Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2020 Kia Soul

TORONTO, ON – Designed for life in busy cities like Toronto and Seoul, the Kia Soul is a self-consciously distinctive yet practical crossover and, if you’re being honest, good fun to drive. Beware: It’s a visually loud object and you either “get it” or you don’t. Meaning? The Soul is as much urban jewellery that you’d display on your parking pad as it is family conveyance. Think of it as Kia’s automotive answer to K-pop: stylized fun, perhaps not profound but beloved by people all around the globe. Small wonder that music is so central to the Soul’s rider experience: more on this later.

Visually, it doesn’t take itself seriously. Consider the inspiration for the Soul’s look: a wild boar wearing a backpack (although, to me, it looks like a bread box wearing the sad child’s face from the Kumon logo). For 2020, the “backpack” on the rear gate is less prominent than earlier generations.

Given all that, it’s appropriate that the first Canadian media drive of the Kia Soul’s third generation was hosted on a few cordoned-off acres of the parking lot at Ontario Place. This set of artificial islands is festooned with urban architecture that’s as self-consciously distinctive as the quirkiest structures decorating Seoul’s famous Gangnam region.

Kia wants curious stylized, fun, urban car shoppers to know about the 2020 Soul’s driveability, available tech, enhanced cargo space and, of course, that evolving unique look.

What are some of the more noticeable differences in 2020’s design?

The grille is bigger and no longer monochromatic, now two-toned for visual depth. Depending on the trim you choose, the grille is also more pronouncedly outlined, clearly defined by moulding and fenders. It’s like they’re fashioning more of a snout for this piggy in a backpack.

Still up front, the headlights and strip of trim between them have been shortened, effectively accentuating the width of the new Soul. The hazards and daytime running lights were treated to a similar diet.

Continuing our tour, the C-pillars (that vertical section behind the back window, your C-pillar would be its “frame”) are slightly reshaped and contain big new embossed Soul logos. Say it loud: I Got Soul and I’m Supah-Bad!

At the back, the taillights wrap around in a boomerang shape, visually lifting the backpack.

Inside, there’s available “mood lamp” lighting, a bauble that comes from the EX Premium trim up. Lights flit through a three-dimensional surface in the upper door and in the bezel lines in the door handle moulding. With this feature you can adjust the lighting to reflect a selection of wonderfully named moods: Hey Yo, Party Time, Traveling, Midnight City, Café, and Romance. You can even sync the panel to your music, to adjust colours on the beat. Thankfully, drivers can’t adjust the mood or sync the beats while driving.

The Soul’s colours are colourfully named too: Space Green, Mars Orange, Neptune Blue, Inferno Red, Snow White Pearl, and so on.

And speaking of Romance, the rear tinted windows are standard with all new Kia Souls. And while the 60/40 split rear seats don’t flatten completely, they do provide a great deal of horizontal-ish space.

Of course, if you’re talking new design, you need to be specific and Kia offers six trims: LX , EX, EX+, EX Premium, GT-Line Premium, EX Limited, and GT-Line Limited. There’s also the Soul EV which is in its own category. Interestingly, Kia doesn’t offer an all-wheel drive upgrade for this vehicle, despite Canadians’ seeming insatiable appetite for it. It’s just not needed much in cities and the Soul is primarily an urban tootler. On this day, only the EX Limited, the second priciest at $28,995, was available for driving. We’ll talk about its driveability soon.

More space, more tech, and more safety stuff

The new-generation Soul is 55 mm longer, measuring 4.195 m from stem to stern. Which means? Well, legendarily offensive radio host Howard Stern is 1.96 m tall. So, you could lie just over two and a half Howard Sterns stern-to-stem to equal the length of a new Soul.

But measuring 1.615 m at its peak, the Soul is nearly as tall as one Howard Stern. Kia Canada’s Product Planning Supervisor, Lee Kant is 6'2" with sculpted hair that climbs another two inches. When he sat in the passenger seat, he still had plenty of space between his frosted tips and the new Soul’s sunroof.

That greater height helps explain how the designers provided so much cargo space: 23.8 cubic feet, five more than the second generation. Moreover, the designers moulded a quirk into the plastic securing the trunk floor. So, you can hide valuables beneath the cover, or drop it an extra few inches to maximize cargo space.

Meanwhile the wheelbase, that space between the front and back wheels, is 30 mm longer as well. So, there’s more legroom for people like Lee Kant and Howard Stern. The front doors are larger, too, for easier access for people like me (old) because it’s not just the young who buy these “urban utility vehicles”, even if millennials are the bullseye in Kia’s target market.

Referring back to the lighting customizability, urban tech-heads will probably delight in the new Soul. Like the available 10.25-inch touchscreen, included from EX Premium ($26,995) up. How big is 10.25 inches? A standard iPad is 9.7 and the iPad Pro 12.9. So, it’s a generous space ready for your fingers. Mind, most small SUVs offer a grab-bag of shiny goodies to lure millennials but Kia’s always priced itself competitively. If you’re among those who like the look of the Soul, keep your eyes on the bottom line too when testing.

The base trim, retailing for $21,195, includes heated front seats, air conditioning, a tire pressure monitoring system, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, keyless entry, rear-view camera – an essential for any city car – plus Android Auto / Apple CarPlay with Bluetooth.

That’s a lot of value for your money and helps explain Kia’s surging growth from 1,417 units sold when they first came to Canada twenty years ago to 73,009 in 2018.

So how does it drive?

High-strength steel produces a more robust frame. This new generation contains 35 percent more high-strength steel, which ultimately lightens the vehicle, improving fuel efficiency and even performance – it’s easier to move a light vehicle than a heavy one – while improving safety.

The Soul comes with a new 2.0-litre engine with Kia’s take on the continuously variable transmission, the IVT (intelligent variable transmission). It mimics an eight-gear sport transmission when you pull the shifter to the left and start tapping in manual mode. The engine achieves 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque. See above regarding light vehicles. This engine was pre-tested in the latest Kia Forte, which won the Automobile Association award for Canada’s Best Small Car of 2019.

We took the Soul EX Limited on short pre-planned drives through different central Toronto neighbourhoods near Lake Ontario. The red building with the graffiti and city bike station is just off Roncesvalles Avenue in hipster-friendly Parkdale.

Then, back at Ontario Place, we drove them on a private slalom course to test their driving dynamics at speeds that would’ve got us arrested earlier. Without a helicopter or extended crane, it’d be impossible to visually translate the narrow, twisty driving experience laid out by race experts. Down here on the ground, it would just look like a random collection of cones on a tarmac – or a drive home after a day’s work in Montreal.

The steering feels a bit loose on the highway but in the tight turns of the slalom course, which mimic the nastiest alleys of Toronto’s Leslieville or Palmerston Village neighbourhoods, it was attentively accurate. The brakes were sharp and alert – we sprinted hard between hairpin bends, exploiting all 147 horses – and the EX Limited tilted and whirled more like a go-cart than the top-heavy box its look purports. The verdict: practical but fun.

Pricing: 2020 Kia Soul

Soul LX: $21,195
Soul EX: $22,895
Soul EX+: $24,895
Soul EX Premium: $26,995
Soul GT-Line Premium: $27,595
Soul EX Limited: $28,995
Soul GT-Line Limited: $29,595

Soul EV Premium: $42,595
Soul EV Limited: $51,595

Soul EV not yet available