Kia and Hyundai have long struggled to break into the sport-compact space. And to be fair, it’s a tough nut to crack, what with favorites of ours like the Volkswagen GTI, Ford Fiesta ST, and Focus ST clogging up the tubes. Korea’s attempts to court enthusiasts thus far, including the Hyundai Veloster Turbo and Kia Forte SX Turbo, have fallen just short of true hot-hatch status largely due to detail shortcomings like vague steering and rubbery shift action.
At first glance, the new turbocharged version of the Kia Soul seems to be playing a similar sort of game. Red exterior accent lines are evocative of the GTI’s aesthetic, a flat-bottomed steering wheel suggests some degree of raciness, and larger 18-inch wheels give the boxy Soul a more athletic stance. It also has a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-four making 201 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque—not exactly barnburner numbers, but not shabby, either.
Think Warm CUV, Not Hot Hatch
Kia is keen to point out that the Soul is not at all a sport compact or a hot hatch. Rather, it’s a small crossover set up to compete with the likes of the Mazda CX-3, Chevrolet Trax, and Fiat 500X. The Soul is already the best-seller in that segment, and Kia wants to keep the good times rolling. Buyers had been asking for two things: more power and all-wheel drive. With the latter proving difficult in terms of packaging and cost, Kia decided to prioritize the desire for extra grunt and make the 1.6-liter turbo engine standard for the Soul’s top trim level, which is simply denoted “!” (and pronounced Exclaim, according to Kia).
As when the same engine is installed in the Kia Optima and the Hyundai Tucson and Sonata, the turbocharged mill pairs only with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic—no manual transmission is offered with the turbo, and Kia’s justification is the now-familiar spiel about low take rates and the expensive certification process for different powertrain combinations. If you want a manual gearbox with this engine, Kia will happily steer you toward a Forte5 SX Turbo hatchback with a six-speed stick.
The Soul Turbo’s aforementioned sporty touches are not meant to suggest that this is a performance machine. Its basic suspension setup is the same strut front and torsion-beam rear as the lesser models in the lineup, although Kia says the Turbo’s springs and dampers are tuned slightly differently. Its 45-series all-season tires and 18-inch wheels are the same size as the optional wheels and tires offered on the Soul Plus (or “+”), which has a 161-hp naturally aspirated 2.0-liter. Kia did install slightly larger, 12.0-inch-diameter front brake rotors for the turbocharged model, but the 10.3-inch rear discs are the same on all Souls.
Without the expectation of high-performance driving on its shoulders, the turbocharged Soul’s mildly sportier demeanor hits its mark well. The 1.6-liter turbo four is a happy and smooth engine, with mostly linear power delivery, strong midrange torque, and a decent-sounding engine note. The dual-clutch transmission is a smooth operator as well, delivering quick shifts and minimal low-speed clunkiness of the sort that sometimes plagues these torque-converter-less automatic gearboxes. Paddle shifters are notable by their absence, although the shifter does have a manual shifting mode. We preferred driving in the Sport mode, which adjusts transmission shift points and throttle response to be a bit more aggressive; the transmission can be reluctant to downshift in Normal mode, which combines with a bit of turbo lag to make for a less-eager attitude.
Choosing Sport mode also makes the steering feel a bit heavier, but doesn’t change the electrically assisted steering rack’s lack of feedback and on-center feel. Even so, the Soul’s stiff structure and well-tuned damping make for a satisfying balance of ride and handling, at least on the glassy-smooth pavement in northern California where we drove the new model. Body roll is nicely controlled in corners, the all-season rubber has a reasonably high grip threshold when pushed on twisty roads, and there’s a commendable lack of torque steer. While the Soul Turbo is short on the fluidity and harmoniousness of the best compact cars such as the Volkswagen Golf and the Mazda 3, the Mazda CX-3 is the only small crossover that surpasses the Soul’s overall dynamic goodness; it also offers all-wheel drive, the missing element in Kia’s contender.
The squared-off Soul shames the CX-3—and nearly all other subcompact crossovers—in terms of practicality and interior space. The cabin is airy and spacious, with good sightlines all around, an expansive rear seat with plenty of headroom, and a large cargo area that easily expands by folding the back seat flat. With the seats down, there is up to 61 cubic feet of space back there, which tops even the versatile Honda HR-V.
Pricing is another strong suit for the Soul Turbo, which starts at $23,500—just $1350 more than last year’s Soul ! model with the 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine. That starting price brings a decent amount of standard kit, including push-button start and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay; even our loaded test car with a panoramic sunroof, blind-spot detection, navigation, and a Harman/Kardon audio system topped out at a still-reasonable $27,620. As with other Soul models, the interior layout is ergonomically sound, and material quality is top-notch in the sub-$30,000 arena.
If you’re still not convinced that the turbocharged model is the clear choice of the Soul lineup, consider this: Despite having 40 more horsepower than the 2.0-liter car and 71 more horses than the base 1.6-liter model, it beats both in EPA fuel economy, at 26/31 mpg city/highway.
More of a Good Thing
Kia says that the majority of Soul customers are value-oriented people, so it makes sense that product planners expect the less-expensive naturally aspirated versions to remain more popular. The Kia Soul is an attractive, practical, and well-rounded box (however oxymoronic that sounds) no matter the trim level.
We could easily be upsold to the Soul Turbo. While it’s not the sharp-edged hot hatch some might be hoping for from Kia, the Soul with a bit more pep in its step is fun to drive and an appealing overall package with lots of practicality baked in. And enthusiasts shouldn’t worry, because we’re still holding out hope for the two-door, 250-hp, hard-core Soul Track’ster.