Review and road test of the Kia Soul (2014 - 2020)
MORE SPRIT - MORE SOUL
By Jonathan Crouch
The second generation Kia Soul was a much-improved proposition, as it needed to be back in 2014 to avoid being left behind in a growing market sector for small Crossover models that was increasingly becoming stuffed with talented rivals. In becoming a little bigger and much better finished, with better refinement, extra equipment and the option of a clever all-electric EV model, Kia threw down the gauntlet to the market leaders in this segment. If you're looking for a small, stylish SUV from the 2014-2020 period, here's yet another way towards a trendier take on supermini motoring.
5dr Small SUV (1.6 petrol, 1.6 Diesel)
If one car could be said to have started the design-led revolution which has completely transformed the way that people see Kia, it was the original version of this model, the Soul. Fresh, funky, original and bold, it was launched back in 2008 to demonstrate that Kia really could design and engineer cars that were out of the ordinary, cars that were more than merely a means of getting from A to B. Cars if you like, with 'soul'.
Today, the motor industry's constantly bringing us supermini-based Crossover contenders copying the market segment Kia pioneered with this model - that of the go-anywhere SUV lifestyle look packaged into a small, light but versatile 2WD urban runabout. The company's Californian design studio created the concept to appeal to US college students and the brand hoped the same approach would open up a younger demographic here in Europe too. It didn't. As it turned out, the majority of buyers of the first generation model were more likely to be collecting pensions than college degrees. A re-think was needed then - and it brought us this much improved second generation version in the Spring of 2014.
Kia knew this MK2 design would face much tougher competition than its predecessor, so would need more universal appeal. But at the same time, the company was reluctant to lose the Marmite 'love-it' or 'hate-it' feel that with the original model did so much to change the way people thought about the brand. Eventually, the development team settled on the model we're going to look at here, retaining much of the previous look and feel but building on it in the creation of a car that was a touch larger, a little more practical and a lot better finished inside. They developed the drive dynamics too. With this MK2 Soul, we were promised a more involving and much quieter drive, even though the 1.6-litre petrol and diesel engines on offer turned out to be little different from those available before.
Partly that was because much of the second generation model's development budget was devoted to the inclusion of an all-electric EV version in the line-up - Kia's first. It was another example of the kind of leadership in this segment the brand wanted to maintain, at least in terms of technology. For greater sales though, more conventional versions of this Soul needed to appeal to the fashionable single folk and small families being targeted by this class of car. They didn't. Sales were slow, despite a light facelift at the end of 2016. The EV model became rarer than hems teeth and the Soul's fate was sealed when Kia launched its more appealing Stonic small SUV a couple of years before production of the MK2 Soul ceased in 2019. We did get a third generation Soul in the UK, launched in 2020, but that car was only available in full-electric EV form.
What You Get
Looks can be deceptive. If you're at all familiar with the first generation version of this car, then a casual glance at this MK2 model might initially leave you thinking that very little had changed. After all, as with the MK1 design, there's a tall, almost military-style square-cut stance with a high bonnet, a vertical rear hatch and bulging wheel arches. And, as before, the whole thing was simmered in Kia's US Californian design studio to give it a bit of surf shack attitude. Peer a little closer though and you'll find that much is different. 'Attitude' in fact, is the right word to use in relation to this car. The rather apologetic funkiness of the original version was here replaced with a sportier, tougher, more confident look that was 20mm longer, 15mm wider and 10mm lower. In this MK2 form, the Soul came of age.
In fact, it grew up in more ways than one. The earliest versions of this Kia were based on the brand's Rio supermini. This MK2 car, in contrast, sat on the underpinnings of the company's larger cee'd Focus-sized family hatch. That wasn't enough to elevate this Soul beyond the ranks of Nissan Juke-sized supermini Crossover models and into contention with larger Qashqai-class ones. But then it didn't need to be, for the brand had its strong-selling Sportage model to compete in that segment. What the cee'd stuff did though, was to give this design a bit more space to breathe - to express itself.
Specifically, that meant a sharper edge to the front of the bonnet and much more purposeful penmanship in terms of the lower grille opening, the bumper, the fog lights and the wheel arches. There was even a plastic vent behind the front wheel for the side repeater that could have been lifted direct from a Land Rover. As a result, this Kia's visual claims of go-anywhere SUV-ness were with this MK2 design that bit more believable, even if the hardware was still absent to make them a reality.
