I’m not sure what it says about our world that the most objectively rational design for a small, useful car—a box on wheels—is considered weird by almost everyone. Kia sells such a car, the Soul. This version, the Soul ! with that stupid !, adds a bit of punch to the clever design, making a novel, useful little car that you can actually identify in a parking lot.
The Soul is the last surviving member of the modern triumvirate of clever little boxy cars (the Scion xB and Nissan Cube being the other two) that were once available here in America, and I’m glad it’s stuck around. There’s a place for these cars, and they’re not crossovers or CUVs, despite how the Soul is classified. We know the truth.
I’m very pro small, boxy cars. If some loudmouth in a bar decided to get up and bellow “Small boxy cars suck!” I’d be the first to yell back “Nuh-uh!” at least until he stood up and I realized that this drunk motherfucker is built like a goddamn bear in a track suit.
I even own what I consider to be the Platonic ideal of small, boxy, U.S.-market cars, the first-generation Scion xB. So, with that in mind, I’ll be using that car as a measuring rod as I evaluate Kia’s kickiest version of the Soul yet.
What is it?
Great question, boldface. The Kia Soul ! (I think Kia says we’re supposed to pronounce that “Soul Exclaim”) is really a Soul Turbo. That’s the big deal here, and what sets it apart from the base-model Soul is a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-four that makes 201 horsepower, a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and a bunch of little red trim bits and other small stylistic cues so everyone who obsessively reads about Kias knows that you dropped an extra six grand on your car.
If the specs on that engine sound sort of familiar, it’s probably because you are some weirdo Kia-obsessive who both knows that the Ford Festiva was built by Kia and that the engine in this Soul is the same one that powers the Hyundai Veloster Turbo.
I’ve driven the Veloster Turbo before, and I rather like that car. It’s a radically different design than the Soul, but, like the Soul, it’s also radically different than everything else out there.
So, really, what we have here is a faster Soul. It’s actually quite significantly punchier than the base Soul, which only makes 130 hp. Oh, and even though it’s by far the most powerful Soul in the lineup, it also gets the best gas mileage: 26 city/31 highway/28 combined, a good one or two MPG better across the board.
This is a practical, interesting-looking boxy car that’s sort of quick, as well. That’s a basic formula I like.
Wait, did you say it has a dual-clutch transmission?
You noticed that, didn’t you? That’s right, the Soul ! has an honest-to-Robert Goddard twin-clutch transmission, developed in-house at Kia. It wasn’t that long ago that dual-clutch transmissions were race car kit, and the first production car to have one was the Volkswagen Golf R32 in 2003. The fact that these are now available on cars as downmarket as a Kia Soul is pretty amazing when you think about it.
So, is this supposed to be Kia’s hot hatch, or something?
I don’t know, maybe. But I think it’s a mistake to think of it like that, because that’s not really what this car is about. It’s not that it’s not quick, because, in sport mode, it actually is. Using the same techniques that TurboTax uses to do your tax returns so fast, the turbocharged four-puncher under the stubby hood actually moves the car pretty quickly.
The engine makes 195 lb-ft (139 Nrp) of torque, good enough to launch it from sitting to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds or so. It’s not going to put your brains through the headrest, but it feels speedy enough.
I say it’s not really a hot hatch because to call it that would do the car a disservice; it’s too useful and practical to really be a hot hatch, and, despite the little sporty detailing and cliche’d red piping, it doesn’t really look the part.
Which is fine, because this car is unique in its own way. The fact that it can be sort of quick is enough, like if you knew a glassblower that also happened to be able to dunk a basketball. It’s cool that they have that somewhat unexpected skill, but it just adds to what makes them cool, rather than defining them.
Okay, let’s get real: how’s it stack up to the first-gen xB you love so damn much?
For me, this is the real test. I think the original xB performs its role as an enjoyable, practical, flexible transportation machine that I have to judge the similarly-shaped and scaled Soul in a context of how well would it replace my xB.
Let’s start with the exterior, which both cars keep on the outside: the general shape of these cars has somehow always been polarizing, but the Soul takes many more pains to compromise and look a bit more conventional than the xB.
The xB is a very pure, unashamed box-on-wheels, with a greenhouse that’s absurdly tall by modern standards, thin pillars all around, and a very stubby hood.
The Soul has a more truncated greenhouse, with thicker pillars, especially the angled C-pillar. The window line rakes up in a pleasing way towards the rear of the car, and the windshield has a more dramatic rake, which leads to a somewhat longer hood.
