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2021 Kia Soul: less than a crossover, more than just a funky face

2021 Kia Soul

What changes will make the 2021 Kia Soul different?

Little if anything. Kia redesigned its cheeky little wagon for model-year 2020, updating its styling and feature set while improving the driving experience. The ’21 should carryover virtually unaltered.

The South Korean automaker launched Soul for the 2010 model year, and it’s been a tricky vehicle to pigeonhole ever since. Today’s third generation retains the tidy size, front-wheel-drive powertrain, modest ground clearance, and value pricing that place it in the subcompact-car class. At the same time, the blocky, four-door wagon design has always suggested a subcompact crossover SUV – albeit one unavailable with a defining crossover trait, all-wheel drive (AWD).

Not open for debate is Soul’s success in the marketplace. Kitschy styling, pleasant road manners, good features-per-dollar, strong warranty, and clever marketing made it Kia’s top-selling vehicle. It’s also among the most popular cars in the subcompact class, where it competes most directly with the Honda Fit and Toyota Corolla hatchbacks. Note that the Kona, from Kia’s corporate partner, Hyundai, shares the Soul’s underskin architecture but has its own quirky styling and is available with AWD, making it a bona fide subcompact crossover.

Driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of 2020 Kia Souls. In areas where the ’21 might be different, we reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy the 2020?

Little reason to wait.

The 2021 Soul models could see some feature shuffling but will more likely be limited to new paint colors and higher sticker prices. The lineup will return with naturally aspirated and turbocharged gas-engine models, plus a pure-electric available only in the 14 states and the District of Columbia that adhere to California vehicle-emissions standards.

Among gas models, expect the return of LX, S, GT-Line 2.0L, X-Line, and EX grades, all with a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Kia Forte compact sedan. Returning as the 2021 Soul flagship would be the sportier GT-Line 1.6T model with a turbocharged four-cylinder shared with several other Hyundai and Kia vehicles.

The 2021 Soul EV should return in a single well-equipped trim and will again share its powertrain with the pure-electric version of Kia’s Niro compact crossover. The Soul EV has an impressive range of some 240 miles between charges but should list for around $37,000, before applicable federal and state incentives, and be available only in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington state, and Washington D.C.

Will the styling be different?

No, and you probably wouldn’t want it to change. Kia’s stylists deserve credit for mating Soul’s distinct shape with up-to-the-minute design details. Expect a refresh for model-year 2023, but nothing too dramatic.

While still recognizable as the original two-box wagon hyped by those hip-hop hamsters, today’s Soul is the best looking yet. The 2020 redesign ditched Kia’s trademark “tiger nose” grille for a substantially narrower form bookended by sleek daytime running lights. The low- and high-beam headlights move to prominent cutouts on the corners of the bumper, with a large air intake in the middle.

A “floating roof” with black trim on the upper rear roof pillars made an appearance and will return. The trendy treatment seems better integrated here than in many other vehicles on which its used. GT-Line grades will again get body-color side extensions and a unique lower grille. And the GT-Line 1.6T will again have cool twin tailpipe outlets centered in the lower rear fascia.

The 2021 Soul EV will again be distinguished by numerous aerodynamic details, including a blocked-off grille and front fascia, LED headlamps, unique fog lights, and exclusive 17-inch alloy wheels. It has no fuel-filler door, of course, and instead mounts its charge port behind a hinged panel in the grille.

Interior changes were more extensive in the 2020 redesign and they’ll carry over for ’21. Instrumentation and controls will remain stylish and user-friendly. Numerous design flourishes, from matrix-pattern door inserts to dashboard vents with integrated speaker grilles, carries Soul’s sense of style to the cabin. The EV has its own gauges and a rotary-type gear selector in the center console in place of the other models’ conventional transmission shift lever.

All ’21 Soul grades will continue standard with support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. Look for LX, S, GT-Line 2.0L, and X-Line trims to reprise a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system. The ’21 EX, GT-Line 1.6T, and EV will return with an upgraded 10.25-inch ultra-widescreen display with an imbedded navigation system that doesn’t require a cellular data connection. It’d be great if Kia made the larger screen’s crisp graphics and responsive interface available on other Soul models for ’21, but that’s unlikely.

