Mountain Wheels: Turbo-powered Kia Soul keeps the weird alive in vibrant redesign
In a time when automotive design has increasingly morphed the looks of nearly every SUV into a largely homogenous blend of smoothed curves and squint-eyed headlamps, it’s nice to see things get weird once in a while.
If you remember a decade ago, the market was briefly flooded with a series of small and very strange vehicles that seemed like the kinds of things you’d see on the highways in Japan. Oddities like the Nissan Cube and pretty much every member of the Scion family might have disappeared, but the super-angular and highly distinctive Kia Soul found a niche in North America — no telling if the hamsters in the ad campaigns helped.
For its third-generation 2020 models, the Soul has received a makeover from the ground up, taking the vehicle’s basic toaster oven/“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”-era shuttlecraft outline and considerably jazzing things up, so much so that it virtually becomes a different vehicle in its various iterations.
I’ve driven the Soul’s hyper-stylized and urban showoff GT line edition twice this year, both this summer on the Texas Gulf Coast and more recently back on the roads of Colorado.
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For those perhaps more focused on Colorado-styled adventure lifestyle, Soul is also available in an X-Line edition, which adds body cladding, heavier arches around its fenders, fog lights and special 18-inch wheels to give it a more earthy look. There’s also a flashy EX Designer Collection edition and, if you happen to live in California or Oregon, you can also get the 111-mile-range Soul EV all-electric.
My $28,710 Soul GT-Line still had a lot of interesting stuff going on, from its massive, roof-reaching rear brake lamps and its new, virtually flat rear tailgate and rear profile, to a super-glossy grille that my Texas counterparts might believe is embedded with the U of T Longhorns logo.
I can’t speak to that issue, though I can certainly attest that it is a sharp-looking little machine that does a great job of chucking itself along, despite its relatively diminutive size — having grown just over 2 inches to 165.2 inches overall, still 63 inches high and carrying a curb weight of just 2,844 pounds.
While up-front comfort, head space and overall room are adequate, I cannot say it is particularly gigantic inside for rear passengers (rear legroom has actually decreased for 2020). A shelf-styled tonneau cover behind the rear seats means just 18.7 cubic feet of storage, but you can drop it and access 23.4 cubic feet, and if you flatten the rear seats and chuck out the tonneau entirely, it will amazingly suck up more than 62 cubic feet of cargo.
Power options include both the standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder, mated to either a real six-speed manual or a new electronic CVT transmission, producing 147 horsepower, or the 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder I experienced on both of my drives, topping out at 201 horsepower.
The turbo comes connected to a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission that presented possibly the most problematic portion of the new Soul’s experience. You’ll frequently feel like you’re disconnected, even hesitating uncomfortably while trying to get it into reverse and backing into a parking spot — blurtiness that’s enhanced by an overly intrusive autostop feature for the tiny engine.
In pure highway travel mode, things largely smooth out, and you can access all of that power quite easily and confidently. Ride is solid, handling very sporty and the overall experience is fairly well-sorted for a small vehicle.
Kia still seems to anticipate that Soul customers are looking for something different than your average ordinary compact quasi-crossover, and to that end, the looks and the light show inside match the car’s style-forward exterior.
I was making a night drive home when I first noticed the in-cabin disco mood lights flashing along in time with my soundtrack on the Harmon Kardon stereo. I did not opt to change between modes (which include Romance, Midnight City and the popular Hey! Yo!). Maybe this is the kind of thing you are going to dig.
Colored inserts on the tops of the doors look like Spider-Man’s shoulders; a flat-bottomed race wheel, kidney-shaped air vents and a Mini Cooper-styled central pod of navigation and radio controls also added to the charm. I also appreciated the ability to bring up three smaller displays on the 10.25-inch navigation screen.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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