For a price of around $20,000, you can get a good compact sedan with a smooth, quiet ride; a well-finished interior; and up-to-date technology. Or you can trade some of the sedan’s polished refinement and eco-friendly fuel economy for extra cargo space and higher seating position of a subcompact crossover.
Or, you could choose the Kia Soul, and pretty much get the best of both worlds. Newly redesigned for the 2020 model year, the Soul blends commendable utility and refinement with respectable gas mileage — at excellent prices.
More pleasant to drive, more fuel-efficient, more tech-friendly and more serious-looking than last year’s model, the Soul has evolved over its 10-year life span from a funky, quirky little car into a supremely well-rounded vehicle that’s a good fit for a wide variety of drivers. Prices start at $18,830 with manual transmission, or $19,985 for an automatic.
Kia originally pitched the Soul as a subcompact hatchback, competing with models like the Honda Fit and Chevrolet Sonic. But its high roof and elevated seating position made it a natural fit for the new subcompact crossover class, pitting it against such pricier models as the Honda HR-V and Chevrolet Trax.
The redesigned Soul is essentially a box with rounded-off details. The design has matured compared to early Souls, in part due to familiarity. The slim headlights look more upscale, while the high-mounted tail lights — which wrap around the top of the windshield to join each other — add a touch of whimsy to the vertical rear end.
Meanwhile, the tested X-Line trim level introduces some SUV-esque styling cues: extra plastic cladding on the fenders and lower doors, a different wheel design and roof rails. All-wheel-drive remains unavailable, though, unlike many competitors.
Without the sporty design flourishes that characterize the HR-V, the Toyota C-HR or the Hyundai Kona, the Soul enjoys better rear visibility and more cargo space. Although it’s just 165 inches long — a foot and a half shorter than a Kia Forte compact sedan, and also shorter than most competing subcompact crossovers — it packs in a useful 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, or 62 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. That’s better than most competitors, and much more than you’d get in a sedan. Just be aware that, especially behind the rear seat, you get more height than floor space to spread out your stuff.
For passengers, the Soul boasts an airy cabin with supportive, comfortable front seats and enough rear seat space for two adults to be genuinely comfortable. The Soul helps prove that affordable subcompact cars can still be roomy enough for a family. The cabin is well-finished, and the controls are easy to use; even the base model gets a touchscreen infotainment system supporting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.
The most-dramatic improvement to the 2020 Kia Soul is on the road. The first-generation model, sold from 2010 through 2013, could feel light and flimsy on the highway. The second-generation, sold from 2014 to 2019, was smoother and quieter, but dull on curvy roads. The new 2020 model manages to stay solid-feeling and comfortable, while adding some extra zest to its steering and handling.
It is not speedy, though, with the aerodynamics of a brick and just 147 horsepower on all but the pricey GT turbocharged model.
Kia has brought fuel economy up to 30 miles per gallon in mixed driving, which isn’t great for a traditional economy car but is near the top of the subcompact crossover class. The Soul does accelerate eagerly off the line; it just does not stand out for accelerating further when the engine is already working harder, like running up a hill or on the highway.
Another key improvement to the 2020 Soul is that you can get advanced safety features on more models than before. All but the LX and the X-Line have a forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and automatic lane-keeping assistance, and all but the LX have a blind-spot monitoring system. You previously needed pricey, high-end models to get this valuable safety gear — hurting the Soul’s value proposition. On the flip side, Kia has stripped out some luxury features, with leather seats no longer available and a sunroof limited to high-end sport-themed models.
Compared to popular competitors, the Soul feels fancier and more solidly built than the Nissan Kicks, though it is less fuel-efficient and a little more expensive. It’s much more useful and less expensive than a Toyota C-HR, though less flashy. and it’s roomier, less expensive and more economical than the Hyundai Kona, though the Hyundai is more fun to drive and offers all-wheel-drive.
Overall, the redesigned 2020 Soul manages to be pleasant and highly functional, yet also interesting enough to be more than purely a practical choice — all at an impressively affordable price.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.