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2014 Kia Soul ! review: Kia bets on style, doesn't forget the substance

Kia once again proves that it really understands young car buyers better than the competition from Nissan and Scion.

Antuan Goodwin
Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
8 min read

I'm sure Scion's product team feels a twinge of regret every time a Kia Soul goes by. This 2014 model is the car that the second-generation xB should have become. The Kia is small on the outside, but reasonably spacious on the inside. Its visibility is good, mitigating the need for many high-tech safety features. And the tech that is included is well-tailored to the youthful target market.


2014 Kia Soul !

The Good

A fully-loaded <b>2014 Kia Soul "!"</b> features a well-appointed and spacious cabin with premium features such as heated/ventilated seats at a reasonable price. The standard and optional dashboard tech loadouts are well suited to the vehicle's young target audience.

The Bad

On-road performance can be uninspiring, and fuel economy, while not bad, is still disappointing. App integration is limited to Pandora for iOS, with no Android support or other apps available.

The Bottom Line

Kia once again proves that it really understands its audience, delivering a 2014 Soul "!" that offers just the right amount of tech, comfort, and performance at just the right price.

However, just looking at the spec sheet, the Kia Soul struck me as trying too hard to be cool, starting with the trim levels: Base, "+", and "!" from bottom to top of the line. Do I tell my friends that I'm driving a "Kia Soul Exclamation Mark" this week, or do I just shout "2014 SOUL!" Additionally, our example's Alien II paint is not a bad hue of metallic green, but I'd be embarrassed to speak that name aloud in public.

Get past the glowing lights around the speakers and other "hip" pretenses and the 2014 Kia Soul "!" reveals itself as a well-equipped and well-executed small crossover.

Tragically hip, but well appointed
Body-colored exterior trim on the bumpers and 18-inch alloy wheels differentiates the top trim "!". Lesser trims make due with flat black bumper trim, which still doesn't look bad and may even be better suited for areas where your neighbors tend to parallel park using the "bumper check" method.

The "!" model gains automatic-activating front projector beam headlamps with LED DRLs and matching LED tail lamps, which use less energy than the incandescents of the lower trim levels. Our model has the optional upgraded HID headlamps and jewel-style LED DRLs, further indicating our example's place at the top of the line.

Kia Soul, 2014
A body-colored front bumper and upgraded headlamps indicate that this "!" model is at the top of the line. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

An optional panoramic glass sunroof opens up nearly the entire roof to the sky, filling the already spacious cabin with an airy and spacious feeling. A motorized fabric cover can cover the glass on sunny days, keeping the cabin cool. However, only the front half of this roof actually slides open and tilts to let fresh air in, a limitation of the design that I'm fine with. Thusly equipped, the rear bench is not at all a bad place for a pair of adults to find themselves seated.

Heated and ventilated front seats? Check. Heated steering wheel? Check. Heated rear seats? Are you sure this isn't an Equus or K900?! The "!" model also gets optional leather appointment, which is nice if you're into that. Frankly, I'd be happy with fabric seats at this price point.

Our "!" model also featured keyless entry and motorized side mirrors that fold in when you walk away from the parked Soul and automatically unfold as you approach. "+" models get the keyless entry without the motorized theatrics. Both models can be had with optional push-button start and our example was so-equipped.

360-degree visibility is very good regardless of the Soul's trim level, thanks to the generous greenhouse glass, but a rear camera -- standard on the "!" and optional on the "+" helps with making the most of the Soul's relatively small footprint when squeezing into tight parallel parking spaces.

Panoramic roof
Generous greenhouse glass and this optional panoramic glass roof give the Soul's cabin an airy, open feel. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However well-appointed, the Soul isn't a luxury or premium vehicle. There are no memory positions for the power-adjustable driver's seat, the steering wheel does not tilt, and there are no active safety features such as blind spot monitoring or rear proximity and cross-traffic alerts. There is no lane-keeping assistance, no forward collision warning, and no adaptive cruise control available. To be fair, not much in this class short of the Ford C-Max or Escape offers such high-tech safety features either, and the van-like profile of the C-Max is anything but cool. (Sarcasm aside, the Ford models are also considerably more expensive.)

The tech you need, unless you need a CD player
Where the Scion xB boasts easy audio upgradability, Kia plies its trade on simply being well equipped. So, USB connectivity is standard from the base model and is able to read data from a connected iOS or mass storage device. I did part of my testing with an iPad Mini and found the file system to be easy to navigate. Bluetooth connectivity and Sirius XM are also standard all the way down to the Base model.

Available starting at the "+" model, the UVO-powered infotainment system no longer forces owners to choose between good voice command and navigation and standard UVO eServices puts Kia's data services (including roadside assistance, uploading vehicle diagnostic info to the Web, and more) as at the driver's fingertips, making use of a paired Bluetooth phone as a modem.

8-inch display
The infotainment system's simple graphics really pop on the high resolution screen. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The standard infotainment screen is a smallish unit that I was unable to test, but our model was equipped with the optional 8-inch display as part of the "Sun and Sound" technology package. The resolution of that optional 8-inch color touch-display is exceptional and make the admittedly simple graphics of the navigation system really pop.

Maps for the nav are rendered using simple 2D graphics only, which is really all that you need to get the job done. Real-time highway traffic is available to help in calculating the most efficient route and to provide realistic arrival time estimates. Stepping up to navigation also adds HD Radio tuning to the audio source mix, which is used to provide the traffic data, as well as a Premium Audio system.

The Infinity-branded stereo in this 2014 Kia Soul is w-a-a-a-y better than I expected even with the goofy illuminated speaker surrounds that come with it. I counted eight speakers total, upgrading the standard six-speaker rig with better quality drivers all around, more amplification, a front-center fill channel, and a powered subwoofer located in the cargo area.

