Try not to look shocked, but Kia's little hamster box is almost as good as a hot hatchback.
Oh how everyone laughed when Kia first debuted the Soul for the 2010 model year. The car was instantly criticized for being a "box on wheels" in the same vein as models like the Honda Element and several Scion cars. Even with an optional manual transmission in the base trim, the Soul was never meant to appeal to enthusiasts. The boxy shape meant that it was extremely practical for a rather small vehicle. Kia also tried its hardest to market the car to trendy millennials that wanted an affordable, yet quirky car that was somewhat fun to drive.
Kia launched its hamster campaign, which was designed to target millennials. The ads may be a little odd, but they helped Kia sell over 40,000 units in the fist year and over 145,000 units in 2016. We think that the latest addition of a 201-hp turbocharged engine may have done a lot to drive sales too.
We had a feeling that when Kia dropped a new engine and transmission into the Soul, it may have stumbled upon a winning formula. Kia sent us a simply named Bright Silver 2017 Soul ! without any options so that we could really find out how good this recipe could be without any garnish. The Soul comes in three main trim levels; base, + (Plus) and ! (Exclaim). The Exclaim trim starts at just $22,800, which is great value for a practical crossover with a 201-hp 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch. Yes, you read that correctly. This odd-looking hamster box comes with a fast-shifting dual-clutch transmission just like a GTI or a Lamborghini Huracan.
The Soul Turbo also stands out over the standard car with larger 18-inch wheels, wider tires and red accents that show onlookers that yes, this is the turbo model. We loved the way the red accents stood out on our silver car, a stylish way to differentiate the turbo from the stock. We were expecting this turbocharged Soul to be a bit more fun than the overpriced EV model that we tested last year. What we weren't expecting was to discover one of the most grin-inducing crossovers that we've driven in a long time. If you're looking for a crossover that isn't abysmal to drive, look no further. The Kia Soul Turbo is legitimately fun.
Don't worry, we haven't lost our minds. This is not a hot hatchback. Under braking the Soul is very underwhelming and we wouldn't want to push it too hard through the corners. There is also significant body roll that makes the car feel like it's going to tip over. The steering is much improved over older Kia models, although it still doesn't offer a lot of feedback through the wheel. Sport mode gives a heavier steering feel, but it still doesn't communicate to the driver like a sports car. The wheel itself feels great thanks to perforated leather and a flat-bottom design. Kia's designer was hired from Audi, and the Soul Turbo's steering wheel feels like it was ripped straight from the old RS5.
The Soul Turbo is suited best for dashing from point to point, not necessarily over doing it though the corners. The 1.6-liter engine accelerates admirably and the dual-clutch transmission rips through shifts quickly. It isn't the fastest DCT on the market, but it allows the Soul Turbo to hit 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. The DCT is comfortable in stop-and-go, but can hesitate occasionally (especially in sport mode). We loved the way the transmission shifted under hard acceleration, and the car responded quickly every time we were in the mood to hammer it a bit. We only wish that Kia had given the car a set of paddles to make sporty driving a bit more involving. But that might be pushing it.
The Soul Turbo is a truly responsive car, and even with seven cogs to shift through, it never gets caught loafing when you need a quick punch of power to overtake or fit through a gap in traffic. Overall, we have nothing bad to say about this drivetrain. The car felt quick in all situations, and was able to achieve over 40 mpg on a commute with minimal traffic. On the highway, the Soul was a bit less pleasant due to its boxy shape. Wind noise is a bit intrusive, and we could only manage around 33 mpg on the highway. This was still enough to beat the EPA estimated 26 city, 31 highway ratings.
Not only is the Soul Turbo the most powerful car in the range, it is also the most fuel efficient and only requires regular gas. As we mentioned, ours was the base model which rang in at $23,620. Even the most basic Soul Turbo is not devoid of options. The car comes standard with a power driver seat, a partial leather interior, automatic headlights, passive keyless entry with push button start, a back-up camera and a seven-inch touchscreen with Apple Car Play and Android Auto Integration. The $3,000 tech package rolls in blind-spot monitoring, cross-traffic alert, LED headlights, an eight-inch screen with built-in navigation and other niceties.
The tech package seems like pretty good value considering that it also rolls in heated front seats and heated rear seats, and a Harmon Kardon stereo with speaker lights that can change color depending on the music. There is also an a la cart panoramic roof for $1,000 that requires the tech package to be selected. We would have loved to sample these added options, but we'd be perfectly happy with the standard features on the base model. The Kia Soul Turbo is certainly no hot-hatch. But having started the week thinking it was going to be as fun as a waiting at the DMV, we ended it knowing why so many people keep buying these things.
The Soul is extremely practical, economical and quick (in the Turbo trim). We get that some people won't be able to get over the Soul's looks, but the interior is a pleasant place to sit, so looking at the exterior will be other people's problem. Take our word for it, the Soul is a genuinely exciting package for people who need a family car with a bit more practicality than the average hot hatchback. Photos courtesy of Simply Shrimping Media.