The Soul is still in the box-on-wheels category but is likely more palatable to a larger percentage of people, especially those vast quantities of pro-enuui people that won’t buy a car unless it’s silver, white, or black.
I’m not sure I prefer it, but I do think it looks good. Kia’s also done a great job with the Soul’s lighting design, especially at the rear, where the phone handset-silhouette taillights take over the C-pillar.
The graphic use of glossy black is also a very strong point in the Soul’s design; I especially like how it’s handled on the rear hatch, though the look of it makes me really wish the central horizontal oblong part opened up as a little separate compartment. They’re also using a glossy black panel in the shape of Kia’s corporate grille, even though it’s not a grille and is right above the car’s actual grille. It’s sort of a plastic moustache.
The interior of the Soul is much more open, airy, and useful than almost anything else out there short of a van, but even so, it pales in comparison to the xB, which manages to be larger and more open in pretty much every dimension.
Most of that is because the Soul is just, well, thicker everywhere. It’s a modern car, and as such it’s crammed full of stuff: airbags, electronics, fancy LED ambient lighting, bolsters, padding, speakers, you name it.
As a result, the interior feels more like most other modern cars, where the xB feels tall and open and sort of archaic, strange because 2006 wasn’t that long ago. There’s just less of everything inside the xB—thinner doors, smaller dash, thinner pillars, leaner seats, etc. so there’s just more open space, which means more room for people and stuff.
The downside of that is the xB can feel flimsy and insubstantial—it weighs about as much as a Miata, remember. The Soul, on the other hand, feels solid and weighs about 650 lbs more.
That means that the Soul doesn’t have the nimble lightness of the xB, and you feel that when you drive it. It’s not quite as agile, there’s less steering feedback, and you generally feel less connected to the road.
For many people, that’s not such a bad thing, though, since the Soul’s interior feels quite well appointed, with good seats, decent enough dash materials, and the one I had came with a really delightful panoramic sunroof, which makes everything feel much more open.
What about all the computers and LEDs and little ports and things like that?
The Soul I drove had the $3,000 ‘Technology Package’ which gives you heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel (it won’t get sweaty on its own; you still have to provide the clamminess), an 8-inch center stack screen with a nav system, LED lighting all around, USB charging ports, and some other stuff.
The UX on the infotainment screen isn’t bad, but it’s not a standout either. So far, no automaker’s home-cooked user interface has been that great (maybe Tesla is an exception), but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are supported, so you have some options.
The instrument cluster has a decent-sized center LCD display between physical gauges and that display changes when you go into sport mode, which is where you should leave it.
Kia also understands how important footwell lighting is to today’s savvy consumer, so you actually have a freaking control knob for that. It lets you not just change the color of the accent lighting, but also have it react to ‘mood’ or ‘music.’ I could see it changing to the beat of the music, though I couldn’t see any evidence it was detecting my mood, even though I tried to test it by making my emotional state go from introspective to aroused rapidly, over and over again.
For a car targeted at the younglings, this thing doesn’t have enough USB ports. I don’t understand this. Instead of the two 12V sockets and one USB port up front, why not give at least two USBs and one 12V? Chances are really good one of those 12V sockets is going to have another USB adapter, anyway.
So, what do you think?
I like the Kia Soul. With the added punch of the turbo engine, I like it even more. Despite what Kia says, it’s not a ‘crossover’ whatever that means. It’s a boxy wagon that gives you plenty of interior space, a look that doesn’t melt into anonymity with everything else on the road, like so many scoops of grey, flavorless ice cream, and it is actually not the worst thing to drive.
It deals well with kids and all their associated crap. It’ll haul big, weird-shaped stuff better than SUVs that dwarf it, the fuel economy is decent, and you don’t feel like you’ve given up on living when you’re in it.
It’s a car that, like its spiritual predecessor, the first-gen xB, performs it many and varied jobs as a transportation tool very well. It’s got more compromises to modern expectations of safety and comfort than the xB has, and as such I think it’ll prove to be a good fit for a wider selection of people.
The Soul ! or Exclaim or Turbo or whatever you call it is a reasonable value, too: it starts at $22,800, and the one I tested, with all the techno-candy, comes in at $28,145. If you don’t mind sacrificing the extra oomph of the turbo, the base one starts at just over $16,000, which is cheap for how useful this car is.
This orange-people take-out box was a joy to have and use for a week, and, while not as pure an example of the form as that original xB, I think is a worthy holder of the title of Damn Good Box on Wheels.