Same Recipe, Improved Dish
Steve Schaefer, Tue, 18 Mar 2014 08:31:39 PDT
In the segment of box-shaped vehicles, the Kia Soul is the hands-down sales champ. The Korean brand has been selling 100,000 of these cute runabouts a year lately, so you'd expect they'd be risk averse when designing the new 2014 model. It's true that new car looks a lot like the old one, but little remains untouched.
I actually drove to my local Kia dealer and parked my Alien 2 green Soul next to one of last year's unsold models. It was remarkable how different they actually are. For one thing, the formerly concave side panels are now more convex, making the car more visually imposing. The door handles are larger. The designs of the front and rear have been adapted, with a radically different grille texture and significantly redesigned headlight pods. In back, the taillamps are much larger, and most interesting, the rear hatch panel appears to float in a sea of black glass.
Inside, the design is almost completely new. The new style is more upright, features finer quality materials, and boasts very interesting dash corners, with tubular-looking speakers facing straight upwards. The door panels are much more overtly circular, but the design isn't overwrought. Many surfaces are padded - always the sign of an upscale car. The interior lighting glows a bright, high-tech white.
As it turns out, much of the new styling comes from the Kia Track'ster concept car of 2012. This exciting vehicle gave broad hints of the company's styling direction, and now the Soul embodies them. It doesn't hurt that the man responsible for the new look of Kias (and now, Hyundais as well) is Peter Schreyer, formerly czar of Audi design.
As before, there are three flavors of Soul - Base, Plus (+) and Exclaim (!). My tester was the Exclaim, which meant it was loaded up with the items most people want, even if they don't always buy them.
The base car has power windows, locks and outside mirrors (heated). That's easy. Add in a tilt and telescoping steering column and a six-speaker stereo. Knowing its young customers are tech and music savvy, every Soul has a Bluetooth connection for phones and music, plus SiriusXM Satellite Radio (including a three-month introductory subscription). They even have Pandora pre-loaded, so happy motorists can listen to its suggestions without using their smart phones.
The Plus has a raft of other features, most notably 17-inch alloy wheels on the outside and a floor console storage box and a rear camera display on the inside. The Exclaim pushes the wheels to 18-inchers, and adds fog lamps, projector headlamps, and upgrades to "halo" taillamps. Inside, the sleek "piano black" center console, cooled glovebox, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob add luxury. You also get a 10-way power adjustable driver's chair and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. You can order handsome leather seating and a spacious glass sunroof in the Plus and Exclaim models. I especially enjoyed the power folding mirrors, which rolled out for duty every time I approached the car.
The base car comes with a 130-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Step up to the Plus or the Exclaim and you'll have 2.0 liters under the hood, good for 164 horsepower. That's plenty for a 2,837-lb. car. EPA Fuel economy numbers are 24 City, 30 Highway for the base engine with manual transmission, 23 City and 31Highway for the 2.0-liter with automatic. I averaged 24.4 mpg during my week of miscellaneous motoring.
It's likely more fun with the extra ponies, but if you want to shift gears for yourself, it's the base car only for you. You can add some options, however, to upgrade it, including 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and cruise control.
The Soul is fun to drive around, being small enough to be nimble in traffic but plenty roomy, with a generous view of the road, partly thanks to slimmer windshield pillars in the '14 (they're made of stronger steel). Much effort was put into strengthening and upgrading the Soul's chassis and suspension, so the ride is sporty and controlled, and not too harsh over rough surfaces. My tester also had Flex Steer, which gives you a choice of three settings: Comfort, Normal and Sport. You can guess what the differences are.
Base prices for the base car begin at an affordable $15,495 with manual, $17,495 with automatic. The Plus jumps to $18,995 and the Exclaim to $21,095. All prices include $795 shipping.
With the competition, including the stale Scion xB, fading Nissan Cube and defunct Honda Element, essentially out of the picture, Kia has the segment mostly to itself, and is having a fine time showing us all how to successfully design and produce a car for young drivers - of any age.