Chief Designer Tom Kearns claimed that the bit he was happiest with was the more pronounced 'backpack' shape of the tailgate, with its seamlessly integrated tail lamp units. Along with the reclined roof and sturdy C-pillars, these also played their part in creating this Kia's tougher, more robust appearance. A look that with this MK2 model was founded upon proper family-sized practicality. Take the boot, which with this second generation car was easier to get to thanks to a tailgate opening that was 62mm wider. The cargo area was nearly 25% bigger with the split-folding rear bench pushed forward, with 994-litres available if you load to the cargo cover and 1,367-litres on offer if you stack your stuff up to the roof. These are totals that most small Crossover rivals from this era struggle to match: potentially, you're talking nearly three times as much space as you'd get in a similarly-configured Nissan Juke from this era, for example. Even if you need the back seat, you still get 354-litres - with further partitioned room available beneath the floor. That's significantly more space than you'd get in a Ford Focus from this time.
Talking of extra room, the 20mm wheelbase increase of this MK2 Soul design suggested that the back seat might be a little more usable. Sure enough, it was. Older buyers trendy enough to embrace the bad boy styling will like the high-set seats and wide-opening doors. Maturing families meanwhile, will find that extra knee and leg space (and the lower central transmission tunnel) should, at a pinch, enable three burly teenagers to be more easily accommodated on this rear bench without too much grousing, especially given the generous headroom conferred by the distinctive high roof and square tail. Ultimately though, the happiest occupants in the back will, as with the MK1 design, be a trio of kids.
And at the wheel? Well, this MK2 Soul's front-of-cabin experience was certainly an improvement from the brittle, plasticky atmosphere of the original version. You'll certainly perceive this to be a more expensive car than before, thanks to a better choice of materials, increased storage and a larger 8-inch central infotainment screen fitted to all variants save the entry-level model. There are soft-touch facings on the instrument panel, the centre console and the doors, plus extra touches of high glass and leather on most models. Plush variants even feature LED red mood lighting in the front speaker grilles. Lovely.
As Kia promised, this MK2 design did feel a little more spacious up front. Narrower A-pillars help, as do greater levels of head and shoulder room. We also like the circular theme to be found not only in the deeply-recessed instrument gauges and the side door panels but also in the neat round fingertip controls you'll find on the three-spoke steering wheel. These buttons enable you to access most of the functionality you'll need without taking your hands from the helm but additional items still fall easily to hand thanks to the way the re-designed fascia has been sculpted to bring the relocated controls closer to the driver.
What to Look For
Almost all the Soul owners in our surveys loved their cars from the point of view of quality and reliability. As usual with family cars, look for child scuffs in the interior and scratches on the alloy wheels. And of course, insist on a fully stamped-up service history. Otherwise, there's not a great deal to worry about, unless the variant you're looking at is a diesel and hasn't been used on enough highway runs to unclog its diesel particulate filter. There was an issue with steering for MK2 Souls built between January 2014 and September 2015 that could possibly result in a lack of directional control; make sure the car you're looking at has had the product recall for that.
(approx based on a 2015 Soul 1.6 GDi) An oil filter is in the £6-£8 bracket. An air filter is in the £8-£14 bracket and a pollen filter costs typically around £7. A wiper blade will cost you about £5-£11. Front brake pads sit in the £27-£58 bracket; rears will sit in the £16-£35 bracket. Front brake discs sit in the £60-£247 bracket; rear discs are about £31-£116. A water pump is in the £52-£66 bracket.
On the Road
There aren't many small Crossover models that actually bother to match 4x4 looks with 4x4 capability - and this isn't one of them. So despite the SUV overtones Kia hopes you'll see in this car's upright stance, commanding driving position and higher than average ride height, it'll be no more use in the next snowy snap than the Fiesta-style supermini you might currently be driving. Whether it'll be as good to drive as that kind of car though, is quite another question. In truth, the original Soul model wasn't really but here, quite a lot of work went in to polishing up the driving dynamics.
As a result, these were, by and large, much improved with this MK2 model. The car itself (like its predecessor) was set up to be quite stiff - both to limit body roll from that high-sided shape and also because Kia thought its young-at-heart audience would want it like that. We're not so sure. Throw this Soul determinedly through a few twisties and there is a touch more body roll than a well developed conventional supermini would exhibit, but it's now really not that noticeable unless you're really pushing on. Should that be the case, then you probably won't appreciate the rather light electrically-assisted steering. This though, is an issue that Kia tried to think ahead to correct.
