First Drive: 2020 Kia Soul

Kia's redesigned Soul is the last of the urban boxes-on-wheels

May 31 2019, Nick Tragianis

It’s easy to see the Soul’s charm: Incredible interior space, respectable driving dynamics, funky styling inside and out, and a bold colour palette — yes, the Soul comes in actual colours. Kia has carved itself a nice little niche with one of the last boxe

By Nick Tragianis for Driving.ca

Remember the days when SUVs and crossovers didn’t dominate our roads? It wasn’t that long ago when automakers still sold more “regular” cars than utility vehicles — and what a time it was, when not every other vehicle on the road was a jacked-up blob-on-wheels wearing body cladding.

Instead, we had boxes on wheels. Forget the G-Wagen for a second — just a decade ago, boxes on wheels were in fashion. Nissan had the Cube, Toyota the Scion xB, and the Honda Element still had about two years before peacing-out. The timing couldn’t have been any better for Kia, having just released the Soul, a funky little thing that was a little difficult to define. Is it a hatchback? A crossover? Both? Who knows!

Fast forward to 2019, and most boxes-on-wheels are a fading memory — but certainly not the Kia Soul. This year, it enters its third-generation as a 2020 model, an impressive enough feat considering the Honda Element, Nissan Cube and Scion xB are distant memories. It’s easy to see the Soul’s charm: Incredible interior space, respectable driving dynamics, funky styling inside and out, and a bold colour palette — yes, the Soul comes in actual colours. Kia has carved itself a nice little niche with one of the last boxes-on-wheels.

In Canada, the Soul comes in one flavour, and one flavour only — a 2.0-litre normally aspirated four-cylinder sends 147 horsepower and 132 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels via a continuously — ahem, Intelligent Variable Transmission, as Kia calls it. Spoiler alert: It’s actually a CVT, and one of the better ones, at that. It operates smoothly and invisibly, delivering virtually none of that drone associated with some CVTs.

The engine, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s largely a carryover from the previous-generation, but now running on the Atkinson cycle, it delivers better fuel economy — 8.6 L/100 kilometres in the city and 7.1 on the highway, to be exact. It’s a perfectly fine commuter car, but those seeking more kick are out of luck — stepping up to the 1.6L turbo-four is no longer an option for Canadians, although it lives on in the U.S. It’s your fault: Kia cites a five-per-cent take rate as its main reason in axing the turbo in Canada, but make enough noise and Kia might consider bringing it back.

The rest of the Soul’s package is impressive, though. The platform is also carried over from last year, but it’s improved with a bit of extra high-strength steel here and there. Driving manners are absolutely on point — the Soul soaks up bumps and rough pavement incredibly well for such a short wheelbase, and road and wind noise are virtually non-existent on the highway. Hell, it can even take a tight highway on-ramp reasonably well. In the city, getting around in the Soul is a piece of cake — you sit reasonably high, and with the boxy shape translating to more glass, visibility is excellent. Coupled with the light but communicative steering, the Soul is easy to live with all-around. Unfortunately, all-wheel-drive still isn’t an option, despite the Soul’s crossover-ish personality and appearance.

Where the 2020 Soul truly excels, though, is inside. It’s a bit longer than the outgoing model, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to more passenger space — there’s a bit more headroom up front, and rear-seat legroom is actually down a touch. But the cargo area sees the most significant growth, as well as a nifty party trick: You can lower the floor. Keep the seats up and set the floor to its top position, and you have 530 litres of cargo space. Lower the floor, and that grows to 663 litres. Fold down the rear seats, and you’re working with a whopping 1,758 litres. It can’t quite touch the Honda HR-V, but that nonetheless blows most subcompact crossovers — say, the Ford EcoSport, Hyundai Kona, and Mazda CX-3, and even in-betweeners like the Subaru Crosstrek — out of the water, let alone hatchbacks like the Honda Civic and Mazda3. See? It’s hip to be square.

Of course, the space and flexibility aren’t the only impressive aspects of the Soul’s cabin. In typical Kia fashion, the layout is foolproof — all the controls are exactly where they should be, and mercifully, they’re tactile buttons and knobs. The infotainment system, operated by either a seven- or 10.25-inch touchscreen depending on the trim, is marvellously intuitive and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The gauges are well-marked, and although the interior itself is certainly less shouty than the exterior, you don’t have to look hard to find some of the Soul’s trademark quirkiness — optional, configurable mood lighting is a big plus; it can be set to illuminate steadily or pulsate in sync with the music. Nifty!

Fit and finish is mostly on point. There’s a fair bit of soft-touch surfaces and the seats are comfortable, but there are a few cheap-ish areas and the all-black colour scheme is dreary. Some colour-matched trim bits, much like the Hyundai Kona, would go a long way. The Soul also gains a new head-up display for 2020, but it operates via a small panel that rises up from the instrument panel. It certainly works well, but it’s not the snazziest-looking setup.

That said, the Soul makes up for those minor drawbacks with the sheer amount of content it offers. Base Souls start at just over $21,000 and include the basics — steel wheels and hubcaps, heated seats, a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, etc. Not a fan of steelies and hubcaps? Stepping up to the Soul EX adds the active safety tech you’d expect (forward-collision alert, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring and whatnot), plus 16-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, and wireless phone charging, for about $23,000. Above that, the EX+ adds goodies like LED lighting all-around and 17-inch wheels, and the nearly $26,000 EX Premium gets even larger wheels and the big 10.25-inch touchscreen, among other bits and bobs.

Still not enough? For about $29,000, the EX Limited adds full leather seats, adaptive cruise control, the head-up display, power-adjustable and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, and a bumpin’ 640-watt Harman/Kardon sound system, among other goodies. What’s that? It has all the bells and whistles, but doesn’t look sporty enough? Well, the GT-Line trims — available as a step up from the EX Premium and Limited — add unique bumpers, sleeker roof rails, and a flat-bottom steering wheel. Kia asks a hair over $27,500 for the GT-Line Premium, and about $30,000 for the Limited. Phew. Suffice to say, the Soul comes in many flavours, but the best value is probably the EX Premium.

Now, if all-wheel-drive is a must in a compact, look elsewhere. You certainly won’t get the Soul’s space or all of the bells and whistles, but a well-equipped Mazda3, Hyundai Kona or Subaru Crosstrek are still practical enough, and you get four-wheel traction around the $25,000-to-$30,000 mark. Still, not everyone truly needs AWD — and if you find yourself in that camp, the 2020 Soul should be on your shortlist. It boasts a laundry list of standard equipment and neat tech, it’s incredibly spacious and easy to live with, and the Soul drives surprisingly well, even with the 2.0L engine. Best of all? The 2020 Soul is actually distinctive.

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