The animated and dapper hamsters in Kia's television ads aren't the only ones who ride comfortably in Kia's newly revamped Soul five-door hatchback.
People of nearly all sizes and budgets can find the five-passenger, 2014 Soul to be a satisfying small car. For 2014, it has a more responsive engine, more rigid body, ritzier passenger compartment and greater interior room than its predecessor.
Buyers just have to like riding in an expressively "mod" box.
Starting retail price for the 2014 Soul is affordable at less than $16,000.
With fold-down rear seats, the Soul has as much cargo space — 61.3 cubic feet — as a small sport utility vehicle.
Gasoline mileage can be better than that of an SUV. The test Soul with automatic averaged 26 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving without fuss.
Best of all, the 2014 model is the first Soul to earn top, five out of five stars in U.S. government crash tests in both frontal and side crash tests. Previous model year Souls got only four stars in frontal crash tests.
No wonder the Soul far outsells its major competition— the boxy Scion xB and Nissan Cube. Specifically, 118,079 Souls were sold in the United States in calendar 2013, up 2 percent from the previous year. In comparison, Scion xB sales last year fell to 17,849 and Cube sales fell to 5,461.
The Soul is competitively priced. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $15,695 for a base, 2014 Soul with 130-horsepower four cylinder and six-speed manual transmission. The lowest starting retail price for a 2014 Soul with automatic is $1,800 more, or $17,495.
There is a larger, more powerful four cylinder, too. Starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a 2014 Soul Plus model with this 164-horsepower direct injection powerplant is $18,995. The only transmission with the uplevel engine is a six-speed automatic.
All Souls come standard with heated outside mirrors, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, two 12-volt power connections, sunglasses holder with dual maplights above the front seats, air conditioning, tilt and telescoping steering wheel and power windows and door locks. There's even a free, three-month subscription to Sirius/XM satellite radio for every 2014 Soul owner.
In comparison, the 2014 Scion xB has a starting retail price, including destination charge, of $17,725 with 158-horsepower four cylinder and five-speed manual transmission and $18,675 with four-speed automatic. The base, 2014 xB includes turn signals in the outside mirrors, remote entry and cruise control, which are not on the base Soul. But the base xB does not have heated outside mirrors.
Meantime, the base, 2014 Nissan Cube S starts at $17,570 with 122-horsepower four cylinder and six-speed manual. The base, 2014 Cube with continuously variable transmission that operates like an automatic has a starting retail price of $18,570. The base Cube includes remote keyless entry, cruise control and premium-look electroluminescent gauges that the base Soul does not have. But the Cube's steering wheel only tilts and does not telescope in and out.
Many people don't realize the Soul was Kia's second best-selling vehicle in the United States, after the mid-size Optima sedan, last year. But it's tough to beat the Soul's easily maneuverable size, flexible cargo and people-hauling capability and value-for-the-money features.
The test Soul, for example, included remote keyless entry, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, Kia's UVO infotainment system, rearview camera, navigation system, panoramic sunroof with power sunshade, leather-covered seats, push button start, illuminated lighting at the audio speakers, heated steering wheel and more for just over $26,000.
The Soul's box shape is changed just slightly for 2014, and most observers didn't notice the changes on the test vehicle. Specifically, the Soul is about a half inch shorter in height than before, so it's a couple inches shorter than the Cube. This makes the Soul feel less tippy than the Cube in curves and turns but still allows for ample, 39.5 inches of headroom in front and rear seats. The 2014 Scion xB has more headroom than either competitor— 40 inches in the front seats and 41.2 inches in the back.
Back-seat legroom is generous in this segment, and for 2014, Kia expanded the Soul's wheelbase — the distance from the middle of one wheel on one side of the vehicle to the middle of the other wheel on that same side — to improve interior space. As a result, legroom measures 40.9 inches in the front seat and 39.1 inches in the back seat.
It's worth noting that the Soul's seat cushions sit up a comfortable distance from the car floor, so passengers don't drop down to settle onto the seats. This higher seat position makes it easy to enter and exit the Soul and allows for the driver to have good views forward through the windows of cars that are in front of the Soul in traffic. Plus, the glass on the rear-door windows goes down all the way.
Most Souls come with the uplevel, 2-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder. It's gasoline direct injected and mated only to a six-speed automatic.
Performance has been improved for more "oomph" at lower engine rpms. Torque peaks at 151 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm, and with the Soul being such a lightweight car — weighing just 2,700 to 2,850 pounds — the powerplant did a good job of providing a spunky feel.
Still, the four cylinder buzzed loudly when pressed to accelerate hard.
The tester averaged better than the federal government ratings of 23/31 mpg and translated into a range of 369 miles on a single, 14.2-gallon tank.