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While not a fan of boxes on wheels as evidenced by my disdain for Nissan's weird Cube, Scion's fugly xB and the late, unlamented Honda Element -- which my daughter referred to as the "butt-ugly car" -- I have a serious like for Kia's funky, compact-sized Soul. Maybe it's because the South Korean company instilled some style into the car's form-follows-function looks. Or maybe it's the fact the Soul is fun to drive.
For 2014, Kia has amped up both the style and fun-to-drive quotients in its self-described "urban hatchback." While similar to the squared-off first-generation model, the new Soul sees the benefits of a stiffer chassis that includes a 20-millimetre stretch of the wheelbase and a 15-mm increase in width.
Though hardly imbuing the hatchback with a rakish profile, Kia's designers also took 10 mm out of the Soul's height. Still, with the wraparound greenhouse, high-mounted tail lights, available LED front positioning lights and rear LED "light bar" lights -- not to mention the topline SX Luxury tester's vibrant Inferno Red paint job -- this new version has a decidedly edgier vibe to it. Credit for some of the swagger goes to styling cues lifted from the performance-oriented, over-the-top Track'ster concept that stunned attendees of the 2012 Chicago Auto Show.
It's not just the exterior that gets reworked, either; the interior also gets a going-over, the result being a classier cabin with a liberal application of soft-touch materials and high-gloss piano black trim bits to go with the leather front seats.
Adding some go to the show is the re-engineered 2.0-litre GDI (gasoline direct injection) four-cylinder that's found in the EX and SX trim levels. (Base LX trims make do with a 130-horsepower 1.6L four.) Still pumping out 164 hp, the 2.0L has been tuned to provide more low-end torque (nine per cent more at 1,500 rpm, a maximum of 151 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm) for a little added snap off the line.
Not that the Soul has suddenly been transformed into a hot hatch; weighing more than 1,400 kilograms in fully dressed form, it takes just under 10 seconds to accelerate to 100 kilometres an hour, with 80-to-120 passing moves pulled off in seven seconds. But it does slip in and out of moving traffic with a little more ease.
As before, a six-speed automatic is the only transmission offered with the larger motor. Too bad, the six-speed manual that's standard with the 1.6L engine would add a sportier aspect to the car.
Standard across the Soul line is the new electric FlexSteer system, which allows the selection of three distinct steering settings -- Comfort, Normal and Sport. Identical to Hyundai's "Driver Selectable Steering Mode" system, the results are the same. Comfort offers the lightest steering, making it suitable for city driving and manoeuvring into tight spaces. Sport mode offers a heavier feel response for twisty roads and on-centre stability during higher-speed highway driving, though its effort is a bit too sluggish for around-town driving. Normal is a balance of the two and is well-suited to handle most driving conditions.
Kia's focus on improving the Soul's ride and handling through heavily revised front and rear suspension setups has paid off handsomely; considering its compact size, the car drives very well. The front subframe now uses four bushings (there are none on the previous Soul) to reduce ride severity and impact booms over rougher road surfaces. The stabilizer bar has moved rearward on the MacPherson strut front suspension, while the steering box has been relocated forward for improved handling. Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), the bugaboo that every chassis engineer strives to eliminate, is blissfully absent, thanks to the new chassis that Kia says is 29 per cent stiffer than before -- body strengthening at key connection points and the increased use of high-strength steel and ultra-high-strength steel get much of the credit.
With three trim levels to choose from -- LX, EX and SX -- the Soul starts off very affordable ($16,995), although light on amenities, and works its way up to pricey ($26,995 for the SX Luxury tester) but feature-laden. Indeed, from the inside, the tester has the comfort and amenities of a significantly more expensive car, including one of the largest panoramic sunroofs I've ever seen, cooled and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, eight-inch multimedia interface touch screen with navigation and a premium audio system. And that's on top of the usual modern conveniences such as air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, keyless entry and push-button start.
There's plenty of legroom and headroom up front for the over-six-footers and back-seat room isn't bad, either. The bonus of being a box on wheels, though, is the cargo room. There's a generous 18.8 cubic feet of luggage area with the rear seats up. Dropping them down creates an almost flat floor and opens to a sizable (considering the Soul's overall dimensions) 49.5 cu ft, making the little Kia an inter-urban moving van par excellence.
It is also the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's winner of Best New Family Car under $30,000 for 2014. Interestingly, it was older members of the association who seemed to be most taken with the car during the annual Test Fest evaluation process, appreciating the overall competence of the car in multiple areas. Maybe it's because it takes experience to appreciate genuine utility that's cleverly packaged. (My daughter and some of her friends, while less dismissive of the Soul in comparison with, say the Element, are still uninspired by the car's square-ish profile.)
Kids, these days. What do they know?
--Postmedia Network Inc. 2014