A Funky Box on Wheels
Those quirky hip-hop hamster TV ads made the Kia Soul famous. This four-door urban passenger vehicle/compact crossover/tall wagon (it’s all of those things) has not only clicked with fashion-forward young buyers, but it delivers enough utility to attract the older crowd as well.
You don’t have to be young to drive a Soul, my seventy-something neighbor told me. He said the attraction was the ease of getting in and out of the funky looking box on wheels for he and his wife. That, and it makes him feel younger, and maybe a little more hip.
In other words, age discrimination isn’t practiced by the Soul.
Now in its second generation, the Soul is the best-seller in the segment and continues to be Kia’s top-selling vehicle. To keep the good times rolling for 2017, Kia has given the Soul a slight refresh, a new turbocharged engine to add a dose of performance, and a few more touches to add appeal.
The big news is, now standard on the top trim 2017 Soul ! (Exclaim) model is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine connected to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Pricing starts at $22,650 before an $850 destination charge, which is just $1,350 more than last year’s Soul Exclaim model with the 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine. That starting price brings a decent amount of standard features, including push-button start along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The 1.6-liter turbo manages 26 miles per gallon in the EPA’s city test, 31 mpg on the highway and 28 mpg combined. Those numbers are one better than those for Kia’s naturally aspirated alternatives. So when your cost-conscious significant other asks why you need the turbocharged model, there’s your answer.
With 18 pounds of boost for the intercooled turbocharger, the 1.6-liter direct-injected engine churns out 201 horsepower and 195 pounds-feet of torque. That’s enough power to reach 60 mph from a stop in around seven seconds. This is, in the end, a higher-power version, not a full-on performance model, but a positive change was made and it can still easily handle family duty.
For the sake of simplicity, base models will continue to be outfitted with the 1.6-liter non-turbo engine while Soul + (Plus) models will be equipped with the 2.0-liter engine.
Wild Boar Wearing A Backpack
Kia has a reputation for production vehicles having a close link with concept vehicles. The 2014 Soul redesign borrowed heavily from the 2012 Track’ster concept, which Kia says was a designer’s whimsy of a “wild boar wearing a backpack.”
Similarities to the Track’ster exterior are easy to spot—reworked Kia signature grille, the big lower trapezoidal air intake, location of the fog lamps and in the rear, the “floating” body color panel inset into the lift gate.
Key styling cues that distinguish the Soul Turbo from more pedestrian variants include a red Soul badge, red accent lines on the side and up front, 18-inch chrome wheels. In back, there are bright dual exhaust tips.
What hasn’t changed is in profile it still has an abrupt windshield pillar and canted-back roofline. It remains a box-themed four-door wagon that’s a little shorter overall than a typical compact car, yet offers far more interior space thanks to upright seating made possible by a roof height nearly as tall as the average compact crossover SUV.
Party-Time Styling Carries Into Cabin
Catching the eye immediately is the triple-circle instrument cluster with deeply recessed gauges. Sculpted circles assimilate the power windows and door locks along the door panels. To set itself apart from its non-turbo siblings, the Exclaim comes with a fresh interior wardrobe, which includes a new flat-bottom steering wheel, color-contrast stitching, sport trim seats and metal-accented window switches.
What stands out is the available eight-inch center stack touchscreen navigation and infotainment system, which includes everything from audio entertainment to Bluetooth phone connectivity.
Kia calls the system UVO, which is compatible with iPhone and Android smartphones. It scrolls through information with a swipe of a finger, presenting clear information and crisp graphics along with a rapid response to driver inputs.
Quality appearing plastic, soft touch materials in the right places and high-gloss piano-black trim on the dash and center console are a step above most economy cars. Headroom is exceptional and seat comfort is pleasing. The rear seats are especially spacious, with plenty of head- and legroom for taller passengers. The optional panoramic sunroof further enhances the sense of space. Cargo room is a big —24.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats, 61.3 cubes when seatbacks are folded.