Passenger comfort should be another ’21 Soul strong point. The cubist body translates to excellent headroom all around, and the chair-height back seat puts rear passengers in a posture that maximizes legroom. Materials are solid and more than price appropriate. A combination leather-and-cloth upholstery should return as standard on the GT-Line 1.6T and optional on the EX in place of the other models’ handsome woven-and-knit cloth.

There’s plenty of small-items storage in the bins and pockets scattered about the cabin. Expect Kia’s adjustable shelf “dual-level cargo board” to return as standard on EX and GT-Line 1.6T and optional elsewhere. Max volume is 23.4 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks raised. Fold them and you’ll again open up 62.1 cubic feet. Both figures are best in class. The EV will also come with the cargo board, though the housing for its lithium-ion battery pack intrudes into the cargo area. Volume specifications were not available in time for this review, but don’t expect quite as much capacity as with the gas models.

Any mechanical changes?

A chance the available manual transmission will be dropped, but significant changes are unlikely. All gas-powered 2021 Souls save the GT-Line 1.6T will reprise a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. The 2020 Soul LX came standard with a six-speed manual transmission. A continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) was optional there and standard on every other 2.0-liter Soul.

Don’t be shocked if the LX’s manual is discontinued for 2021 and the CVT becomes standard. That might be disheartening for the sliver of Soul buyers interested in a manual LX. The good news is that Kia’s CVT is among the best of this type of transmission, which performs the role of a conventional automatic but without stepped gear ratios. Still, acceleration is sufficient for everyday tasks, with fine throttle response offsetting the engine’s modest output. Expect 0-60 mph in around 8 seconds.

The ’21 Soul GT-Line 1.6T will return with a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. It’ll again team exclusively with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Our 2020 review samples exhibited satisfying performance when merging and passing at highway speeds and generally good acceleration off the line and. The transmission was mostly well-behaved, but occasionally bogged the engine pulling away from a stop, a lull exacerbated by some turbo lag. When power kicked in, the front tires of the GT-Line 1.6T tended to pull rapidly to the side, an unpleasant effect known as torque steer. Look for 0-60 in a spritely 6.3 seconds.

The 2021 Soul EV will return with an electric motor rated at 201 horsepower and a robust 291 pound-feet of torque. We had not tested one in time for this review, but it should follow electric-vehicle convention with lively pickup and rapid response to throttle inputs. Still, Kia lists its curb weight at a portly 3,715 pounds, versus 2,844 for a CVT 2.0-liter Soul and 3,036 for the GT-Line 1.6T. That helps explain the automaker’s estimate of about 7.5 seconds 0-60 mph for the Soul EV.

On all 2021 Souls, ride and handling should continue to be surprisingly well balanced. On standard 16-inch wheels and tires, LX and S absorb bumps best, though they lack the cornering grip of the other models. Expect relatively low-profile 18-inch tires on alloy wheels to again be optional on the ’21 EX in place of 17s and standard on the X-Line and both GT-Line models. These have more responsive handling and yet take bumps in stride, with little unwarranted suspension rebound.

Kia engineers would gain points with us if they injected a bit more road feel into the steering. And use of a cost-saving torsion-beam rear axle in place of a more sophisticated independent rear suspension on all Soul gas models means smooth passage through bumpy corners isn’t always the case. But overall, this will again be a nimble little wagon that functions terrifically as an urban runabout and nicely as a straight-line highway cruiser. And despite its brick-like shape, the cabin is quite well insulated against road and wind noise, especially at this price point.

The EV has an independent rear suspension, which should help it hold its line in turns on broken pavement. With its extra mass and high-mileage-tread 17-inch tires, though, expect it to ride rougher than other Souls, and to compromise road holding in corners.

Will fuel economy improve?

Not likely in the real world, meaning fuel economy for the gas models will remain in the lower ranks of the subcompact-car segment although still impressive given Soul’s personality and utility.

For gas models, the 2021 Soul’s EPA ratings should mirror those of the 2020s. If the 2.0-liter/manual transmission combo carries over, it would again rate 25/31/27 mpg city/highway/combined. CVT versions should repeat at 27/33/30 mpg. Look for the 2021 GT-Line 1.6T to again rate 27/32/29 mpg. One 2020 review sample averaged 29.2 mpg. All gas-powered 2021 Souls will again use regular-grade 87-octane fuel.

