This review has been updated with test results for both the standard 2.0-liter engine and the turbocharged 1.6-liter GT-Line model.
If you picture rhythmic, life-size anthropomorphic hamsters, it is (let's hope) because of Kia's catchy marketing effort for the Soul subcompact crossover. We won't judge you if it isn't. Perhaps the Soul is familiar because one recently whisked you away from a bar after being summoned by a ride-hailing app. Or maybe you or someone you know owns one; Kia has sold more than a million of the toaster-shaped things since 2009.
Instantly recognizable and increasingly ubiquitous, the Kia Soul is almost iconic. Kia thinks it is iconic, hence why its 2020 redesign is as careful an evolution as, say, the latest Porsche 911's. The Kia is still affordable (prices start at $18,485), and its seating remains tall and chairlike, as in an SUV. The slab-sided, boxy profile and snub nose are unmistakable, and some additional funkiness is provided by taillights that now practically encircle the back window and a scowling face that resembles a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet.
Solidly, and Similarly, Packaged
The Soul is a two-time Car and Driver 10Best Trucks and SUVs award winner as much for its intelligent price as its clever interior packaging. There remain gobs of head- and legroom front and rear, even though the new model's 1.2-inch-longer wheelbase and additional 2.2 inches of length fail to translate into much more usable space. Rear legroom is actually down 0.3 inch, while front legroom is up just 0.2 inch. Still, the rear seat in particular is spacious and comfortable, with a pleasantly angled seatback. Folding those back seats expands cargo capacity from 24 cubic feet (the same as before) to 62 cubic feet (a little more than before). The doors also open a little wider, and the rear hatch opening is slightly bigger.
Like many similarly priced cars, the Soul uses hard plastics throughout its interior, although pricier models have more soft-touch bits. Assembly is impeccable, however, and the overall style feels more aspirational than before. Kia maintains a level of quirkiness inside, upgrading the old model's light-up door speakers—which could pulse to the beat of music—for available LED-backlit panels mounted higher on the front doors that can put on the same show but are now visible in the daytime.
An inductive phone charger is optional. It sits in a useful cubby ahead of the shift lever, above a separate bin where a pair of 12-volt outlets and USB ports live, so you can charge multiple devices simultaneously. A 7.0-inch color touchscreen is standard, while a new, 10.3-inch widescreen unit is available. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included on both, and the system's menu structures are easy to navigate. And Kia finally has added some active-safety features to the Soul's option sheet.
Still Defiantly Un-Crossover-Like
The Soul still isn't available with all-wheel drive, but we don't view that as a reason to revoke its subcompact-crossover card, even if nearly every competitor does offer the option. (We have, after all, named it our 10Best pick in that segment before.) Most customers in this class are looking for a commanding driving position, not Jeep-like abilities for clambering over rocks. We drove the Soul in light snow, and it survived; you'll do just fine. Besides, the Kia has a decidedly un-car-like 6.7 inches of ground clearance, up from 5.9 inches last year. Kia's only other concession that the Soul perhaps isn't SUV-ish enough for some is a new X-Line trim. Functionally no different from the base LX, S, or EX trims (so you can consider its test numbers, included below, as applicable to essentially the entire lineup), the X-Line gets tougher-looking bumpers and plastic fender flares. We've also driven the new GT-Line trim that sits opposite the X-Line and essentially replaces last year's Turbo model, wearing a more street-friendly look with a center-exit exhaust, monochromatic bodywork, and a sportier suspension tune.
Every Soul, even the GT-Line, comes standard with an Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter inline-four, which replaces both last year's weak entry-level 1.6-liter and mid-level 2.0-liter engines. Its 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque land pretty much between the outputs of those two previous engines, while its smoothness and refinement are far better than both. In most Souls, the 2.0-liter pairs with a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which supplants last year's six-speed automatic in all but the base model, which uses a six-speed manual and can be optioned with the CVT. This, surprisingly, is a very good development.
Like many new-age CVTs, Kia's boasts a direct feel and will fake fixed-gear ratios to prevent the engine from revving too far out of sync with the car's acceleration, as less adroit CVTs do. Use less than half throttle and you'll barely notice it working, the transmission smoothly changing ratios as the car builds speed—perfect for this sort of car and the buyers who'll gravitate to it. The new transmission also helps the 2.0-liter engine motivate the Soul to 60 mph 0.1 second quicker (in 8.0 seconds flat) than the previous-generation Soul equipped with the more powerful, 164-hp version of the same engine and a six-speed automatic. The freshened powertrain also is 1 decibel quieter with the gas pedal pressed to the floor.
Fuel-economy ratings for the new Soul with the 2.0-liter-and-CVT combo are up by a few mpg across the board. However, on our highway-fuel-economy test run at 75 mph, the new car achieved 30 mpg, which is 3 mpg worse than its EPA highway figure and no better than what we got from a previous Soul Turbo.
That 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission live on as an option in the GT-Line cars. The setup suffers the same oddly timed gearchanges, abrupt low-speed response, and surging power delivery as it did in the previous-generation Soul Turbo. There are steering wheel-mounted shift paddles for manual gear selection, but the additional control doesn't do much to aid the transmission's refinement. Though entertainingly quicker than the base engine—zero to 60 mph is a 6.4-second affair—the GT-Line Turbo is no fleeter than its predecessor, the Soul Turbo. While one 2017 Soul Turbo we tested was (barely) slower to 60 mph, our long-term 2017 Soul Turbo test car posted a hotter 6.3-second run when new and shaved 0.1 second from that performance when its odometer rolled past 40,000 miles. A manual transmission could spice up the GT-Line's turbo engine, but Kia doesn't offer one. Too bad.
Straight-line speed aside, there is little difference in athleticism among the new Soul's trim levels. The GT-Line rides slightly firmer, yet every Soul we drove exhibited good body control, improved ride quality, and better isolation from wind and road noise. So composed and planted is the Soul, in fact, that the X-Line clung to our skidpad to the tune of 0.91 g—on all-season tires no less (Hankook Ventus S1 Noble2, sized 235/45R-18). That lateral grip figure places the humble Soul on the grippier side of the Honda Civic Si (on its standard all-season tires) and the last Volkswagen GTI we tested. Weirdly, the X-Line was stickier around our skidpad than the GT-Line Turbo, which posted a decent but lesser 0.85-g grip figure. We suspect the Turbo's humdrum Goodyear Eagle Touring tires, which were the same size as the X-Line's Hankooks, are to blame. Less grip could also explain the GT-Line's 11-foot-longer stopping distance from 70 mph (172 feet).
The X-Line's impressive road adhesion aside, every 2020 Soul is best described as a point-and-shoot kind of car, one that's competent, if not exactly fun to drive. The numb and strongly boosted steering is disappointing, particularly in the range-topping turbocharged GT-Line model, which, at $28,485 to start ($28,710 as tested), is priced awfully close to the VW GTI despite being not nearly as cohesively sporty or upscale in feel. The lower-priced versions are a better value, and you won't be disappointed by a jerky transmission and the unfulfilled promise of performance. As stylish as ever, Kia's latest box is attractive and practical and should please, whether you need affordable wheels, an off-road-wannabe hatchback like the X-Line, or end up being chauffeured in the back seat after a night out partying like an anthropomorphic hamster.
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