2020 Kia Soul Review
Compact multi-purpose vehicles such as the Kia Soul generally offer a lot of interior and cargo space in a small footprint, with a boxier shape than a 4-door compact hatchback car and without all-wheel-drive capability associated with crossover SUVs. In recent years, the segment included the now-discontinued Honda Element, Nissan Cube, and Scion xB. Today, the Kia Soul is practically alone among compact multi-purpose vehicles that also comprises the soon-to-be-canceled Ford C-Max hybrid, slow-selling Fiat 500L, and commercial-truck-oriented Ford Transit Connect and Ram ProMaster City.
The Soul, on the other hand, is one of Kia’s best-selling models. And despite its near entry-level price position, the uniquely designed Soul serves as an iconic draw to the brand.
Kia has flushed out the Soul model lineup for 2020, replacing last year’s base Soul 1.6, mid-level Plus, and Exclaim 1.6 Turbo models with base LX, midgrade S and X-Line, and topline EX and GT-Line trims.
For this review, we evaluated a 2020 Kia Soul in the new X-Line trim with optional carpeted floor mats. The total came to $22,615, including the $995 destination charge.
What Owners Say
Prior to discussing the results of our 2020 Kia Soul evaluation, it’s useful to comprehend who the buyer for this compact utility is and what they say are its best and worst qualities.
In line with the compact utility segment as a whole, the majority of Soul buyers are women (59% vs. 57% for the segment). Additionally, the Kia Soul buyer’s annual household income is slightly lower than segment average ($57,907 vs. $60,118).
Despite the youthful image Kia projects for the Soul in its messaging and advertising, 80% of its buyers are 43 years or older (61% are 55 or older). Not surprisingly, Soul buyers are slightly more likely to say they prefer a vehicle that stands out from the crowd than the segment average (72% vs. 70%).
Compared with the segment as a whole, Soul buyers are just as likely to avoid vehicles with high maintenance costs (93%). And 50% of Soul buyers are likely to agree a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place compared with 51% for the segment as a whole.
That said, buyers say their most favorite aspects of the Soul are its front and rear styling. Least favorite items include the amount of trunk or cargo space, ease of loading/unloading the trunk, and rear-seat room.
What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the 2020 Kia Soul performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2018 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM
Even though 50% of Soul buyers agree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place, looks count too. The Soul’s exterior appearance is among its strengths in the 2018 U.S. APEAL Study. Yet Kia saw fit to evolve the look of its compact multi-purpose vehicle for the 2020 model year with a more aggressive-looking grille, contemporary slit-like running lamps, lower-set headlamps, and sweeping, more-expressive tail lamps. The 2020 update works, adding to the Soul’s street-smart design theme while staying distinctive. The X-Line model, which along with the GT-Line are both new for 2020, adding SUV-like wheel-well and lower body cladding as well.
There really isn’t anything on the road that looks quite like it. So even if the Soul does not attract the majority of its buyers from Gen X (those born 1965-1976), Gen Y (1977-1994), or Gen Z (1995 and later), its youthful design theme works for the 61% Pre Boomer (1945 and earlier) and Baby Boomer (1946-1964) mix that does purchase Kia’s compact multi-purpose vehicle.
The Soul is one of Kia’s least expensive products, but you wouldn’t know that from the compact multipurpose vehicle’s cabin. Along with exterior appearance, and visibility and safety, APEAL Study respondents rated the 2018 Soul’s interior as one of its best features. In the updated 2020 model, materials are more than adequate for this price class with soft-touch upper dash and door trim, well-padded door and console armrests, and satin-finish detailing.
Standard features across the board include a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, trip computer, sliding sun visors, and power mirrors, door locks, and windows with driver’s one-touch auto-down feature. To get push-button start, however, buyers must upgrade to the EX or GT-Line trim.