With its 64-kilowatt-hour battery, the EPA says the Soul EV’s range is 243 miles on a charge. That’s competitive with other EVs in its competitive set more than double the range of the previous-generation Soul EV. Of course, the range of any electric vehicle is greatly impacted by ambient temperature, terrain, and driving style. Using the EPA’s miles-per-gallon equivalent, a comparison of electric versus gasoline consumption, the 2021 Soul EV should again rate 127/101/114 mpg-e city/highway/combined.

The Soul EV will again come with steering-wheel paddles that’ll let the driver adjust the car’s regenerative braking force. Regenerative braking captures kinetic energy created when a vehicle slows down and uses it to partially recharge the battery.

The Soul EV will continue to support three levels of charging. With Level 1 (120-volt household-type charging) Kia lists a recharge time of 59 hours to fully recharge the battery. With Level 2 (240-volt heavy-appliance type) charging it lists a recharge time of 9 hours, 35 minutes. With commercial-grade Level 3 DC fast charging Kia says the batter will recharge to 80 percent of capacity in in 1 hour at 100 kW and at 1 hour 15 minutes at 50 kW.

Will there be new features?

Probably not, though perhaps there should be. Kia made a few curious packaging decisions on the 2020 Soul, so maybe there will be more clarity for ’21.

The most important opportunity rests with key driver assists, which Kia bundles under the Drive Wise label. Autonomous emergency braking, automatic steering correction to help keep you in your lane, and drowsy-driver alert were standard on the 2020 Soul S but weren’t available on the more expensive X-Line. Blind-spot alert and rear cross-traffic detection were optional on the GT-Line 2.0L but standard on the S, X-Line, EX, and GT-Line 1.6T.

Pedestrian detection for the automatic braking system and adaptive radar cruise control that can maintain a set follow distance from traffic ahead were exclusive to the GT-Line 1.6T. LX grades did not offer any driver aids. The Soul EV essentially matched the full Drive Wise set of the GT-Line 1.6T. We would like to see Kia follow the lead of top rivals like Honda and Toyota by making all these safety features standard across the entire 2021 Soul model range.

Otherwise, don’t count on the 2021 Soul LX to have any standard equipment of note besides CarPlay and Android Auto support. X-Line and the GT-Line 2.0T would have specific exterior and interior trim. S grades would include more comprehensive driver assists as standard, along with upgraded cloth upholstery (also included on the GT-Line).

EX models would again have all that, plus significant features such as heated exterior mirrors, eight-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, 10.25-inch infotainment screen with imbedded navigation, wireless smartphone charging, additional 12-volt and USB power ports, and keyless access with pushbutton ignition.

Expect the 2021 GT-Line 1.6T to again blend the exterior appearance of the standard GT-Line with all the comfort and convenience features of the EX plus a standard power sunroof, head-up instrument display, 10-way power driver’s seat, heated steering wheel, and an upgraded audio system.

Will 2021 prices be different?

They’ll likely be marginally higher. Soul should continue to offer excellent value for the money, even considering year-over-year price inflation and potential content shuffling that would mandate a price hike. For reference, here is model-year 2020 Soul pricing, including the manufacturer destination fee of $1,045.

The manual-transmission Soul LX started at $18,535; the automatic version’s base price was $20,035. S and GT-Line 2.0L grades started at the same $21,335. The X-Line listed for $22,535. The ’21 Soul EX had a base price of $23,735. Base price for the GT-Line 1.6T was $28,535.

The 2021 Soul would likely continue to not offer much in the way of factory options. The non-turbo GT-Line would reprise its $1,900 Power Sunroof Package, which adds the glass roof panel, dual-level cargo board and cover, wireless smartphone charger, keyless access, pushbutton ignition, blind-spot alert, and rear cross-traffic alert.

The $1,500 EX Designer Collection Package would include unique wheels and full LED exterior lighting.

When does it come out?

Expect the release date for the 2021 Kia Soul to be in the fall of 2020.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Sonic and Spark, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa, Toyota Corolla

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]