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Car Review: 2014 Kia Soul

Cold, rainy and dreary sounds like a reasonable weather forecast for October in the mid-western United States, at least by my experiences. I landed in Minneapolis prepared for the weather and ready to experience the latest in Kia’s product refreshes for the model year.

Kia had invited us to the product launch of the latest version of the trendy Kia Soul. Why Minneapolis? Kia wanted to highlight the youthful edge of the new Soul against the backdrop of the “Totally Transformed” city. Minnesota in the fall is a great testing ground for a new car.

It’s been an amazing few years for Kia. In 2008, the company had a market share of 1.9%, selling around 270,000 vehicles that year. They were virtually non-existent in the top 20 markets in the US, with no signature cars or trucks to raise them above the pack. Things were bad; something dramatic needed to be done to transform the company from an also-ran to a competitive force in the market.

The original Soul was launched as a 2010 (2009 in Asia) model, aimed at filling a gap in Kia’s model line that appealed to young aspiring drivers. Competing directly with other boxy subcompacts like the Scion xB and the Nissan Cube, the Soul etched out a respectable niche.

But the real story of the Soul begins with Michael Sprague, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Communications, approving the now-viral “Hamster” advertising campaign. The edgy feel and catchy music of the ad spots appealed to the youthful market Kia was courting in a way the competition never seemed to match.

Propelled by the successful marketing and other popular models such as the Optima, Kia has increased sales by 250% since 2008. The Soul was huge on Kia’s bottom line.

Aimed at a tech-savvy “Generation C” (C for Connected), the Soul aims to entice with an optional Android-based navigation system with an 8-inch capacitive touchscreen and a 10-speaker, 350-watt Infinity audio system by Harman. The signature pulsating LED-ringed door speaker grills are present as well. In my experience, the controls were easy to navigate and the nav’s display was sharp and modern.

Two different engines are offered for 2014: a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder motor offering 130 horsepower and 24/30 MPG city/highway, and a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 164 horsepower at 23/31 MPG. This year’s engines offer 5% and 9% more torque, respectively, over the outgoing model.

When asked why the need for two engines, Kia responded that it allowed them to offer the car at a variety of price points a single engine wouldn’t have afforded.

The model lineup remains the same: The base model starts at $14,700, the “+” at $18,000, and the top of the line “!” at $20,300. An all-electric model will be announced in 2014.

THE DRIVE

The weather didn’t disappoint. For most of the 250 miles we put on the Soul during the test drive it rained, much to the chagrin of the Kia representatives. They didn’t need to worry; things went off without a hitch.

The first impression of the interior of the new Soul is quality. Improved materials and soft-touch surfaces give the car a look and feel that belies its entry level price. Gone are the utilitarian plastics and budget feel to the cockpit, and that’s a definite improvement.

The ride quality is much smoother than previous models. Kia has invested in larger suspension bushings and higher-quality steel for the frame, resulting in a tighter and well-balanced ride. We spent a good four hours driving the subcompact with little fatigue; a welcome change.

The weather was challenging: rainy and cold, with terrible visibility. This was an excellent chance to try the car in real-world driving conditions. After all, not everyone drives in sunny southern California. Despite the less than optimal conditions, the Soul was refined and composed the entire day.

The only complaint I had about the vehicle was the buzzy response of the engine when pushed. The acceleration was acceptable for a small 4-cylinder motor, but the exhaust note highlighted how hard the engine was working when planting the pedal.

Overall, the 2014 Soul left an impression. Kia is investing in their future by improving their existing products, and the Soul is a perfect example. It’s a refinement of an existing product in more than a superficial manner.

Check out the new “Totally Transformed” ad for the Kia Soul below:

  

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