Style and tech in spades, but tiresome to drive.
The original Kia Soul was an unexpected hit, offering frugal consumers a spacious and stylish vehicle at an affordable price. It was funky to be sure, but not especially fun to drive. A late-arriving turbocharged engine, though, delivered a more energetic and fun-to-drive experience. While Kia manages to maintain the space, style, and pricing promise of the original Soul in the all-new third-generation model, its attempt at recapturing the soul of the Soul Turbo has gone horribly awry.
The new turbocharged Soul GT Line is, to put it plainly, extremely unlikable to drive. Kia’s turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine has not aged well, and the company seemingly forgot how to program the throttle while engineering the new Soul. At the same time, it’s like engineers injected the steering with proverbial lidocaine and took inspiration for the ride from a pontoon boat. I can’t recall a vehicle I was so eager to get rid of.
Unfortunately, Kia doesn’t offer an attractive alternative. Much of the in-cabin tech offered on the turbocharged GT Line isn’t available anywhere else. Customers will have to choose between a more livable engine and less tech or a lousy powertrain and all the goodies.
The GT Line is a handsome hatch – especially in Inferno Red. While not as groundbreaking a design as the original Soul, the new model cuts a handsome figure on the road. Its expansive grille has a level of style and detail uncommon in a sub-$30,000 hatchback, while its gloss-black elements play well with the black window surrounds and the overused cut of the floating roof. The center-exit exhaust is a little bit much, although unlike the floating roof, it’s a design feature used seldom enough that it stands out here. Also, the new taillights are freaking awesome looking, especially at night.
The first Soul stood out with cabin quality uncommon in such an affordable vehicle and the new vehicle maintains that trend. From the anodized red surrounds for the door handles and speaker grilles to the tasteful look of the red contrast stitching and restrained use of piano-black trim, the Soul GT Line’s cabin stands out among sub-$30,000 vehicles. The expansive 10.3-inch center display drew praise from everyone that sat in the cabin, while the assorted controls are smartly placed and feel like they’re of high quality.
The range-topping GT Line 1.6 Turbo has no optional extras. Relative to lesser Soul trims, it adds blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise control to a package that already includes forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist. There are also LED headlights, a pedestrian detection system, and a driver attention monitor. Get away from safety-oriented gear, and the GT Line impresses with a standard wireless charge pad, an excellent Harman Kardon audio system, a killer ambient lighting system, and a lovely head-up display. In fact, the Soul might have the best tech suite of any car under $30,000.
The punch of Kia’s turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder has always been pleasant, even if the sound it made hasn’t. This is a thrashy, buzzy engine that exhibits ample lag from a standstill relative to newer offerings. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (the only option for the turbocharged Soul) is slow to engage, and despite having two clutches, the gearbox’s slow shifts make it feel more like a traditional automatic transmission (and not a very good one). But the transmission is stellar compared to the oversensitive accelerator pedal. It takes a great deal of concentration to apply the desired amount of throttle. Most of the time, though, the right pedal reacts as if the Soul were a living thing that’d just been branded, freaking out and delivering way too much power. At the same time, maintaining a low, steady speed – say five miles per hour – in bumper-to-bumper traffic takes a tremendous amount of concentration.
That concentration is well spent, though, because steady, gentle acceleration keeps the Soul’s over-soft suspension from pitching fore and aft. Sitting in traffic in this Kia left me at my wit's end as the car constantly moved with all the grace and poise of a pontoon boat in a thunderstorm. I could forgive the amount of body movement if the Soul’s ride were comfortable at speed, but the reality is that this car’s overall ride comfort is merely average.
While most of the Soul’s active safety systems work as advertised, the lane-keeping assist system is so poor I switched it off halfway through the loan. You won’t even feel the best of them working. The Soul’s heavy-handed system, though, makes so many corrections to a steering system that’s already absent of on-center feedback that it actually makes the car feel nervous instead of stable. I spent more time fighting the system than actually feeling like it benefitted the driving experience.