All photos credit: Alanis King, unless otherwise noted
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The 2020 Kia Soul is back for a third generation with more trims, higher prices and a mean face that’s oddly reminiscent of the current Chevrolet Camaro. And while it might not have the sport creds of a Camaro, even in its sport trim, the new Soul has a trim lineup with more flavors than your local ice-cream shop—and almost as many mood-lighting modes.

(Full disclosure: Kia paid for travel to San Diego for the Soul launch, along with lodging and a couple of meals.)

What Is It?

The 2020 Soul is the newest version of Kia’s boxy little budget car, which has blown through two generations since its 2009 launch. This third generation keeps the car’s shape, but replaces its formerly wide-eyed front end with a squinty scowl and gets a wider range of trim levels.

Kia calls the Soul a “compact crossover,” but its place on the market isn’t that simple. It used to have boxy, lower-priced front-wheel-drive hatchbacks like the Scion xB and Nissan Cube to compete with. Those have all died off, though, leaving the newest generation of the Soul in a realm of its own.

Kia said at the 2020 Soul launch that its main competitors now are the curvier but similarly priced Toyota CH-R and Nissan Kicks crossovers. But of the top 20 carmakers in the U.S. as of early last year, as charted by the Wall Street Journal, none except Kia have a budget, two-row boxy hatch—leaving the Soul in its own valley between smaller, curvier hatches and the lower end of the booming crossover segment, neither of which can be considered direct competition to the Soul in every buyer’s situation.

A lack of direct competition doesn’t mean the Soul is undesirable; it’s just different, from a looks standpoint, and that’s better than being bland.

Specs That Matter

The 2019 Soul had three trims in addition to a $34,000 electric car: the base model, the “+,” and the turbocharged “!” trim, with base MSRPs that ranged from $16,490 to $22,990. With the 2020 comes the replacement of those less-than-stellar names, and the introduction of more trims with higher MSRPs.

Graphic: Alanis King

Now, the Soul has more trims plus an upcoming EV version. There’s the LX, S, the GT-Line with the standard engine, the X-Line, EX, EX Designer Collection, and, at the top, the significantly more powerful turbocharged GT-Line.

All but the turbo version comes with a 147-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-four engine and Kia’s “Intelligent Variable Transmission,” which is just a fancy way of saying “continuously variable transmission.” The turbo engine in the top trim has 201 HP and 195 lb-ft of torque, according to the spec sheet, which means it has the same output as the outgoing turbo Soul.

The base 2020 Soul LX can still be ordered with a six-speed manual, and the GT-Line turbo gets a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

The 130-HP, naturally aspirated 1.6-liter engine is gone, and the 2.0-liter base in the 2020 Soul trades some power for economy. While the last one had 161 HP and 27 mpg in combined driving, the new 147-HP version is supposed to be able to get 30 mpg in every trim but the regular EX, where it’s rated at 31 mpg.

While that tradeoff seems reasonable, the glaring issue with the new Soul is the premium on the turbo and DCT that didn’t exist in the last model year. In 2019, a turbocharged Soul “!” listed at $22,990 with the choice to add more expensive options elsewhere. But for 2020, a buyer has to go all in with the top GT-Line’s features and $27,490 MSRP if they want a turbo or DCT at all, since there’s no option for a turbo below that price point.

The Turbocharged GT-Line

The turbo GT-Line is the top trim in the new Soul lineup, in pricing and in features, and the only one with a turbo. “GT-Line” badges, red accents and bigger disc brakes differentiate it from most other trims on the outside, but the most significant upgrade is the extra 54 HP.

The turbo has a “sport” mode, which improves engine noise but doesn’t seem to do much else. The noise needs an improvement from regular mode, too—on that setting, it’s eerily quiet for a car with sport badges.

The seven-speed DCT shifts quickly and smoothly, and although the trim doesn’t come in a stick, a driver can pretend by using paddles or the tossing the shifter into manual mode. Downshifts sound pleasantly aggressive, either way.

Power from the turbo feels adequate but not overwhelmingly fast, and the car doesn’t exactly float over rough roads. The “sport-tuned” suspension is far from immune to rattling over bumps or diving into that horrid downward slam on mild potholes, and there’s wind noise at higher speeds, but a quiet radio setting can drown it out.

Inside, red accent stitching lines a black interior that, only on the turbo, comes with a 10-way power driver’s seat and the option to turn on colored speaker lights to go along with the music that’s playing. Kia’s particularly proud of this mood lighting, proclaiming that you can pick between settings called “Hey! Yo!,” “Party Time,” “Traveling,” “Romance,” “Midnight City” and “Cafe.”

