What do I call the boxy Kia Soul? Toaster on wheels? Shoebox? Beach cooler? Fridge?
Whatever. It never really interested me until now. Late to the toaster party that began early last decade, the Soul arrived in 2009 behind the Scion xB, Honda Element and Nissan Cube. How many beach coolers could you sell in the auto mall? Even Kia’s irresistible ad campaign — featuring hip hamsters — stereotyped Souls as an eccentric trend. Good luck selling that pet rock in five years.
But slowly the market shifted to Soul. Its competitors fell by the roadside even as the market demanded everything ute. Suddenly the quirkbox was a subcompact crossover in the hottest new space in autodom. All the corporate bigs — Chevy Trax, Honda HR-V, Buick Encore — flooded the space with their familiar badges and grilles. But if you wanted wee utility that marched to a different drummer ... well, how about a little Soul music?
Saved from the trend-shredder by market demand, Kia also recognizes Soul sits at the intersection of hot hatch and utility. You had me at hot hatch.
Like the Mini Clubman, the Soul Turbo injects performance into the common box — a natural place to go given the proximity of compact utilities to sporty, five-door hatchbacks like the VW Golf GTI and Ford Focus ST. While those turbocharged animals are more playful and have a lower center of gravity than the hamster-mobile, the turbo brings plenty of pop. The Soul sports a racy flat-bottom steering wheel, and gets GTI-like red war-paint across the grille and rockers just to make the point.
If a GTI sees a Soul Turbo roll up next to it at a stop light, he’ll know it’s game on.
With 195 pound feet of torque — up from 118 and 150 in the Soul’s normally aspirated (yawn) 1.6 and 2.0-liter offerings — my Soul tester popped off the line, its torque-steer nicely damped. This is the same turbo workhorse found in the Hyundai Veloster and the Kia Forte5.
The Turbo is paired to a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission which is, um ... a bit of a disappointment. With the bit between its teeth on curvy lake roads, the box gets a case of the hiccups in gear changes; it lags in low gear, burps up a gear under throttle, then holds it for too long. I was able to dull this frenetic behavior by toggling “sport” mode, which seemed to act as a sort of Prozac.
Sadly for us hot hatch fans, the Soul doesn’t offer a manual transmission. But in manual mode, the automatic comes to the fore with quick shifts out of Woodward stoplights.
In the niche between hatchback and small sport ute, Kia’s toaster is not alone. Along with the Mini Clubman is the frog-eyed Nissan Juke I reviewed last year with the Veloster in the battle for Captain Quirk.
Now in its second generation, the Kia shows surprisingly mature design. With its bold shape, the grille and rear facias complement the overall design. The big rear lights and panel back are particularly artful. With a full-length sunroof so big the Kia would be a glass-bottom boat if you flipped it, the Soul is a thoroughly modern design. Contrast that with the Juke, which still looks like an alien from another planet.
I was particularly impressed with the Soul’s interior. Content that its exterior is statement enough, Kia made the interior practical, not quirky. This is in contrast to the Clubman with its cute-but-less-ergonomic dinner-plate console and hanger switches. Everything is where it should be in the Soul, from smartphone storage to an easy-to-use infotainment system complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphones apps. The stereo system is an artful stack with round speakers at the top — indeed, the interior theme is more round than the outside box would suggest.
There is the obligatory ovoid “mixing bowl” shifter common to all species of quirkmobiles — but form doesn’t upset function. Only the round disco light, which pulsates colors at the passenger’s ankles, reminds you that rappin’ hamsters are this vehicle’s spokespersons.
Mrs. Payne, hardly a hot-hatch nut, echoed my comfort level with the design. The sunroof is a luxurious touch and the hatch utility swallowed any large item she might want to transport. In other quirk vehicles — the bumblebee-colored VW Beetle Turbo or pea-green Ford Fiesta ST come to mind — she felt compelled to explain herself to friends when we emerged, a pair of 50-year-olds apparently stealing one of the Backstreet Boys’ cars.
For all the Soul’s dexterity, Kia says it will come still out with a subcompact crossover to go head-to-head with more conventional members of the small SUV breed. So the Soul must continue to do its niche thing well from affordable shoebox to funky hot hatch.
It’s one cog in an intriguing Kia lineup separating itself from its corporate twin, Hyundai. Kia craves personality. Hyundai has adopted the mainstream for more design harmony from its Sonata and Elantra sedans to its Tucson and Santa Fe SUVs. The exception being the three-door Veloster, which seems more like a Kia that got lost in transit and jumped on the wrong ship.
Each Kia brings its own character. From the funky Soul, buyers can step across the showroom to the upscale-looking Sportage, which appears to be a Porsche Macan-wannabee.
And there’s the Stinger, the brand’s Audi A7-cloning sports sedan that came out of nowhere to star at this year’s Detroit auto show. No mainstream brand has done anything like it — its sleek, sporty lines establishing a performance halo.
No longer the odd relative at the table, the Soul Turbo offers a refined, sporty bot that makes more than a statement that it’s different. It’s a car that you actually want to drive.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.
2017 Kia Soul Turbo
Front-engine, front-wheel drive,
1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder
3,250 pounds as tested
201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet
0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds
(Car and Driver)
Hot, 201 hamster-power; mature
Manual tranny, please;
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★