As is the case with every audio system, garbage in means garbage out, so you'll want to make sure that you're using the best available audio sources. There's no CD player available at any trim level or configuration, so that means making sure that your MP3s are of high quality, lest the audio system reveal where the source's compression falls short.

My first day streaming "normal quality" Spotify audio over Bluetooth was disappointing, but switching my streaming to the service's "Extreme quality" setting and using a data connection that could support the increased bandwidth needs was a revelation. The Infinity audio system's strong suit seems to be delivering lots of volume, as it is able to get very loud without much noticeable distortion. Bass was cabin-filling, after a few moments of tweaking the three-band EQ, and highs and mids were clear and unmuddied. This system is definitely worth investing in the "Sun and Sound" option package.

Listening to satellite radio and non-HD FM radio stations, on the other hand, left a bit to be desired, but was still tolerable. High quality or lossless audio stored on an iPod or USB drive are definitely the recommended audio sources to fill the space left by the CD player's departure.

App integration starts and ends with Pandora; but, even then, it seems to work only with USB-connected iOS devices, completely excluding Bluetooth-paired Android and Windows-phone compatibility altogether, which is a shame. With only the one app, smartphone integration pales in comparison to the number of apps offered by Toyota's Entune, Ford's Sync AppLink, or Chevrolet's MyLink.

A cruiser, not a carver
While I was impressed with the "!'s" level of comfort and tech appointment, I was merely "not disappointed" by its performance. However, in a class that is largely filled with "driving appliances," what do you expect?

While a 1.6-liter engine is standard on the Base model, the "+" and "!" feature a more powerful 2.0-liter gasoline direct-injected four-banger. Output is stated at 164 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque, and acceleration is uninspiring, but adequate.

Kia Soul's engine bay
The 2.0-liter GDI engine won't win any awards, but it gets the job done. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The electronically-controlled six-speed automatic transmission's shifts are so vague that you'd be forgiven for assuming that Kia had fitted the Soul with a CVT. I certainly had to double check. The Soul is largely able to stay out of its own way when accelerating up to freeway speeds, but situations requiring both upshifts and downshifts, such as curvy backroads, can be frustrating. There is a manual shift mode, but not a sport program.

If a city car isn't going to be sporty, it had best be thrifty. At 23 city, 31 highway and 26 combined mpg, the Soul again doesn't disappoint, but if Mazda can get 29 combined mpg out of the larger CX-5, the Soul really should be over 30 mpg combined.

Oddly, the "+" trim level can be had with an optional idle start-stop system that adds an extra 1 mpg to the city estimate, but the "!" cannot. Our "!" does have an Active Eco mode that helps drivers to attain the EPA's estimates by retuning the throttle response, and I averaged 25.6 mpg over my testing with the system engaged most of the time.

While there is no Sport program for the engine or transmission, there is a Sport setting for the electronic power steering...sort of. The driver is able to toggle between three settings for the power steering with a button located on the wheel. You've got Sport, Normal, and Comfort to chose from, with a noticeable difference in steering effort between the three modes; Sport feeling the heaviest and Comfort feeling light and overboosted. However, there's no accompanying boost in steering responsiveness or front-wheel feedback to go along with the change in effort. Drivers who like a one-hand, 12 o'clock grip on the steering wheel may prefer the lighter effort of the Comfort mode, but as a devout 3-and-9er, I left the system in the Normal mode for most of my testing.

Handling for the Soul was soft with what felt like a good deal of body lean when cornering. Admittedly, it was difficult to tell from the driver's seat whether it was actual body movement or the wide, flat seats that made me feel like I was being tossed around the cabin while cornering. Either way, this is a cruiser, not a carver.

If it seems like I'm grading the Soul's performance harshly, allow me to put your mind at ease. There's still a lot to like here if you manage your expectations. The '14 Soul feels lighter and more nimble than its predecessor, and even more so when I compare the Kia to what I remember of the competing Scion xB and Nissan Cube. (Admittedly, it's been a while since I've driven either of those vehicles.) The Soul's tallish seating position (about eye-level with the larger Sportage) really helps with visibility and driver confidence, and the relatively quick turning radius and smallish footprint make city driving and parallel parking a snap. The suspension does a fairly good job of soaking up the bumps, and along with aerodynamic tweaks to this new model, helps keep road and wind noise to tolerable levels.

2014 Kia Soul
The 2014 Kia Soul does a good job of providing the right tech for the right price. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Pricing and packaging
The 2014 Kia Soul "!" starts at $20,300, netting you a decent loadout of standard audio sources, keyless entry, motorized side mirrors, and leather trim. You should go ahead and add $2,600 for the very worthwhile Sun and Sound package, which gets you Infinity premium audio, the panoramic glass roof, and the full navigation infotainment setup, as well as automatic climate controls with ionizer filtration. Adding $2,500 for The Whole Shabang package gets us an HID headlamp upgrade, an upgraded instrument cluster with a color driver information display, the push-button starter, and heated and ventilated surfaces up front and heated rears for the leather seats. Our bottom line also includes $795 for destination charges, bringing us to an as-tested price of $26,195.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Kia Soul
Trim "!"
Powertrain 2.0-liter GDI 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, FWD
EPA fuel economy 24 city, 31 highway, 26 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 25.6 mpg
Navigation Optional, SD card-based
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player N/A
MP3 player support standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audio SiriusXM satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system 8-speaker Infinity premium audio
Driver aids Optional rear camera
Base price 20,300
Price as tested $26,195

2014 Kia Soul !

Score Breakdown

Performance 6Features 8Design 9Media 8