Think of the new Kia Soul as a reboot of a franchise that failed to live up to its early promise – at least in New Zealand.
The Korean maker’s quirky “box car” (as this style of small hatchback is sometimes called) has been a sensation in the United States since launch in 2009. Even at the end of its model cycle, the outgoing Soul remained Kia’s second-best-selling car in the US behind Optima, racking up over 115,000 registrations.
In New Zealand it’s been more hit-and-miss. Mostly miss. Early adopters helped it rack up 200 sales per year in the early days, but in 2012 just 90 were sold and last year Kia New Zealand stopped importing it altogether. Just 20 were sold in 2013.
The problems were many, admit Kia New Zealand. It was potentially just a bit too weird, predating rivals like the Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke in the new-car market (although box cars were fairly common used imports from Japan). There was a focus on diesel at a time when new road-tax rules made such engines even less economically viable for small cars.
The first Soul also fell a little short on refinement and cabin quality, although it did make an impression with novelty features like speaker lights that flashed in time with the music.
The factory-owned distributor is hoping for better things from the all-new Soul, although it remains conservative about sales volumes: around 80 per year to begin with. There is no issue with supply, so more can be forthcoming if required.
The 2014 Soul is a completely new design, despite the familiar styling cues, and is based on the platform of the latest Cerato. It’s 20mm longer and 15mm wider but 41mm lower, a change which Kia claims makes it easier to get into and out of. That’s a tacit admission of something we all know: while upright small cars like Soul are marketed at young people to attain a cool image, in reality many are purchased by older buyers.
The styling has moved more towards a sports utility vehicle (SUV)-type shape, with a flatter bonnet and chunky bumpers.
As before, a 1.6-litre engine is the core power plant for SX and EX models, but Kia has also added a 2.0-litre option for the flagship SX. Prices are down slightly compared with previous model, starting at $29,990 for the SX 1.6 and running through to $33,490 for the 1.6 EX. The larger engine commands a $2000 premium. No diesel this time.
Soul is the first Kia model that comes with three years free servicing (up to 45,000km), which complements the brand’s five-year warranty programme.
The entry-level EX is equipped with push button start, cruise control, rear parking sensors and 17-inch alloy wheels. The SX features climate air conditioning, heated/ventilated front seats, power-operated driver’s seat (a first for Kia), and extra parking sensors on the front and 18-inch wheels.
It’s a well-equipped package by any measure, although sat-nav is a curious omission given that Kia has moved to introduce it on other models such as Cerato and Optima. It was available, but the company says that when it came to the crunch it was a dollars-and-sense decision to go with the free servicing instead.
Our drive experience of the new Soul has been brief so far. It’s still not sporty by any measure and the 1.6-litre engine finds itself breathless all too easily, but the six-speed automatic transmission works well (the first Soul had a humble four-speeder) and the vehicle is far more refined – although road noise remains an issue on coarse chip seal.
Soul has gained the FlexSteer system already offered on Kia and Hyundai product, which allows the driver to choose between three different steering weights depending on the driving situation. The real advance has been in cabin styling and quality.
The interior is unique to Soul - even the steering wheel. It’s less gimmicky and more stylish than the previous model, with layered shapes, classy looking switchgear and some neat detail touches (the disc-like horizontal speakers atop the air vents on the dash, for example) that add interest without being overwhelming odd.
Rear-seat passengers fare better in the new model, with an extra 20mm in the wheelbase. Loading into the boot is easier too, with a wider aperture.