But perhaps we should clarify that. Kia didn't correct the problem: they simply provided the means for you to do so at the wheel. Their solution was a so-called 'Flex Steer' system you operate via a button on the steering wheel that allows you to vary steering weight between 'Comfort', 'Normal' and 'Sport' modes. The problem with this set-up though, as in Kia's cee'd family hatch from this period, is that since the 'Comfort' setting is excessively light and 'Sport' mode artificially heavy, you end up leaving it in 'Normal' all the time, which rather defeats the point. And leaves you with the same over-light steering the Flex Steer set-up was supposed to give you the tools to correct.
Where you'd think that light steering would be welcome would be around town - and sure enough, this Soul is an easy partner for city centre motoring. The fact that this MK2 model's body was 29% stiffer than before freed up the springs to be a touch more compliant, so urban potholed surfaces don't feel quite as jiggly as they did in the original Soul. The tight turning circle is also welcome here, as is the generally good all-round visibility that's aided at junctions by this MK2 car's narrower front A-pillars. The thick rear C-pillars can though, still sometimes be a problem when reversing, though the flat back end helps a lot when you're trying to edge back into tight spaces and a full Park Assist system's was optional for original buyers for those who wanted the car to do the steering bit for them.
And on the highway? Well the first thing that those familiar with the original model will notice is just how quiet this car can be in MK2 form. This was no accident of course, a huge amount of development effort having gone into NVH (that's 'Noise, Vibration & Harshness') counter-measures, with work on the engines, the suspension, the aerodynamics complementing the extra insulation you'd find everywhere from under the carpets to within the A & B-pillars and behind the dashboard, were you minded to take this car apart.
Kia claimed that noise levels did, as a result, fall by three decibels, but of course the ultimate level of refinement you get will depend a lot on the engine you choose beneath the bonnet. If indeed you choose an engine. With this MK2 model, there was, after all, a fully-electric 'EV' battery-powered version introduced into the range, development of which left the Korean development team no remaining time or budget to do very much with the 1.6-litre petrol or diesel powerplants used in the first generation version of this car. So these were pretty much as before, offering buyers a choice of either a 130bhp GDI petrol unit or a 126bhp CRDi diesel, both units able to reach 62mph in around 10.5s en route to around 115mph.
The petrol engine was uprated halfway through the production life of the MK1 Soul model to offer a bit more torque and power, but of course, it's still no match for the diesel in that regard and still has to be revved to nearly 5,000rpm before you get all it has to offer. Original diesel customers also got the option of a rather inefficient six-speed automatic gearbox. It's best though, unless you really are city-bound, to stick with the reasonably slick manual six-speeder, operable with a glossy lever borrowed from Kia pro_cee'd GT hot hatch.
That's not an option of course if you go for the all-electric EV variant we mentioned earlier, full-battery-driven models of this kind always of course being automatics. This one got a 27kWh battery with a claimed 80-100 mile driving range we found to be actually reasonably realistic, thanks to the effort the engineers here put in to maximizing the charge regeneration that's possible under braking and on throttle lift-off. You'll operate this car with or without its 'Eco mode' switched on. It'll be switched on if you want to maximize battery range. Or off if you prioritize performance that can see the rest to sixty two mph sprint accomplished in less than 12s en route to around 90mph.
Whichever setting you choose on a Soul EV, you've the option of using it in either 'Drive' or 'Brakes' mode. The 'Brakes' setting will further emphasize the harvesting of regenerational energy and maximize the range you can travel before charging is once again necessary. When it is time to plug in, that process will occupy around five hours from a domestic socket, though if you're fortunate enough to find - or have regular access to - a rapid charger, then that'll juice a flat battery to 80% capacity in around 25 minutes.
As with all small Crossover models of this kind, the idea here was to bring the more palatable elements of SUV design to a front wheel-drive supermini-sized vehicle - and it's something Kia has been doing longer than almost all its rivals. With this MK2 Soul model, the original MK1 design's previously slightly self-consciously funky demeanour matured into something a great deal more confident - but slightly less distinctive. Much else about this second generation Soul also turned out to be different. The classier cabin, the extra practicality, the more involving driving experience and the greater refinement were all welcome improvements but they weren't enough to allow this model to sell in the kind of numbers the UK importers had hoped. We think it makes a lot of sense as a used buy though - if you can find one.
It's not for everyone of course: it isn't supposed to be. Some will see its quasi-military SUV-style looks as cutting edge and right up their street. Others simply won't get it. Most important though, is the way that the Soul has established Kia as a far cooler brand - and it's hard to put a price on that. If you're looking for a small but practical car with a big personality, then try one. Who knows? You may well agree that you gotta have soul.
Kia Soul (2014 - 2020) review by Jonathan Crouch