“Better than ever” has to be one of the most hackneyed, over-used car-review cliches, just one step below “evolution, not revolution.” I truly hate to use it. It hurts my fingers just to type it. Unfortunately, I can't think of any better way to describe the 2012 Kia Soul. The Soul has been a favorite of mine since its 2010 introduction, thanks to its unique styling, utilitarian interior, good driving dynamics, and excellent value-for-money. Kia has updated the Soul for 2012, and as much as I hate to use the phrase -- goodness knows I've searched for a better one -- the new Soul is... ugh... better than ever.
New engines make a huge difference
Let's review what's new: Outside, the Soul gets subtle changes to the front and rear styling, while the interior sees some alterations to the gauge panel and center stack along with improved sound insulation. But the biggest and most important changes are under the hood, where the Soul gets two new engines and transmissions that improve power and fuel economy.
The base-model Soul gets a new version of 1.6 liter engine called the 1.6 Nu (not a pun; Kia names their engines after Greek letters). Equipped with direct fuel injection, it produces 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque, up 16 hp and 8 lb-ft from the old 1.6 Beta. The extra power makes a noticeable difference; in the past I've recommended sticking with the 2-liter, but the new 1.6 feels much more sprightly and has an easier time keeping up with traffic. That's not just down to the engine; the manual transmission is now a six-speed, and the 1.6 can finally be had with an automatic, also with six speeds. EPA fuel economy estimates are 27 MPG city/35 MPG highway with both transmissions, up from 26/31 in last year's Soul. But wait, it gets better: Automatic Souls can be ordered with an Eco Package, which includes low rolling resistance tires and an auto-stop system that shuts the engine off at stoplights and restarts it when the driver lifts off the brake (Kia calls it ISG, for Idle Stop and Go). The Eco Package boosts EPA estimates to 29 MPG city/36 MPG highway -- not bad for a car with the aerodynamics of a bookcase.
Soul Plus (+) and Soul Exclaim (!) models get a 2-liter version of the Nu good for 164 hp and 148 lb-ft, an improvement of 22 hp and 11 lb-ft over the last year's 2.0 Beta engine. The 2.0 Nu doesn't get direct injection, but it does get the new transmissions, and once again there's a usable improvement in acceleration, especially compared to last year's Soul with its ancient 4-speed automatic. Yes, fuel economy is better: 26 MPG city and 34 MPG highway, up from 24/30. And yes, you can get the Active Eco system, which boosts the EPA estimates to 27/35.
A few other notable changes: All Souls now get a telescoping steering column, which makes it even easier to find a comfortable driving position. Plus models can be had with an improved Inifiniti stereo, while Exclaim versions get the Microsoft-developed UVO, a voice-activated stereo system similar to Ford's SYNC, although the voice recognition doesn't work as well (I've heard it's an older version of the software).
Putting a price on your Soul
So what about value? Well, the base-model manual-transmission Soul is still a heck of a bargain: $14,650, up just $655 from last year, and that price includes power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, and an iPod-compatible stereo. Ah, but there's a catch: The automatic version is priced an eye-watering $1,800 higher -- most small cars charge $850 to $1000 for an automatic -- and the Eco package adds another grand on top of that.
Plus models start at $17,050, with the automatic transmission and Eco package more reasonably priced at $1,000 and $500 respectively. The automatic-only Exclaim starts at $20,350 and tops out at $22,850 with leather, dual-zone climate control, and navigation.
Is it worth it?
All well and good, but is this a car you'd want to buy? Well, I certainly would -- the Soul is good to drive, offering great visibility and surprisingly good handling and grip. The steering is now electrically assisted; it lacks some of the feedback and feel of the original Soul's hydraulic system, but it also eliminates the nasty kick-back in the bumps.
The 19.3 cubic foot cargo bay is tall but not very deep, so despite being close on the numbers, it doesn't offer as much usable space as the Scion xB or the Honda Fit, although it's still better than the Nissan Cube. But the back seat is tall and roomy, the front seats are spacious, and despite its funky styling the dashboard is straightforward and easy to use.
All in all, Kia's done an outstanding job of improving the Soul where improvement was needed, while leaving the good stuff perfectly well alone. I glad there's now an automatic version of the 1.6 liter base model, although I'm disappointed by the price -- but that's really the only thing about the Soul that let me down. It's still unique, it's still useful, and it's still a great value. The new Soul really is better... better than... oh, God, please don't make me type that stupid phrase again. -- Aaron Gold
- Roomy and stylish
- Good fun to drive
- New engines do wonders for power and fuel economy
- Overpriced automatic transmission in base model
- Updated Soul gets styling changes, new engines and transmisisons
- Price range: $14,650 - $22,850
- Powertrain: 1.6 inline 4/138 hp or 2.0/164 hp, 6-speed manual or automatic, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 27 MPG city/35 MPG highway (1.6), 29/36 (1.6 w/Eco Pkg), 26/34 (2.0), 27/35 (2.0 w/ Eco Pkg)
- Best rivals: Nissan Cube, Scion xB, Honda Fit