For 2017, Kia has made just a few very small efficiency, style and feature changes to the Soul that make the charming little box just a little bit better and a tad more appealing than it already was. Oh yeah, and the automaker made one massive change: the addition of a top-trim Turbo model, complete with a more powerful 201-horsepower turbocharged engine.
I hit the road in the 2017 Kia Soul Turbo Exclaim near our San Francisco offices to see just how much difference 40 more ponies made to my opinion of the compact SUV.
Across the Soul lineup, the Kia Soul's Base, Plus and Exclaim trim levels get new wheel designs and a slight visual refresh that features new headlight and bumper designs. The new look is so subtle, I couldn't even spot the changes without a side-by-side comparison with a 2016 model, which is fine by me. I think the Soul was already a decent-looking ride.
In the cabin, the '17 Soul can now be had with the newest-generation UVO3 dashboard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Users interact via either a 7- or 8-inch color touchscreen depending on options chosen. The majority of my testing was done with Android Auto onscreen, but I was impressed with the simplicity and fluidity of Kia's onboard navigation.
My sole annoyance with the UVO3 system is a minor one. The in-dash USB port that you connect a smartphone to seems to use older, low power for charging. As a result, my phone would would slowly drain when plugged in, ending extended driving session with less power than I plugged in with. I've not had this problem with most other systems.
Also new to the Soul's options list is an eight-speaker, 315-watt Harman Kardon audio system, a first for the model. On the road, it's loud and clear -- maybe not at audiophile levels, but good enough for popular music -- and still features "mood lighting" illuminated grille surrounds that interact with the sound, subtly pulsing to the beat of the music.
An optional eight-way power passenger seat, two new high-speed USB center console chargers and automatic climate controls are welcome additions to the upper Plus and Exclaim trim levels. Optional blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert bring the Soul's safety tech into the modern age. Normally, here is where I'd lament the lack of more advanced features like adaptive cruise, autonomous emergency braking or lane keeping assist, but features like those are still rare at this price point, where buyers are more sensitive to additional charges.
Careful study of the fuel economy sticker also reveals a single city miles-per-gallon bump for the 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter models, but let's be honest: You're here about the new Turbo.
The top-tier Exclaim trim level is now powered by the Hyundai Motor Group's Gamma 1.6-liter turbo, which you may recognize from the Kia Forte Koup SX.and
The turbocharged and direct-injected engine makes a stated 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, thanks to 18 pounds of boost. Peer into the lower grille opening and you may even see a cute little air-to-air intercooler chilling the adorable little turbo's intake charge.
The only gearbox available for the Turbo is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that puts power to the front wheels. In this configuration, the Soul Turbo Exclaim is good for a stated 26 city mpg, 31 highway and 28 combined mpg. During my initial test, I averaged 31.1 mpg over a day of relaxed and mostly traffic-less cruising up California's Pacific Coast highway. That's probably the best scenario the Soul Turbo could hope for. Later, more extensive testing in more varied real-world conditions had me averaging around 27 mpg -- still acceptable.
The Turbo's cabin is highlighted by a unique, D-shaped steering wheel and orange trim on the stitching and seats -- an odd color choice, considering the exterior features red highlights. The new wheel felt good in my grip and features a thumbable Drive Select button for quick toggle between Normal and Sport operation.
I was disappointed to learn that the Turbo's unique wheel doesn't feature paddle shifters. That's a shame for this, the sportiest Soul, but the automaker freely admits that the Turbo is not a sports car, and it doesn't think that its drivers would actually use paddles. Still, I'd have liked to see them, as I find paddles useful for preparing power for passes and merges. I also noticed a bit of hesitation from the dual-clutch gearbox in stop-and-go traffic, resulting in a beat of lag between easing into the throttle and the transmission engaging and turning the front wheels. This lead to some herky-jerkiness while I got used to the timing.
On the open road, the Soul Turbo is not a dramatically different driving experience from the standard 2.0-liter. Yes, you get significantly sharper throttle response at low speeds and better torque feel around town; and, of course, off the line performance feels significantly better. However, at highway speeds the performance advantage seems to disappear into the transmission's efficiency-minded shift program.
The DCT is quick to upshift but can be slow to decide to downshift, even when in its Sport program. Improvements in passing power are noticeable, but only after the gearbox has been given a few moments to act or a manual shift with the console lever, which is just less intuitive than paddles would be.
When the gearbox, engine and driver are all in accord, the Turbo feels about as peppy as the torque-y Soul EV but without the heavy handling. Speaking of handling, the Kia has made no suspension upgrades to the Turbo model aside from larger 18-inch wheels with 235mm-wide all-season tires.
More competition than ever
The 2017 Kia Soul starts at $15,990 for the base model with manual transmission, but the Turbo Exclaim -- the top of the line and the most interesting addition to the lineup -- starts at $22,650 before an $850 destination charge. We've also got the $3,000 Tech package that adds pretty much all of the tech available, including HID headlamps and LED foglights. Rounding out the options list are a massive $1,000 panoramic moonroof and $120 floormats, which brings us to an as-tested price of $27,620.
With the best equipment, the best power and the best potential for fuel economy, the turbocharged Soul Exclaim is definitely the best bang for the buck for this generation of Kia's fun-loving box. The Soul Electric is still my personal favorite trim level, as it matches (or bests) the Turbo's urban performance and efficiency, but also I acknowledge that the EVs aren't for everyone, given their unique range and infrastructure requirements.
Most of the Soul's OG rivals -- the Scion xB, Nissan Cube and Honda Element -- are long gone, but this new model enters a compact SUV class that is more crowded than ever. Stiff competition from the, and, eventually, the upcoming are sure to give the Kia's quirky box a run for your money.