Although it’s not officially classified as an SUV, the Soul features raised chair height typically found in SUVs that gives interior occupants just a little better view of their surroundings. The front bucket seats are well bolstered for support, particularly in the torso area, but don’t have any hard underwires to cause discomfort on long trips. The driver’s seat is height-adjustable, but not the front passenger’s. Heated front seats and a power-adjustable driver’s seat are available, but only on the higher trims.
The three-across rear bench seat can handle three adults. A high roof pays dividends in generous interior headroom.
Most Soul models including the X-Line trim sampled are fitted with segment-appropriate woven and knit cloth seat upholstery (which in warm weather can give off a new office chair smell) with faux suede and cloth coverings available for higher trims.
Climate Control System
Typical of the vehicle class, most 2020 Soul trims come with a simple, easy-to-use manual climate control system. The no-nonsense setup has the time-proven three-dial layout for temperature, fan speed, and air direction. The knobs are large and easy to use, even when wearing gloves. Upper-level EX and GT-Line trims come standard with a dual-zone, set-and-forget automatic temperature control system.
You’d think with years of Soul commercials depicting human-sized hamster-like characters rocking out to a thumping beat that the 2020 model would have a good audio system—and it does. Standard, even in the lower-line trims and the X-Line model tested, is an Apple CarPlay and Android Auto-compatible 6-speaker, AM/FM/MP3 audio system with a 7-in. color touch screen with Bluetooth wireless technology. A pair of face-level tweeters deliver good sound fidelity. The system is easy to operate via a mix of large on-screen tiles, hard shortcut buttons flanking the screen, rotary volume and tuning knobs, and steering wheel controls. In the 2018 U.S. APEAL Study, respondents ranked the quality of hands-free calls as one of the Soul’s top ten strengths.
Soul EX and GT-Line Turbo models are available with an even nicer 10.25-in. display audio system—larger than anything else in the class—with HD Radio, satellite radio, and an imbedded navigation system.
Storage and Space
It’s expected that compact multi-purpose vehicles have a modicum of useful space and the 2020 Kia Soul does. Its tall roof and boxy shape are optimal for carrying humans and their stuff, keeping in mind that the Soul’s short rear overhang makes for a relatively shallow cargo bay, lengthwise. This limited amount of cargo area space was rated by respondents as the top Soul weakness in the 2018 APEAL Study.
That said, at 24.2 cu. ft. behind the rear seat, the 2020 Soul offers considerably more cargo space than the Hyundai Kona small crossover that rides on the same platform. And with the Soul’s 60/40 split rear seat lowered (it doesn’t fold flat due to the Soul’s extra-deep cargo floor), the Soul’s cargo space jumps to 62.1 cu. ft., besting the space available in other small crossover SUVs such as the Honda HR-V and Nissan Kicks.
A neat feature is a movable cargo floor panel, available in EX and GT-Line trims, that provides a large hidden storage compartment roomy enough to stow several computer or camera cases, purses, and other valuables out of sight and a hard shelf for two-tier loading when installed in the upper position.
Visibility and Safety
One of the benefits of a squared-off, high-roof vehicle is a large windshield, side windows, and backlite glass. That combined with the Soul’s abbreviated 165.2-in. overall length and standard reversing camera with trajectory lines make it a breeze to wiggle through traffic and squeeze into parking spaces.
The 2020 Soul benefits from Kia’s initiative to expand standard advanced safety features such as blind-spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring and lane-change-assist systems to all trims except the base LX model. Forward-collision avoidance, lane-keeping assist, and a driver-attention warning system are added to Soul S, EX, and GT-Line trims, and adaptive cruise control and a head-up display join the Soul GT Turbo model. These additions are a big deal in this size and price class.
That said, the driver-attention system can sometimes interpret smooth driving as inattentive and the lane-keeping assist really only works well on long-straight slogs with well-defined painted lines (a dash switch allows you to turn this feature off). The Soul’s forward-collision avoidance, blind-spot, and rear cross-traffic monitoring systems, like a reversing camera, are a must in today’s driving and a great addition to the car’s feature content.
