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The Heart of the Kia Lineup Gets Major Revisions

The model-year 2014 Soul is the best car for you if want a small hatchback with an edgy attitude but mainstream attributes.

You may not realize it at first glance, but this is the most extensively redesigned Soul since Kia launched its box on wheels for model-year 2010. The South Korean automaker, in fact, credits that original model with putting Kia on the map.

Sometimes being last into the weird end of the pool isn’t a bad idea. The car appeared after the similarly square Honda Element, Scion xB and Nissan Cube. It was the least radical of the four, quickly outsold its competition and appears to be the only one with a secure future.

The hip-hop hamsters made it famous, but Kia says inspiration for the original version was a designer’s fantasy of a wild boar wearing a backpack. That hunched shape is evident in this second-generation model, and while it remains a five-passenger economy wagon, the model-year 2014 version is longer, wider and more solid. It’s got more features, too— although all-wheel-drive isn’t one of them.

Base prices stay in the $15,000 to $25,000 range, and competition now includes the Fiat 500L, Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke. It comes in base, midline Plus and top-line Exclaim models. An all-electric version is due for model-year 2015.

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Evident in model-year 2014 are a larger lower grille and more muscular stance. The upright LED taillamps remain, but new in back is a floating body color panel in the liftgate.

Inside, the car is creative without compromising function. The dashboard is pretty straightforward, and the Infinity audio system’s speakers double as design elements to underscore the relevance of music in the typical owner’s life. Available is Kia’s newest UVO infotainment system with an eight-inch dashboard touchscreen, iPhone and Android compatibility, crisp graphics and tablet-like scrolling.

The headroom is terrific and the seat comfort good, and rear passengers get more knee clearance than in most compact cars. Cargo room is a plus, with standard split folding rear seatbacks and a useful underfloor compartment.

With more soft-touch surfaces, materials quality is now a selling point. And you can get a cooled glovebox, cooled front buckets and heated seats in all the outboard positions. Those are rare features in this price range.

Souls again have four-cylinder engines, but increased low-rpm torque brings a welcome boost of around-town response. Base models have an underwhelming 130 horsepower and offer a six-speed manual transmission or, for an extra $2,000, a six-speed automatic. Two out of three buyers will choose a Plus or Exclaim, though, and they’ll get a livelier 164 horses hooked exclusively to the six-speed automatic.

Kia fudged some fuel-economy numbers a couple years ago and had to lower Soul’s rating by several miles per gallon. Ratings generally hold steady for 2014, with every model earning the same 26 mpg city/highway combined regardless of engine or transmission. That’s still a little behind the 500L and also the Countryman and Juke, both of which do feature AWD.

Kia’s getting the hang of electric steering, and this system feels pretty natural. Handling is secure and predictable, but engineers evidently couldn’t find a place in Soul’s backpack for ride comfort. The pounding over bumps and tar strips intensifies as wheel sizes increase—from 17 inches on the Plus to the Exclaim’s fashion-first 18s—but much of the blame lies with the cost-cutting torsion-beam rear axle.

Air conditioning, power windows, heated mirrors and Bluetooth are standard on every model. Base models aren’t available with options and start at $17,495 with automatic transmission. The Plus begins at $18,995 and includes a front center console, rearview camera, turn-signal mirrors and other upgrades. The Exclaim adds fancier trim with LED accents, a power driver’s seat, power folding mirrors, UVO and the cooled glovebox. It’s priced from $21,095.

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Only Exclaims are eligible for Xenon headlamps, but they share other options with the Plus. We’re talking leather upholstery, the heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, automatic climate control and a panoramic sunroof.

An Exclaim with every option would top $26,000, and that’s where lots of better-driving cars begin. The best value might be a Plus with navigation, Infinity audio and uplevel cabin trim at just under $21,000.

So Soul is kind of a wild boar in hamster clothing . . . or something. The bottom line is it doesn’t sacrifice utility or performance to styling. Edginess is just a bonus.

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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]