Wagons never really died, they just went underground for a few years and then emerged in disguise looking a lot like the 2014 Kia Soul. Redesigned for the current model year the blocky Soul satisfies may of the criteria for inexpensive family transportation, with its practical interior, reasonable fuel consumption, and nicely-equipped base model. It also happens to be the last of a dying breed, as box-like wagons like the Nissan cube and the Scion xB trundle off this mortal coil, neglected and allowed to go to seed while facing a fierce pack of crossover competitors.
That Kia has seen fit to continue to improve the Soul's styling and enhance what it brings to the table in terms of features and comfort indicates that the wagon is here to stay. It also proves that compact SUVs aren't necessarily the next logical step in automotive evolution once a family has outgrown the entry-level compact car sitting in the driveway.
Priced To Succeed
There's no question that a significant portion of 2014 Kia Soul buyers will be attracted by its sub-$15k starting price, which puts it in competition with smaller hatchbacks like the Chevrolet Sonic and the FIAT 500L that can't quite muster up the same level of interior volume. I drove the nicest Soul money can by - the cloyingly-named Soul! outfitted with 'The Whole Shebang' package - and it still barely managed to crack the $25,000 mark while delivering niceties such as the Uvo infotainment and navigation interface, 18-inch rims, LED running lights, folding side mirrors, panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled leather seats (with heaters for rear occupants) automatic climate control, HID headlights, keyless ignition, and Bluetooth connectivity with Internet streaming. While a $10,000 spread between base and top banana might seem somewhat extreme (although to be fair, without the options package the Soul! retails for roughly $20,000), consider that a similarly-equipped compact crossover from Ford or Mazda would easily add another $5k on top of that figure.
More Of A Good Thing
Kia nailed down the value side of the equation many moons ago, but a more recent weapon in the brand's armory has been styling. Specifically, the 2014 Kia Soul doesn't deviate much from the same basic proportions of the original model (there's almost an inch of additional wheelbase, along with just over half an inch of extra width combined with a slightly lower ride height), but where it does make changes it grabs attention in a big way. Consider the car's rear three-quarter view which is now dominated by massive taillights that frame the blacked-out window glass, as well as a prominent black bulge at the bottom of the bumper that features relocated reflector lights. Up front it's more of the same in-your-face mentality, with a bulkier grille and sleeker, one-piece headlights that modernize the Soul's first impression. In profile and from a distance, however, the wagon features the same square silhouette that has made the Kia so unique in the compact segment.
The passenger compartment has seen a more radical set of changes applied, although these are less of the styling variety and more focused on improving the quality of the materials the cabin has been hewn out of. Everywhere you touch there's a softer surface than there was the year before, and the 2014 Kia Soul! that I drove also featured the Uvo LCD touchscreen interface, which was intuitive enough that I had only minor complaints about some aspects of its navigation system's sense of direction. Kia has also shuffled around the audio system inside the Soul so as to make the front speakers conversation pieces, perching them on top of the heating and cooling vents at each side of the dashboard where they fire up into the windshield.
Big Where It Counts
One thing that surprised me about the 2014 Kia Soul was just how bulky it seems from the outside. For a compact wagon this is not a small vehicle, and while it's not at all unwieldy to drive, it does demand about the same amount of parking space as a comparable compact SUV. The upshot, of course, is SUV-like interior volume, with 61 cubic feet of total cargo space complementing a 19 cubic foot 'trunk' when the vehicle is carrying a full load of passengers. You also get a second row of accommodations that's usable by six-foot adults, which is a rarity in almost any compact vehicle.
Here's The Gotcha
There are a few points keeping the 2014 Kia Soul from running roughshod over the compact SUV and crossover market, and all of them are related to its mechanical details. The Soul! is equipped with a 164 horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that's also good for 151 lb-ft of torque, and while these numbers are adequate in most driving scenarios, the manner in which output is delivered leaves much to be desired.
The whirring, thrashing sound that emanates from under the hood of the Soul! when I pushed the go-pedal to the floor was unpleasant and distracting, and it seemed at times as though the vehicle's six-speed automatic transmission was ill-matched to the engine's powerband. Kia elected to make only slight tweaks to torque delivery for the 2.0-liter mill with this recent redesign, carrying over almost identical specs from its mild 2012 refresh, and the lack of effort is disappointing You get 27-mpg combined from the Soul!, but I wasn't able to squeeze out better than 20-mpg during my week with the vehicle. (There's a smaller, and equally-thirsty 1.6-liter mill available in the entry-level Soul that I have not had the chance to drive).
With so many other quiet and smooth four-cylinder options out there, being 'good enough' no longer clears the bar in the small people mover category. It's a shame, really, because dynamically the 2014 Kia Soul is well balanced, provides fine road-holding as well as respectable comfort over the rough stuff, and doesn't rattle or complain when pushed hard. It's a good chassis - stiffer than ever before - and it deserves a more rewarding engine under the hood.
Holding Its Head High
With the exception of an overly-industrial drivetrain that reveals itself during spirited acceleration, the 2014 Kia Soul! is a strong contender in the compact family car sweepstakes. Not 'just' a hatchback and not quite a crossover, the Kia Soul! takes on larger fare by way of its practical footprint without asking you to open your wallet too wide on a monthly basis. It also happens to offer the kind of unique styling that has helped Kia cement itself as the most fashion-forward affordable brand. Throw in an astonishing 10 year mechanical warranty and it's clear that the Soul is an across-the-board contender for the dollars of entry-level shoppers.