2020 Kia Soul X-Line: The Perplexing, Hamster-Less Milk Carton

(Editor’s Note: We managed to review the exact same car twice (potentially three times) but each one has a different flavor and context, so we hope you like all this Kia Soul coverage!)

Time flies, doesn’t it? Back in 2010, the Kia Soul was one of just a few oddly shaped cars on the road. The first-gen Soul came out roughly nine years ago and competed against cars like the Nissan Cube, Scion xB, and Scion xD. A year later, the Nissan Juke entered the group of oddballs. Get into your time machine and beam yourself to 2019, and you’ll see that all of those vehicles are dead, except for the Soul.

Time isn’t kind to everyone, but the Soul is still hanging around. In fact, it’s doing better than waiting to be taken to the back of the barnyard. The 2020 Kia Soul is all new, which when you say it out loud, sounds ridiculous. The last of the boxes on wheels and misfits of design benefitted from a complete overhaul. It’s kind of a funny thing – here are companies pouring millions into coming out with stirring designs, like Toyota with the C-HR or Hyundai with the Kona, but Kia’s hold-my-beer moment is maintaining the Soul’s boxy shape.

As with all things that stand the test of time, the Kia Soul has had to conform to modern times. Larger, more aggressive, and more powerful than before, the Soul looks like an old friend from high school that outgrew the buckteeth thanks to Invisalign and has become one of the cool kids. Nine years ago, the Soul was the weirdo, but now it’s somehow one of the better-looking subcompacts. Time’s funny.  

Exterior

All you need to know about the Soul is that it’s a box that happens to have wheels. End the conversation there. If you choose to continue the dialogue, the Soul is one of the oddest cars on the road. The front end is funkier than that cheese you’ve unknowingly been aging in the fridge for five years. The lights at the top of the front end are actually daytime running lights. Those odd square lights toward the bottom of the fascia are the real headlights. It caught me off guard when I realized that was the case, because it’s so darn odd. The massive front air intake on the bottom and the tiny slim grille at the top are strange, too. The back is just as odd with the boomerang-styled taillights that are connected on the roof – the roof!

The original Soul was cutesy and had those adorable hamsters that were clearly on some kind of narcotics to raise the vehicle’s cool factor. This Soul looks like it picked on those poor hamsters until they cried, stole their lunch money, TPed their houses, and then hung out by the railroad tracks.

This being the X-Line trim, it comes with some features that were meant to make it look more rugged. Rugged is in, and everything has to look rugged, even if it’s not, to compete with crossovers on some level. So, the Soul X-Line gets a unique body kit, exclusive roof rails, and unique 18-inch wheels. There’s also the necessary body cladding. While I get the whole idea of being classified somewhere between a compact hatchback and a subcompact crossover, this whole, “let’s make everything rugged,” thing really doesn’t work with the Kia Soul. It doesn’t have all-wheel drive and it’s not something that anyone would buy with the purpose of ever taking off anything other than paved tarmac. It kind of begs the question of: why? I still haven’t answered that one.

Interior

There’s no way the interior could share the same idiosyncrasies as the exterior, but it definitely tries. The center console isn’t anything from a UFO, but it’s funky in its own right with a circular trim piece housing vents and a 7-inch touchscreen, while dials for the HVAC system are immediately below. Things get more stylish than that, as a couple of the vents house speakers and are shaped similarly to the volume image on Apple products. The trim piece that houses the door handles are massive chrome things that look like multiple shooting stars or a curved grid.

Because of the square blueprint, the Soul has a copious amount of interior space. Headroom and legroom are both available in spades in both rows of seats. For a compact vehicle, it’s really impressive how much interior space you get. Cargo space is also impressive, as the Soul has 24.2 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats and 62.1 cubic feet of cargo space in total. The latter figure rivals some compact SUVs, which is impressive.

I’m a little torn on the Soul’s cabin. Everywhere you look or touch, you’re bound to find a hard plastic. But that’s something to expect in a $20,000 machine. The door handles and adjacent trim pieces are plastic and aren’t the most attractive items on the car for some people. I didn’t mind them, while some of the passengers that rode in the vehicle hated them.

Then, there were the seats. I love cloth seats. They’re what I’m used to in my 2003 Toyota 4Runner and what I used to adore in my ’92 Mazda Miata. But these cloth seats were so uncomfortable that I had a difficult time completing trips in excess of 30 minutes. Despite trying numerous seat adjustments, I just couldn’t get comfortable. The first things to get sore were my knees, then my back, and then my bum.