Getting in and out is easy for both front and rear seat passengers. If you have little ones, fitting the different types of child or booster seats is easy. It’s comfortable making trips to the grocery store. While the front-wheel drive Soul is not off-road capable, you can haul a couple bikes and gear to a trailhead as we did.
Exclaim Loaded With Comfort And Safety Features (Almost)
Kia has won customers with lots of features for the money. Power windows, door locks and heated outside mirrors; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls and air conditioning are standard on all Souls. So are Bluetooth and USB connections.
The midlevel Soul Plus model is available with ventilated seats, forward collision warning and lane departure warning, but surprisingly these are not offered on the Exclaim. Standard features do include automatic climate control; a 4.3-inch digital instrument cluster display; combination cloth and leather seats; a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and shift knob; a seven-inch touch-screen UVO infotainment system; satellite radio; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; and a push-button ignition.
Our Exclaim test driver added the $1,000 panoramic sun roof and $3,000 Technology Package, which included heated front and rear seats; a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat; an eight-way power-adjustable passenger seat; heated steering wheel; HID headlights; two USB ports; a Harman Kardon audio system, an eight-inch touch screen, navigation, HD Radio, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert.
Add $125 for carpet floor mats, and the out-the-door total was a pricey $27,620.
Havin’ Fun Like The Hamsters
In the TV ads, the hamsters are always having fun behind the Soul’s steering wheel. Now, with a bit more step coming from under the hood, anyone can join in. And like my neighbor, I did feel a little more hip.
Paired with the quick-shifting seven-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox, the little turbocharged four allowed the Soul to accelerate quickly and effortlessly because of the generous low- and midrange torque. These made going up on-ramps, climbing steep grades and passing maneuvers a breeze. If it’s your style, it will even chirp the tires off the line with just a hint of torque steer.
Moving from Normal to the Sport mode tightened up the steering a bit, improved the throttle response and caused the transmission to hold the gears longer, which enabled the engine stay in the powerband more. Although the console-mounted shifter does have a manual shifting mode, I would like to have had paddle shifters.
Our Soul Exclaim was surprisingly agile and felt stable on twisty roads. It didn’t lean or roll as much as I expected, given its body shape. The 235/45R18 tires also helped it stick to the road and gave a little more stability. The suspension setup—MacPherson struts up front, torsion beam in the rear—is the same strut as the lesser models in the lineup. Over uneven pavement or bumps in the road, the Soul rode smoothly, and the steering’s good on-center feel kept the little hamster car tracking straight on the highway.
While there was significantly sharper throttle response at low speeds and better torque feel around town, once on the open road, the Exclaim was not a dramatically different driving experience from the standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Because the Soul isn’t very aerodynamic, there’s a fair amount of wind noise entering the cabin, and the wide tires can sometimes become noisy on rough roads.
Whether we were stuck in traffic, maneuvering in a tight spot, having some fun on back country roads or cruising down the highway, the 2017 Kia Soul Exclaim was very easy to drive, and did so with some decent fuel economy—28.7 combined mpg after driving 323 miles. That’s seven-tenths mpg above the EPA’s estimate.
In The Marketplace
Most of the Soul’s boxy rivals—the Honda Element, Scion xB and Nissan Cube—have all come and gone, but this new Exclaim model enters a compact crossover SUV class that is more crowded than ever.
If you’re cross-shopping Kia’s box with its litany of competitors—the company considers everything from conventional compact , like the Nissan Juke, Mazda CX-3, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade, to the five-door Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze as potential competitors. The Exclaim’s turbo engine outpaces everything just listed (except the high-end Juke Nismo RS), and unless you opt for the $4,000 in option packages, the Soul does it for less money, too. The Mazda CX-3 GT starts at $24,990, Honda’s HR-V EX-l starts at $25,880, while Jeep’s Renegade Limited is $25,195, to name a few.
But regardless of price, the Exclaim offers a warranty that the others don’t come close to. Kia covers the 2017 Soul Exclaim with a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
If you’re in the market for a small, commuter-friendly crossover with some fire in its belly, the 2017 Kia Soul Exclaim’s appeal is strong, no matter your age.
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