New Soul adds power and sophistication, but stays true to its roots
As one of Kia’s consistently best-selling models, the Soul has always been difficult to categorize. Tall wagon? Crossover? Maybe a little of both? Since its North American debut in 2010, the Soul has proudly marched to the beat of its own drum: boxy and dorky—and is ultimately cooler because of it. Now entering its third generation, the 2020 Kia Soul adds a healthy dose of refinement while keeping its weird streak intact.
Soul competitors have come and gone through the years. Nissan lost faith in its oddball Cube and Juke, replaced by the more conventional-looking Kicks for 2018. And the original subcompact box-on-wheels, the Scion xB, went from quirky and cool to flabby and boring in its second generation, before Toyota pulled the plug on the brand altogether. The verdict is still out on Toyota’s curiously styled spiritual successor, the C-HR.
Neither of these models can touch the Soul when it comes to horsepower. New for 2020 on all trim levels (except the GT-Line 1.6T) is a 147-hp 2.0-liter naturally aspirated I-4 driving the front wheels through Kia’s own CVT, first seen on the 2019 Forte and replacing the six-speed automatic. That’s 14 fewer horsepower than last year’s 2.0 (and 17 horsepower more than the outgoing car’s 1.6-liter base engine), but fuel economy bumps up from 25/30 mpg (9.4/7.8 L/100 km) city/highway to 27/33 mpg (8.7/7.1 L/100 km) (or 29/35 mpg (8.1/6.7 L/100 km) on a special economy-minded model). A six-speed manual remains on the option sheet, but it’s only available on the base LX model.
If it’s power you really want, the turbocharged 1.6-liter I-4 returns on the top-dog GT-Line 1.6T, once again connected to a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic and offering shift paddles for the first time. With 201 hp on tap, this boosted Soul has more than enough grunt to spin the front tires. Even though power is rated the same as last year’s model, it feels even punchier at highway speeds. Also exclusive to the 1.6T are larger disc brakes and a sport-tuned suspension. Although it might not be a certifiable hot hatch, the turbocharged 2020 Soul features moves to match its power and doesn’t embarrass itself in the corners. Better yet, the 1.6T is almost as economical as the less powerful 2.0, scoring a near-identical 27/32 mpg (8.7/7.3 L/100 km).
Sport-tuned suspension or not, the Soul delivers impressive ride quality, dispatching mid-corner bumps without drama or complaint. Part of the credit goes to the longer wheelbase this year, up by 1.2 inches to 102.4. The body is longer, too, by 2.2 inches, but the overall shape remains very much the same.
At first glance, the exterior silhouette is familiar: It’s unapologetically tall and boxy. The front end is now more streamlined and cohesive, with squinty headlights connected by a center trim piece that emphasizes the width, which remains unchanged at 70.9 inches. The overall effect lies somewhere between sleepy and sophisticated, kind of like a Range Rover Evoque that consumed one too many edibles. High praise, indeed, considering that the Evoque starts at over 40 grand while a base 2020 Soul LX begins at only $18,485 USD.
Conversely, the back end is overwrought in its execution, with too many styling elements competing for attention. On their own, the new “boomerang-style” taillights are a nice touch, especially in how they wrap up into the top of the tailgate. But peek around the corner to the C-pillar where there’s a black piece of plastic embossed with the Soul logo. Kia likens this shape to airplane wings, but honestly, it’s just another take on the “floating roof” concept, and it looks a little tacked on when combined with the upright lines of the hatch. Chances are the styling cue will age as well as that plastic piece.
Even though the Soul defies category description, it’s definitely not an SUV—and up until now it’s bucked the trend of visually pretending to be one. New for 2020 is the X-Line trim starting at $22,485 USD, which adds contrasting body cladding and chunky fenders. This package will be great for the urban warrior who drives within spitting distance of a gravel road. The 2020 Soul wears the look surprisingly well, but it’s lost some street cred in the process.
Chances are most Soul owners will be more concerned with what’s going on inside. For the most part, they won’t be disappointed. Even base models receive a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with a six-speaker audio system and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Standard on the EX and GT-Line 1.6T is a new 10.3-inch infotainment system with satellite navigation. The widescreen display is crisp and bright and provides plenty of visual real estate for a two- or three-up split-screen display. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto users will appreciate the added room on this screen for up to 10 apps.
Although last year’s model featured whimsical circular-shaped speaker housings that seemed to float atop the dashboard vents, the tweeters are now housed in tiny rectangular bezels next to triangular-shaped vents. It takes a few blinks before you realize that the combined shape emulates the form of a speaker, with the tweeters serving as the coil and the vents taking on the role of the horn. The motif carries over onto the door panel, where a stylized trim piece gives the illusion of sound waves. Neat!
Only GT-Line 1.6T buyers will be treated to the 2020 Soul’s most notable option—the 640-watt Harman-Kardon audio system. In addition to more sonic oomph, the mood lighting is really the star here. Illuminated speaker surrounds glow and pulse in time to the beat of the music. In response to customer feedback, Kia made the lighting brighter and more responsive in contrast to last year’s version. Although it’s not for everyone, it’s a shame that this Soul-centric option is limited to only the top trim level.
When it comes to safety, Kia offers a comprehensive slate of active safety features on the 2020 Soul, though you’ll have to step up past the LX to get any of them. Still, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping and change assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert are all standard on the S, which starts at $21,285 USD. Not bad.
By offering five trim levels instead of last year’s three, Kia has also mapped out the pricing and options of the Soul across a greater spread. The biggest jump is at the top end, with the GT-Line 1.6T commanding a cool $28,485 USD—roughly $500 USD more than a fully loaded 2019 Soul. That’s in line with a Mazda CX-3 Touring or Subaru Crosstrek, though the Kia dusts them both with its turbo power. There’s also an EV version of the Soul right around the corner, if electrons are more your thing.
With its expressive styling and clever interior touches, the 2020 Kia Soul stays true to its eccentric mission. But it also happens to be an extremely well-rounded and likeable car with solid mainstream appeal. The quirky flourishes serve to enhance a strong package, rather than compensate for any glaring deficiencies. So for those who want a practical package with a little sass, the 2020 Kia Soul is ready to oblige.