Jaunting around Baltimore, the Soul’s cabin proved to be relatively quiet and kept outside noise at bay. But on the highway, the little carton with an engine is loud. Wind, road, engine noise, all of them seep into the cabin. The six-speaker audio system, while decent, isn’t up to the task of drowning out the noise in an enjoyable way, either. Even thinking about the Soul’s affordable price tag, I wasn’t a huge fan of the cabin. It has a stylish design and a decent amount of features, but so do other rivals, like the Toyota Yaris. And the tradeoff for space, at least for me, isn’t worth the downsides.

Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth, manual air conditioning, woven cloth upholstery, a six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat, as well as power windows and door locks are standard on the Kia Soul X-Line trim.

Performance

Over 80 percent of Kia Souls come with the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that pumps out 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. It’s the engine found in the X-Line trim we tested and it’s paired with Kia’s CVT, which the brand calls an Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT). There’s good news and some bad news. Good news first, the base engine has 17 more horsepower than last year’s standard 1.6-liter engine. Now for the bad news – it’s less powerful than last year’s available 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which was rated at 161 hp.

So the entry-level engine lands smack dab in the middle of last year’s naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines, and for the most part, never feels like it’s struggling at the task of moving the Soul around. I’m not quite sure what makes Kia’s CVT intelligent, but it’s definitely one of the better ones I’ve sampled. Don’t dig too far into the throttle, and the CVT feels almost normal, hiding the annoying qualities that plague similar transmissions from other brands. Really stamp on it, and the CVT fakes gears with an uncanny resemblance to a regular gearbox. It’s really only when you pin the throttle for extended periods where you can tell it’s a CVT.

As far as handling goes, the X-Line’s suspension is a little firm on everyday roads and gets crashy over really rough stuff, further mucking the lines of being a crossover. Around corners, there’s a little bit of body roll, which is to be expected with the boxy design, while the steering is more along the lines of a vague “Ulysses” instead of a direct tweet from Stephen King. The X-Line isn’t the kind of car I would classify as being fun to drive, but more competent in its abilities.  

In urban environments, the Soul shines, which makes plenty of sense. It’s small, easy to drive, and peppy enough to dart around town. The issue with the powertrain is fuel economy. The recipe of a small body, a low horsepower engine, and a CVT should be perfect for great fuel economy. And on the EPA’s website, things look good, as the configuration we tested is rated to get up to 30 mpg combined. During our time with the car, we managed to get 25.6 mpg, which is well off the mark. And at 25.6 mpg, there are much better options for the fuel-conscious folks.

Conclusion

The 2020 Kia Soul was one of the few cars I was looking forward to driving. Every outlet you look at raves and rants about the Soul like it’s the return of The White Stripes. Since its 10-year existence, the little machine has earned accolades for being affordable, quirky, and fun to drive. Outlets have swooned over the all-new iteration, yelling from the rooftops that it’s not only better than the outgoing model in every way, but one of the best small cars on the market. And I’m over here, eating a banana and scratching my head because I don’t get it.

Everyone loves the Soul’s boxy design and I think it’s just OK. I applaud Kia for sticking to its guns and maintaining the boxy design, but if the other boxy cars were still around, would anyone call the Soul’s design so interesting? I don’t think so. In my eyes, the Soul’s design is special because it’s the last of its kind, not because it’s actually special. Remember the Northern White Rhino?  

Then there’s the interior. Once again, people are heralding the Soul for its high-end cabin for having modern styling and that extra unique touch over rivals. I also don’t see that. Things feel cheap inside the Soul because they are. There was an odd buzz coming from behind the center console in our test vehicle that I could never track down. Everything felt hard to the touch, the look isn’t that handsome when compared to the Yaris’, and those seats are so uncomfortable.

Where the Soul excels is compared to subcompact crossovers. It’s definitely more stylish than the majority of vehicles in that category and more characterful, too. The generous amount of interior space, especially cargo room, is also noteworthy. Then, there’s the list of lengthy standard and available safety features, which is fantastic.

The Kia Soul failed to capture my heart or even my interest. But I’m sure it will attract some consumers looking to stand out for the sake of being different, its do-able price tag, and spacious cabin. Maybe it was the X-Line trim, or the fact that I had just come from the 2019 Hyundai Tucson, which I really liked, but I was more than happy to give the keys back to Kia at the end of the week. I’m not giving up on the Soul, but taking an extended break. Something about time making the heart grow fonder and all might help me see the light with a vehicle that’s the last of its kind.

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