collectively they lend the car a surprising amount of refinement. 

The Exclaim’s exclusive cloth seats with leather bolsters and red contrast stitching are also mighty stylish. 

Seats

For drivers, the Kia Soul is quite comfortable, and I always appreciate it when small, inexpensive cars include a center console armrest, like most versions of the Soul do. Seriously, who doesn’t need an armrest? No one keeps his or her hands on the wheel at all times. 

For passengers, comfort is fine except that the front right chair is mounted too low and is not equipped with a seat height adjustment unless you opt for the package that includes power adjustment. Without this upgrade, the passenger is treated to the equivalent of a dunce chair for a small time out. This, coupled with a lack of thigh support, means discomfort.

Rear-seat passengers fare better, because the seat is mounted higher. Foot room is plentiful, but hard plastic front seatback panels could prove uncomfortable for taller people. Shoulder space is fine for two, but three will find it tight.

Climate Control System

The climate control system is fairly rudimentary, but in the Exclaim trim it is a single-zone automatic system. A single knob adjusts temperature, and because the car lacks a temperature display you simply make it hotter or colder than you are when you dial in adjustment. 

Impressively, though, the Soul has a Clean Air ionizer, which purportedly cleans the cabin’s air and keeps the interior smelling nice. It’s just hard to tell if it’s working with my grade-school-age daughters in the car. 

Infotainment System

I was a little bummed to see that my test vehicle did not include the Technology Package, which includes speaker that pulse with light to the thumping beat of what’s playing on the audio system. They’re very entertaining, and along with all the other goodies that it comes with, like a navigation system and heating for the seats and steering wheel, the Technology Package is a good buy. 

Fortunately, though, the Soul Exclaim’s standard infotainment system includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection, so it was easy to get directions to destinations. 

In addition to smartphone projection, Kia gives Soul owners free access to UVO eServices telematics functions for the duration of ownership. This includes services such as automatic collision notification; speed, curfew and geographic boundary alerts for teenaged drivers; an app that keeps track of where you last parked the Soul; and much more.

Storage and Space

The Soul’s rectangular shape lends itself to carrying a lot more than you would think for such a small vehicle, and storage is one of things that Soul owners like about their Kias. This is not surprising, because in the cabin, storage space abounds. There is a big glove box, thoughtful little bins and trays around the transmission shifter, and big door panel bins to make organizing your things easier.

Behind the rear seats, an 18.8 cu.-ft. trunk avails itself to you. That measurement includes a covered, compartmentalized tray under the cargo floor that organizes your things. Take that out and remove the cargo floor, and this little car supplies access to 24.2 cu.-ft. of space.

Without rear passengers, you can fold the seats to create 49.5 cu.-ft. of stowage, with a maximum of 61.3 cu.-ft. opening up with the rear storage tray removed. These numbers extend beyond subcompact crossover SUV territory and into the realm of larger compacts, but only if you take the trouble of removing the useful tray.

Visibility and Safety

Drivers enjoy excellent forward visibility, but the view to the rear quarters is pretty abysmal due to the shape of the car and the width of the rearmost roof pillars. Thankfully, large side mirrors and a standard reversing camera do their best to alleviate this problem.

While Kia makes a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert available in both of the Soul’s higher trim levels, the turbocharged Exclaim can’t be equipped with features like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, or lane departure warning. That’s a bummer. 

The Soul does a good job of protecting occupants in a collision. The NHTSA awards the Soul a 5-star overall rating for crashworthiness, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives it “Good” ratings all around. 

Engine/Transmission

Soul owners cite the powertrain as one of their least favorite aspects of the car. Hopefully, they’ll give the turbocharged Soul Exclaim a try, as it changes the character of the vehicle, and for the better. 

With 201 horses on tap from the 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine, the Soul Exclaim is not exactly a rocket, but it’s much livelier than it used to be. Enthusiast publications claim it will accelerate from zero to 60 mph in about 7.6 seconds, which is enough to infuse your commute with some extra zip. Power delivery is fairly linear, although there is some turbo lag right off the line. 

Tasked with sending the power to the front wheels, a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission shifts correctly but gracelessly. A little more smoothness and refinement would be nice, as would a manual gearbox that, admittedly, almost nobody would choose. Also missing is any kind of all-wheel-drive system, which would secure the Soul’s membership in the popular crossover SUV segment. 

Fuel Economy

The EPA estimates that you should get 28 mpg in combined driving (26 city/31 highway mpg) with a Soul Exclaim. My testing produced a return of 25.5 mpg, which isn’t impressive. However, the turbocharged Soul, despite making much more power than the naturally aspirated versions of the car, is actually a little more fuel efficient than the engines that go into the base Soul and the Soul Plus trim. 

Driving Dynamics

To help maximize driving enjoyment, Kia slightly adjusts the Exclaim’s suspension tuning, installs bigger front brakes, and adds larger wheels and tires. 

While the Soul still preferred knocking about in the city, with its diminutive footprint, nimble handling, and ability to soak up the ruts and bumps of neglected public roads, it nevertheless held its own on twisty back roads threading through local mountain ranges. The steering had a fair amount of heft to it, especially in Sport mode, but I wished for a little more feel, feedback and precision to make the car more enjoyable to drive. The brakes successfully resisted fade during aggressive driving, too, and handled daily driving tasks without grabbing or bringing the car to a jostling stop. 

No, the Kia Soul Exclaim won’t be competing in autocross rallies with the Volkswagen GTI or Mazda 3 anytime soon. But its happy-go-lucky character and newfound virility makes it a lot more enjoyable to drive than the tiny crossover vehicles against which it will most likely be cross-shopped.  

Final Impressions

By now, everyone should be familiar with Kia’s generous warranty that covers the entire vehicle for five years or 60,000 miles, while the powertrain is protected for 10 years or 100,000 miles, along with free roadside assistance for five years with no mileage limit. That appeals to the logical side of your brain, along with the quality awards that both this car and Kia have received from J.D. Power in recent years. 

But what’s more, the Kia Soul has a personality. Yes, it’s a little peculiar. Funky. Unconventional. It appeals to the weirdo in each of us, but at the same time delivers more than its fair share of utility, flexibility, comfort, and fun. And now, with its available turbocharged engine, it is more appealing than ever before.

There are plenty of people who drive the same thing everyone else does. With a Kia Soul parked in your driveway, you can proudly be one of the others.

Kia Motors America supplied the vehicle used for this 2018 Kia Soul review.

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