Upstairs on the 4th floor of the Graves Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, a cardboard cutout of a svelte rodent, kitted out in slim-fit tailored 2-piece, oversaw the Kia sign-in booth. Not so much a corpulent hamster in a tracksuit, but more so a slender gerbil in a Thom Browne suit. Was this foreshadowing for what lied ahead? Was this cutout a hint of Kia’s design direction, an anthropomorphized clue as to where the Korean brand is headed with its beloved subcompact?
The Kia Soul hit the market in 2009, a quirky niche vehicle from a vanilla brand desperately trying to establish some sort of identity. But Kia had high hopes, and knew its hatchback had a chance to at least make a ripple. The brainchild of designer Mike Torpey, Kia wunderkind (and now Hyundai Motors President) Peter Schreyer recognized the car’s potential and bestowed it with his signature “Tiger Nose” grill. It was the first vehicle to don Schreyer’s now ubiquitous mouthpiece, a flourish that has since expanded across the line-up.
Possibly under the effect of psychotropics, or maybe just the regular duress of design deadlines, Torpey modeled his creation on arguably the strangest vision in automotive history. Nevermind a hamster, the Soul’s tapering roof and trunk-on-a-hatchback look was somehow inspired by the exaggerated shoulders and shrunken hindquarters of a wild boar. Wearing a backpack, naturally. So he also flourished it with tusks on the front bumper. As one does.
And its impact was almost instant. Married to the now famous dancing hamster commercials, the Soul hit the scene with quirky intelligence, an outsider’s bravado and confident hip-hop marketing. It sucker-punched Nissan’s Cube and made Scion’s xB look suddenly dated. It has been instrumental in the Korean automaker’s 250-percent sales upswing since its debut.
But after consummate success and worldwide fame, the Soul is ready for its second generation, an attempt to transition from downtown urban swagger to uptown executive swagger. Shed some pounds, tailor its fit, bump up its game. Drop the tracksuit, as it were, and button up the bespoke suit. Kia claims the Soul starts at $14,700, but it only furnished us the higher Plus (priced $18,200 base, around $24,010 as tested) and Exclaim (priced $20,300 base, around $26,195 as tested) trim levels, so really our judgments are based on the highest end of the Soul spectrum. But that end is impressive.
Stepping into the 2014 second generation Soul will make you do one of those cartoon eye rubs. It’s not just the best interior in its segment, it’s one of the nicest interiors you’ll find under $30,000. Soft touch materials, high quality textures and finishes and thoughtful design flourishes can be found throughout — from the eight-inch touchscreen to the imitation polished aluminum cuffing on the headliner lights. The 10-way power adjustable driver seat and passenger seat are trimmed with genuine leather and air-cooled (a segment exclusive), with heated seats available for all four passengers. High gloss piano black paint trims the center console and door panels, while “floating” speaker and ventilation stacks rise like castle turrets from the far corners of the dashboard. Overall the greenhouse boasts an uncommonly good visibility with one of the best seating positions of any vehicle.
The “boar with a backpack” roofline remains, as does the blacked out B-pillar and darkened rear windows that give the car its Zorro mask effect. Size stays essentially the same, only a bit longer (by 0.8 inches) and wider (by 0.6 inches), while dropping 0.4 inches. It gets a bolder headlamp configuration, as well as larger 18” wheels that lend the subcompact an aftermarket sheen right out of the box.
Two available powerplants exist, but only the Base comes with the tepid 130 hp 1.6-liter DOHC four-cylinder. Otherwise, it's the direct injected 2.0-liter 164-hp four-banger paired with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, tuned for more torque at the low end than the outgoing model, and paired with the Soul’s improved steering for a moderately sporty drive. Still, considering its fuel economy is fairly lackluster by current standards (23 city/31 highway/26 combined), one should expect either better mileage or more pep from the larger engine.
The Soul’s once middling driving dynamics get bolstered by improved torsional rigidity. Better balance and improved handling are achieved by moving the steering gear box forward and front stabilizer bar rearward. We witnessed this firsthand while navigating the rain-slicked roads of Minnesota that follow the northern Mississippi River; while riding the foliage-speckled hills the steering was so responsive and firm that the Soul cut right into corners with surprising agility.
In all, Kia has avoided the sophomore slump with its second gen Soul. Keeping the elements that made it a hit — exterior design, quirky interior flourishes, penchant for personalization — while improving on deficits, the upstart hatchback provides golden conquest ability for Kia. Potentially attracting buyers from compact and midsize cars to compact SUVs and MPVs, the Soul rests its backpack in an automotive sweet spot. I just hope they retire those well-worn rodents; no one wants to see a skinny hamster — even in a nicely tailored suit.