Turbo gives Kia Soul a new Soul

John Gilbert

Kia Soul ! gains an exclamation point with its new turbocharged model for 2017. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Kia Soul ! gains an exclamation point with its new turbocharged model for 2017. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Maybe some engineer lost a bet, or maybe in a lighthearted moment the more rebellious side of the Kia folks just wanted to do something out of the ordinary. Whatever, the feeling persists that when Kia first introduced the Soul it was intended to be more of a short-term, square gimmick than a long-term player in the Kia automotive stable.

   But after seeming to almost hurry to get past the square one and on to more significant models like the Optima, Rio, Forte, Sportage and Sorento, the Soul has grown up and acquired not only a robust personality, and for 2017 it is finally getting some equipment that makes it far more than the square 4-door that still holds four large adults and a lot of luggage.

 

All Soul models retain the unique squarish style with great interior room. Photo credit: John Gilbert
All Soul models retain the unique squarish style with great interior room. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Would you believe a hot turbocharged 4-cylinder and a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission as indications that the Soul is living up to potential a lot of us never realized it had.

    The Soul ! I test-drove had the corporate’s quick-revving 1.6-liter turbo 4-cylinder, along with the corporate 7-speed dual-cutch transmission, which shifts automatically as two internal clutches trade off instantaneously engaging the next gear up or down.

    It’s the perfect transmission for the turbo 1.6, which has now become my favorite Hyundai or Kia engine because of its quick power while retaining fuel economy in the mid-30s with gusts to near 40.

    As for numbers, the basic Soul 1.6 has 130 horsepower ad 118 foot-pounds of torque, adequate for a mall-runner maybe. Upgrade to the 2.0 and you get a healthy 164 horses and 154 foot-pounds. But the 1.6 turbo in the Soul ! jumps up to 178 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque to convert the vehicle into a sleeper well-deserving of the exclamation point in its name.

The new Soul revision for 2017 includes a much friendlier interior. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The new Soul revision for 2017 includes a much friendlier interior. Photo credit: John Gilbert

    The test car also proves Kia remains unpretentious. It was gleaming white with black leather interior, and you have to be impressed with a company that could paint something that could be called “creamy vanilla metallic pearl” — and yet instead is officially called: “clear white,” while the interior is called “black.”

     I recall the first introduction, several years ago in Miami, where Kia officials allowed us to drive these small, square compact cars around the city’s rural regions, after showing us videos of the ad campaign, in which some large, stuffed cartoonish hamsters drove along, bobbing their heads in rhythm as they did.

   The Soul itself was an interesting venture, definitely square everywhere, in overall dimensions and angles. Nissan and Toyota, through its late Scion branch, tried their hands at square little compacts, neither with much success. 

Head-on, the 2017 Soul has a sporty but businesslike demeanor. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Head-on, the 2017 Soul has a sporty but businesslike demeanor. Photo credit: John Gilbert

   After the presentation, Kia officials actually apologized off the record, as though something as silly as adult-sized hamsters was beneath the dignity of the South Korean company. I disagreed, and said that I thought the hamsters were the greatest potential car advertising “hook” I’d seen in years, and Kia should be stressing them. 

    A couple of months later, Kia invited me to the introduction of the first Forte, a conventionally shaped compact, in Seattle. During the presentation, one official said, “Don’t worry, there won’t be any hamsters at this one” — still apologizing.
 I got the distinct feeling that some Kia executives let the designers have their day, but anticipated nothing approaching success for the Soul.

     Strangely enough, however, the car did pretty well, and continued to do better than expected as it turned into the funky everything-hauler in the Kia line, possibly succeeding because it was in a large field where a lot of competitors looked alike and had no personality. The Soul had...well, “soul.” The hamsters came back strong, rising in popularity as the car did, although the company has resisted letting the little furry critters become the corporate symbol, keeping it restricted only to the Soul.

    For 2017, though, the breakthrough is here. The Soul gets redone for about the fourth time, although casual car observers might not notice the subtleties of the changes. I did, during a week-long chance to live with the Soul and drive it extensively. The Soul I drove was properly identified as the “Soul !” — with the exclamation point supplied by the company. There are different models of Souls now, and while they all retain that squarish shape, it has been refined, and elongated.

The driver view shows off the Soul ! sportiness with flat-bottom steering wheel. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The driver view shows off the Soul ! sportiness with flat-bottom steering wheel. Photo credit: John Gilbert

    My initial fears were that the first Soul models could be air dams in high winds, because of their shape. The new car allays those concerns and feels more planted, as I drove through all kinds of crosswinds to try it out, and it felt stable always.

    It also felt quick, like the closet street-racer it could be. That’s because the storehouse of powertrains that Hyundai and its partner Kia now have at their disposal includes several 4-cylinders, with the 2.4 and 2.0 being the most popular up until a couple of years ago, when the smaller 1.6-liter engine was revised and strengthened and added a turbocharged option on some models. 

   The slightly elongated nose is enhanced by foglights at the lower corners, flanking the low but businesslike grille. The interior, which always had been catchy in the Soul, is now redesigned to add a sporty flair, with full instrumentation and a flat-bottomed steering wheel with all the proper remote switches. You can adjust the mode for driving from normal to eco or the other way to sport, which holds the revs longer and firms up the steering and suspension a bit.

    That further aids the new personality of the sportier Soul ! and allows you to more appreciate all the driving aids built into the car, such as traction control, stability control, stability management system, and a hill-start assist to prevent the Soul ! from being tempted to roll back into the grille of the car behind you when starting up from being stopped on a hill.

    A full complement of airbags and curtains envelops the interior and the latest connectivity tricks adorn the inside, with Bluetooth and both Apple and Android faculties. With leather and cloth interior, and leather shift knob and steering wheel, plus push-button start with keyless door locks, the Soul ! shows a base price of $22,650, which is a great bargain for such a sophisticated vehicle.

    More impressive is that all the components are standard, so the total sticker is $23,620 after destination charges. Because of its size and shape, the Soul seats four adults with plenty of head and legroom, and still has a surprising amount of room under the rear hatch. With front-wheel drive, it should do fine in winter, with the right tires, but all its life I’ve been hoping Kia would put all-wheel drive in the Soul.

    But we’ll take what we can get. Performance is up, handling and pep and agility rise with it, and even aerodynamics. And I still like to go back to the down-to-earth official color scheme of the test car — white, and black. That’s a major step backward from the hyperbole that is almost laughable in excesses at other manufacturers. But what else should we expect from a group that was too shy to promote its hamsters.

Kia's side emblems make sure nobody will mistake the Soul for anything else. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Kia's side emblems make sure nobody will mistake the Soul for anything else. Photo credit: John Gilbert

    Its shape can confuse you. Is it a mini station wagon, a downsized mini-minivan, or just a hatchback that happens to be squared off? We don’t know. And neither, apparently, does JD Power, the outfit that tests and compares and awards all sorts of vehicles these days. The Soul for lat year, 2016, won its second straight award for being the “highest ranked multi-purpose vehicle in initial quality.”

    Fortunately, multi-purpose might mean that it can haul people, stuff, and the occasional family of hamsters.