When first introduced, the offbeat little Kia Soul had some competition, including the Honda Element, Nissan Cube and Scion xB, and jut maybe the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe twins.
In the face of rapidly falling sales, all but the Scion and Matrix have since ceased production.
Kia’s urban crossover handily outsold the lot of them, combined, from the outset and continues to garner a respectable number of sales, so Kia has kept it in production as a way to attract new customers to the brand.
To do so, it has done a pretty good job of keeping the Soul current with upgrades, especially to the drivetrain.
Raised safety bar
The original 2009 Soul, with a 1.6-litre engine and four-speed automatic transmission was a pretty fundamental piece. What it lacked in performance and refinement, it made up for with style and value. It also raised the safety bar for small, inexpensive vehicles with a standard equipment list that included ABS, six airbags and electronic stability control.
But the rapidly escalating expectations of consumers, brought on mostly by a steady stream of new Kia and Hyundai sibling products, meant the Soul had to keep up.
New engines and upgrades
So for 2012 Kia made a number of visual changes inside and out, in particular the grille, to echo the new corporate look. There’s also a pair of new engines.
The base model gets the 1.6-littre Gamma unit with direct injection, variable valve timing, 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque.
A 2.0-litre engine from the nu family is used on all other models bringing an additional 22 horsepower and 11 lb-ft of torque compared to the 1.6-litre unit used previously. This engine has been further enhanced for 2013 and now produces 164 horsepower.
The base model pairs a six-speed manual with the 1.6 instead of the five-speed used previously. The 2.0 engine comes with a new six-speed automatic transmission. The difference that 20 percent more power and two extra gears makes is remarkable, and proof that the right engine/transmission combination can make a world of difference.
Changes for 2013 are minimal. New 18-inch alloy wheels add to a more rugged look, the headlights of the 4U model have been upgraded to more effective projector units, LED lighting is used for daytime running lights and in the tail lights. The effect is to make the new Soul stand apart from its predecessors day or night.
More safety features
The Soul comes in a variety of trim levels: 1.6L, 2.0L 2U, 2.0L 4U and 2.0L 4U luxury. I sampled the latter, which came with a hefty list of standard equipment: power sunroof, smart key, auto-dimming rear mirror, heated leather seats, Bluetooth connectivity, navigation with rear camera, premium audio, power windows, locks and mirrors and automatic climate control.
Kia has added more safety features to the list that impressed back in 2009, including electronic brake force distribution, electronic traction control and brake assist. The ESC system uses what Kia calls VSM (vehicle stability management) to incorporate the electric power steering to counter under and over-steer tendencies on low grip surfaces.
Easy ingress, egress
The Soul continues to offer excellent ease of entry and exit, aided by big, square doors that open nice and wide. The high seating position, combined with the tall roof makes for both comfort and visibility. There is enough headroom for an NBA center, front or back. The front seats on the Luxury trim level have Soul embroidered into the seat backs.
The Soul is deceptive though, in that there is very little storage room behind the second row seat, which itself is fairly small. That spot is narrow but deep, about the width of a grocery bag. A storage tray resides below the cargo floor. With the second seat down, storage space becomes very useful. A cargo cover is included at this trim level but instead of retracting it is fixed front and rear. You have to remove the rear points in order to use the cargo space.
The interior features good lighting, excellent fit and finish but a plentiful supply of hard surfaces. The Soul audio system allows you to play music from an iPod, USB stick or other MP3 player through auxiliary inputs. The related information is displayed on a screen and there are secondary audio controls on the steering wheel.
Once underway the first thing you will notice, if you have any experience in a previous Soul or the base model, is the added punch and refinement of the bigger engine and two extra gears. The six-speed brings a new low gear for torque multiplication from rest and a taller top gear for more relaxed and fuel efficient highway cruising.
Fresh, if not exactly sporty
While it may appear sporty, the Soul is no sports car. Understeer and lean set in early when tackling the turns with any sort of verve. Ride quality is reasonable, tight, but not punishing, despite the 45-serries rubber wrapped around those attractive wheels.
The Soul was a surprise when released and remains unique today. While not the most current model in the Kia lineup, it has stayed fresh thanks to a steady infusion of upgrades and updates.