As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has not tested the crashworthiness of the 2020 Kia Soul. For what it’s worth, the outgoing 2019 model received a “Top Safety Pick” rating with “Good” scores in all areas except passenger-side, small-overlap front impacts where it received an “Acceptable” rating.
The federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also has not tested the 2020 Soul as of this writing, however, 2019 models received 5-star ratings (out of 5) for frontal and side impacts and a 4-star rating for rollover resistance.
Kia revamped the Soul’s engine lineup for 2020, dropping last year’s base model’s 130-horsepower 1.6-liter 4-cylinder in favor of a new 147-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder shared with the Kia Forte and Hyundai Kona. In the base LX model only, the 2.0-liter can be teamed with a 6-speed manual transmission. Optional in the LX and standard with all but the GT-Line Turbo is a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) with six programmed-in simulated gearchanges that help prevent annoying engine droning under some driving conditions such as extended acceleration during freeway merging or vehicle overtaking. The CVT replaces the 2019 model’s conventional, step-shift 6-speed automatic. That 2.0-liter engine/CVT transmission combination performed seamlessly with good around-town response and easy highway cruising in our 2020 Soul X-Line test vehicle.
In the 2018 APEAL Study, engine responsiveness and passing power showed up as a weakness and no doubt related to the previous 130-horsepower base engine.
The new GT-Line Turbo model inherits the perky 201-horsepower, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine from last year’s Exclaim model. I drove the 2020 turbo model on a separate occasion earlier this year. It’s teamed with a quick-shifting, dual-clutch 7-speed automatic gearbox that does a good job of harnessing the turbo 4-cylinder’s power, although launching from rest on an uphill grade can feel a little abrupt if the driver is not smooth in applying the throttle.
The upgrade from the 2019 model’s 130-horsepower, 1.6-liter base engine to the new model’s 147-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder didn’t hurt the Soul’s EPA fuel-economy estimates, which rose from 26 mpg city/31 mpg highway/28 mpg combined in 2019 to 27/33/30 mpg when equipped with the automatic transmission. That’s good for a cruising range of more than 400 miles. And it should help the Soul’s performance with buyers who gave fuel economy the lowest score among the indexes in the 2018 APEAL Study.
In my week behind the wheel of the 2020 Soul X-Line, the car’s trip computer indicated 30.5 average mpg, likely aided by Kia’s switch to a more efficient CVT and the implementation of a standard start/stop system on all automatic models that shuts off the engine at stoplights then restarts when the driver lifts off the brake pedal. The system in the 2020 Soul gave very smooth restarts, not the jolt that can be experienced in some other automaker’s systems.
The 2020 Kia Soul’s light weight and trim dimensions give it a lively demeanor more akin to a sporty front-drive hatchback car than a capacious SUV. It’s super easy to maneuver in traffic and it fits in parking spaces most other vehicles have to pass up.
Moving to a new corporate global platform shared with the Hyundai Kona gains the Soul a stiffer chassis and more composed ride—one with minimal impact harshness as well. Even though the cargo area is open to the passenger compartment, there’s not much in the way of road noise. The Soul’s electric-assist steering is light and precise, if not overly communicative, and the big 4-wheel disc brakes deliver reassuring response. Both are shared with the Kona. Tire choices range from 16-in. on the base model to meaty 18s on the GT-Line Turbo and X-Line test vehicle.
Looking at the APEAL Study stats, it’s easy to see how buyers looking for a practical, fun-to-drive, inexpensive front-drive vehicle with an outsized design and loads of personality have taken to the Kia Soul. The 2020 model, which launches the vehicle’s third generation, looks to continue that story.
As one of Kia’s best-selling models, the Soul has established a strong following with buyers. It’s in a niche almost by itself, not a car or SUV, but a multi-purpose wagon in a small package with a lot to offer.
Kia’s 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain and 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty coverage is tops in the industry and icing on the cake.
The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.
No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2021 J.D. Power