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2020 Kia Soul First Drive: A Partially Saved Soul

Toronto, ON – The 2020 Kia Soul is making its Canadian debut as we speak. Kia’s revised oddball model was first unveiled in great pomp last November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, revealing the third generation to see the light of day since the Soul first appeared on the market in 2010.

The Los Angeles presentation features three different Souls: the more-“traditional” base version, a sportier variant with more flamboyant styling and an all-electric version.

The model lineup Canadian consumers are getting is a truncated one. American buyers will have a far wider product line to choose from.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Styling: Soul maintained
Esthetically, it’s not any more difficult to spot the Soul in a crowd than it was before. The unique styling is back and largely intact, though it has been modernized. Kia wisely included a number of bold colour schemes for buyers to choose from, because what’s the point of offering a “cool” vehicle available in 12 different variations of grey?

The model you see in our photos, one of the versions we drove on this day of testing in and around Toronto, is decked in a particularly striking robe.

The product offering includes three design signatures: the classic X models, the sportier GT line ,and the distinctive electric variants.

Good news for Canadians regarding that electric Soul. While that version has been delayed in the U.S., the schedule holds firm here so we can expect the Soul Electric to debut in Canada soon. More on that in a bit…

Photo: D.Rufiange

Consult the table below to learn the different trims and their pricing.

Interior: Soul saved
Inside, there’s little so extraordinary that it grabs the immediate attention. Overall presentation is decent but no more. I looked in vain for any sprightly flourishes like bold-coloured accents or distinctive instrument dials, knobs or gauges. I did like the uniquely-shaped climate control vents, and in general the ergonomics are good, the focus being on efficiency and simplicity. The multimedia systems screen also earned a thumb’s up; the 12.5-inch screen is highly personalizable, especially since you can subdivide what it displays into two and even three sections.

That said, if in my view it’s a case of soul saved when it comes to the interior, it’s because Kia, true to its reputation, is not stingy with the equipment and functions included. In each variation of the 2020 Soul, the product offering is generous for the price asked. For many buyers this is a significant selling point, as it should be.

For a good number of motorists, in fact, benefiting from X number of functions is more important than getting all-wheel drive – which the Soul doesn’t come with. Obviously, the manufacturer knows its market for this vehicle, and that is urban dwellers. The Canadian media launch of the model took place, after all, smack in the centre of downtown Toronto.

Photo: D.Rufiange

That generous offering of equipment and functions starts, in the base LX (starting price $21,195), with heated front seats, climate control, keyless entry and compatibility with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The Ex model costs $1,700 more, and for that you get a pile of drive-assist systems, as well as wireless smartphone charging.

The stuff-for-money advantage dissipates at the top of the range, however. For example, to get the 10.25-inch screen, navigation and additional safety features, the price point climbs to between $27,000 and $30,000.

At which point, buyers will feel less like they’re getting a lot for a little.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Under the hood: soul lost
Mechanically, though you can’t expect miracles from a model like the Soul, you can expect more than it actually delivers.

To be fair, there’s not much to moan about when it comes to the base offer. The 2.0L 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine delivers good fuel economy, and its output (147 hp,m 132 lb-ft of torque) is sufficient to get the job done – even if in lower RPMs the torque takes seemingly forever to join the party.

The engine bloc is wedded to a continuously variable transmission that Kia chooses to call an IVT, for Intelligent Variable Transmission. Maybe they wanted to erase the negative connotations of the CVT in the minds of consumers. Worth the effort, I guess…

A manual mode that simulates eight speeds allows the driver to pull the maximum from the engine and its modest stable of horses.

Up to now, then, no big complaints, no big disappointment. This powertrain is in line with what you’d expect from this kind of product and price point. Where things get prickly is with the GT… that inherits the same engine, the same transmission and the same chassis. A GT should be sportier, methinks. This one is, but only on the outside, not in its guts.

Photo: D.Rufiange

In fact, the 2020 Soul loses the turbo engine it used to have. Already, the 2019 product offering had jettisoned the manual gearbox as an option, and while that’s understandable given the weak demand for a stick shift among consumers, it’s still disappointing. Especially for a product that Kia goes to great pains to present as being out of the ordinary, and for a product that’s supposed to come in three very distinct flavours.

The reality is that the 2020 Soul comes in two variants, not three.

Adding insult to injury is that U.S. consumers are getting a version that really is sportier. South of the border, the GT can be had with a 1.6L engine delivering 201 hp wedded to a dual-clutch 7-speed automatic transmission. And the base version can still be had with a manual gearbox! Aren’t motorists supposed to be more gung-ho about engaged driving and stick shifts here than in the U.S.?

Clearly, Kia seems to have concluded that we are not.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Known territory
At the wheel, we’re in very familiar territory. While the driving experience took a notable leap forward between generations one and two of the Soul, the difference is much milder between gens two and three. Let’s say the 2020 version is an evolution. The body’s a little stiffer, though it’s still not super sporty in itself. Ride comfort is good on smooth asphalt, but falls off somewhat when the going gets bumpier – mainly because of a solid rear axle. In a nutshell, the Soul is fine, as long as you’re realistic in your expectations.

The Soul is, caveats aside, an original on the automotive landscape, a refreshing presence on the road. But it has lost a bit of its soul with the streamlining of the mechanical offering. The design and styling are certainly appealing, but the powertrain is increasingly… soulless.

It will attract buyers with its unique looks and the value it offers, especially in the lower trims, but it won’t for the driving dynamics it delivers.

Photo: D.Rufiange

It strikes me that the 2020 Soul is still close to being a truly compelling choice, but a little less close than the last generation was.

Now we wait for the all-electric version, which would well prove to be more compelling and, well, electrifying. Maybe the future of the model goes through the Soul EV.

Versions and pricing
Soul LX         : $21,195
Soul EX         : $22,895
Soul EX+        : $24,895
Soul EX Premium    : $26,995
Soul GT Premium    : $27,595
Soul EX Limited     : $28,995
Soul GT Limited    : $29,595

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