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February 17, 2014

Soul is still stylin’

All-new version of popular Kia remains funky, enjoyable

If there was an award for the vehicle that offers the most style per dollar, this car — the Kia Soul — would be a top contender.

Starting under $15,000, the Soul has always pegged its success on buyers who want a trendy, contemporary, eye-catching car without spending a ton of cash. And now that an all-new Soul is out for 2014, it shows that Kia is doubling down on this recipe of combining funky looks and an affordable price.

I like a lot of things about the new Soul after driving it for the past week, starting with the fact that it feels like a more substantial, solid and comfortable car from the driver’s seat now.

I enjoyed the way the old Soul drove, but the new one takes it up several notches in refinement. Engineers improved the chassis stiffness by nearly a third, changed the front and rear suspensions to be less harsh and massaged the steering setup so you feel less vibration when you hit bumps.

When you combine all that with the Soul’s bigger, longer dimensions, the new version feels less like a zippy runabout and more like a supple, sophisticated vehicle. It seems like it’s grown up a bit.

That said, the Soul continues to focus more on performance than on fuel economy. It’s rated for 31 mpg on the highway, which doesn’t impress in this price class where some cars are achieving 40+ mpg ratings.

On the flip side, that means the Soul performs better than some of those fuel-sipping competitors.

With the 2.0-liter, 164-horsepower engine in my test car, accelerating from a standstill feels effortless and almost luxurious. Ample low-end torque, which is what Kia is aiming for in the engine specs, creates that effect.

Kia has been doing great work with its interiors lately, and the new Soul fits into that pattern. Material choices, design and construction are all impressive, although I think the color-changing lights around the stereo speakers on my test car were a bit gimmicky.

But maybe that’s just me.

Now we get to the elephant in the Soul’s living room: the way it looks.

Personally, I love the styling on this car. It’s fresh, spunky and lively — certainly more interesting and expressive than you usually find in sub-$15,000 vehicles — and puts a twist on the box-car shape that makes it stand out from the pack.

In other words, it’s not just another “Kleenex box on wheels” in the mold of the Honda Element, Scion xB or Nisan Cube. The visual details on the Soul, from its wedge-like side windows to the LED accents on the headlights to the tall, upright brake lights in back, give it a unique look that has become a Soul signature, the key to its popularity.

And ultimately, that’s what the Soul is all about. Yes, it drives more smoothly, and yes, it’s bigger and more comfortable now. But in the end, you’re either going to buy it or not based on how you think it looks.

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