By Derek Price
After driving the latest Kia Soul for a week, I’ve still got an unanswered question.
Why is this the only car of its type left on the market?
For a while, it looked like every car company wanted to make a vehicle like this: spunky, boxy and a bit odd. And one by one, they all disappeared from the American marketplace.
The Honda Element, Nissan Cube and Scion xB are all gone today, leaving this car — the Soul — as the lone survivor for buyers who like this style.
Yes, Ford still sells a giant Kleenex box called the Flex, but it’s much roomier and more expensive with a starting price over $30,000 these days. Among the microboxes, the Soul is all that’s left.
Is it because the Soul was the best of the bunch? Having driven all those Japanese products through the years, I’m not convinced the Kia was head-and-shoulders better than any of them. Yet it’s the only one left, like a cubic Rocky celebrating at the top of the stairs.
Could it be because of dancing rodents, then?
Maybe. I think Kia’s hamster ad campaigns do a great job explaining the truth about this car. It’s adorable. It’s a little goofy. And that makes it extra lovable.
For 2017, Kia is upping the appeal by adding more power, something a number of its diehard fans have been begging for.
A 1.6-liter turbocharged engine makes 201 horsepower, far more than a car this size really needs. It provides the kind of kick that I never expected to feel in a Soul, enough to squeal the tires and make me grin like a maniac when traffic lights turn green.
This turbo model is the enthusiast’s pick, for sure. It starts under $23,000, which is affordable but also a healthy premium over this car’s base price of around $16 grand.
If you’re looking for a way to justify the extra money — and let’s face it, there’s always a way to rationalize horsepower — then consider this: the powerful turbo engine is also the most fuel efficient choice. Believe it or not, it’s rated for 26 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway, which is slightly better than the numbers from its wimpier, 130-horsepower base engine.
Another plus is the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission on the turbo model. It’s technically an automatic, without a clutch pedal that the driver has to operate, but it responds dramatically faster and with more authority than traditional automatics do.
Basically, it drives like a stick-shift car, only without the stick. Again, I think it’s a perfect fit for a slightly weird vehicle.
Other goodies on the turbo Soul include 18-inch wheels, red accents on the body, a chrome grille surround, a special badge on the tail and a dual exhaust with chrome tips.
The Soul’s eye-catching styling is evident even on the base model, though, so I’m not sure the snazzy turbo will necessarily turn more heads.
Its acceleration is another matter. The new engine and transmission are a blast to drive.
Its boxy shape also helps with practicality. Compared to most compact cars, which is the price category in which the Soul competes, it feels more voluminous on the inside. Tall drivers and passengers should be more comfortable with the extra head and shoulder room this style affords them.
While the fun new engine is the big news this year, there are some minor updates, too. The headlights, fog lights and front and rear fascias have been tweaked, and you can now get it with rear cross traffic alert and blind spot detection.
For techies, two new dedicated USB charging ports and smartphone integration make it easy to use with today’s phones. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both available on the Soul, as they would be on every vehicle sold today if I had my way.
At A Glance
What was tested?
2017 Kia Soul Exclaim ($22,650). Options: Carpeted floor mats ($120). Price as tested (including $850 destination charge): $23,620
Wheelbase: 101.2 in.
Length: 163 in.
Width: 70.9 in.
Height: 63.5 in.
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four cylinder (201 hp, 195 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel economy: 26 city, 31 highway
Why buy it?
Its funky styling matches its lovable driving feel, especially with the addition of a powerful turbocharged engine this year.