But the Soul’s black interior lacks contrast and flow without those lights, and is a bare, gaping hole compared to its funky exterior. It has quirky shapes, like the rounded rectangle encasing the infotainment screen, but they’re hard to notice when almost everything is either glossy black, matte black or textured black.

It also has a decidedly economy-car feel—disappointing, considering the near $30,000 MSRP—and the wrinkled black texture covering most surfaces, light-gray headliner and hollow-sounding on the plastic door trims don’t do it any favors. The seats have a sporty-on-a-budget vibe, with leather bolsters and a corduroy-textured cloth center where a smooth Alcantara would be if this were an even more expensive car.

Although the interior looks bare, technology and features on the turbo model aren’t. It comes standard with front seat heaters, a heated steering wheel and auto windshield wipers, which don’t have the best judgement—sometimes, they’ll aggressively wipe the windshield for a slight mist or not wipe it at all if water builds up on the car at a stoplight. But the heated wheel is a nice touch, warming a driver’s hands and sense of fanciness in their higher-priced Soul.

The features list on the 2020 turbo is similar to the optional technology package Kia offered on the 2019 turbo, which brought its base price up to $26,000 and added certain driver-assistance features, an eight-inch touchscreen, heated power seats, and a heated wheel. Pricing and options from the 2019 “!” trim considered, the $27,500 turbo GT-Line is about even with the outgoing car, but the big loss is that buyers can no longer buy a turbo and DCT without the extra features—a move that, at nearly $5,000 more, will price some people out.

The 10.25-inch infotainment screen, which comes standard on 2019 EX models and the turbo GT-Line but isn’t available on other trims, is huge. Three widgets, like music or navigation, can fit across it, and featured widgets can be traded out or blown up to the length of the screen. The system is easy to learn how to work, and Apple CarPlay is a breeze to use on such a long surface.

There’s also a heads-up display that emerges from the dashboard when turned on, which is has a dizzying tinted screen and a lime-green speed projection. It comes standard along with adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection, but only on the turbo GT-Line.

The X-Line

Falling in the middle of the lineup in pricing but not necessarily in features, the X-Line is the Soul with “off-road” styling, and is more representative than the turbo of what the other trims will look like. But “styling” is important there, since even Kia recognized at the launch that it doesn’t have all-wheel drive or much else related to off roading.

Image: Kia

The X-Line looks the part, though, with body cladding and a more rugged exterior appearance. The interior has a similar setup to the far more expensive turbo model, matching in shape but not in technology.

For $6,000 less, the X-Line has a lot fewer comforts than the top trim. It has a key start compared to the turbo’s button, entirely cloth seats, no dual climate controls up front, a smaller infotainment screen, no seat heaters, certainly no steering-wheel heater, and, of course, the less powerful 147-HP engine.

The seven-inch infotainment screen on the X-Line isn’t anything to complain about on its own—it works, for an economy car. But it’s a huge downgrade from the larger screen on the turbo, which isn’t even available as an optional feature on trims it doesn’t come standard on.

Like on the turbo, the X-Line has a decent exhaust note in sport mode. It sounds aggressive but natural, unlike actuated sound in a lot of modern cars. But with 147 HP, it’s all snort and no go—or a really slow go, if we’re being nice. It also has has a manual setting on its shifter but no paddles, with a similar aggressive “downshifting” sensation to the one on the GT-Line. (CVTs don’t really shift up or down, per se, but the effect can still be mimicked.)

The X-Line also has driver-assistance features, although not as many as other trims. It has lane-change assist and blindspot warnings, but it doesn’t have forward collision avoidance or lane-keep assist, which are, curiously, standard on the cheaper S and non-turbo GT-Line trims.

Early Verdict

The 2020 Kia Soul has a lot going on, but not all of it is for the best.

The turbocharged GT-Line, overall, looks as much like a sporty hatch on the outside as a squarely shaped car can, and does a decent job of living up to the hype with its engine—even if it would be more fun with a stick. But it feels like that’s where all the time was spent, and the interior styling was left majorly lacking. There’s some redemption in the feature lineup inside of the car, but given the abundance of cloth and hollow plastic, nearly $28,000 is a hard sell.

As for the other trims, they offer a decent amount of technology for their lower prices, like driver-assistance features, touchscreen and automatic headlights standard at a near $20,000 MSRP. The X-Line is peculiar, though, given that it lacks some of the features trims below it have but still manages to cost more.

But the Soul is all about preference, especially now that it’s the lone car in the U.S. carrying the boxy-hatch flag with a budget asking price. And, while Kia did put the turbo on a price plane of its own for 2020, the Soul’s huge trim lineup still offers a lot of flexibility for such a little car.

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About the author

Alanis King

Alanis King is a staff writer at Jalopnik.