New heart for troubled Soul

This boxy Kia has always marched to the beat of a different drum. A new performance-tuned format steps up the pace – but does it make for a better tune

For: Improved performance, striking looks, roomy.

Against: Technical lapses, drivetrain’s sporty edge not matched by chassis.

PLENTY of brands have one of these: A whacky, fun-focussed car that zones in on those customers with an eye for creativity.

This brand’s game plan seemed solid: Offer an ambitiously-shaped small hatchback delivering as an urban crossover and also drawing younger buyers with its joyfully offbeat styling.

And yet, somehow, Kia’s kooky kerbside attraction, the Soul, has never found its way into our hearts. Even this current edition, a second time-around effort that provided a big improvement over the first in fit, finish and design finesse, has never really turned our heads.

Even so, Kia is keeping faith with its special creation and continues making changes in hope, perhaps, of finally unlocking that ‘x’ factor.

Introduced as the main headline attraction of a mid-life facelift that otherwise also delivers changes to the design of its grille, front and rear bumpers, fog-lamps and wheels to a design that has been with us since 2014, the new turbo performance flagship that inserts the peppiest drivetrain this model has ever been treated to seems to stand best chance of winning notice, if only because it seems to signal a change of heart about what the Soul actually is about.

This being? Well, yeah, exactly. The original concept was to pitch this car as an urban funster. But then the small SUV party started and so it made more sense to recreate it as a competitor with other like-sized or priced crossovers that fronted with semi-soft roader looks but didn’t go so far as move up from front to four-wheel-drive.

Conceivably, in adopting this 1.6 turbo motor and seven speed dual clutch transmission, it becomes something different again: A kind of hot hatch substitute.

Certainly, the numbers add up … the mill’s 150kW of power represents a 38kW lift over the output of the previous top dog Soul engine, a naturally-aspirated petrol 2.0-litre, and it has a lot more torque, too: 265Nm compared with 192Nm.

The transmission also changes, with the usual six-speed auto of the other models being swapped out for a seven-speed Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT).

What cost in creating this hot box? The Turbo model carries a $2000 premium over the previous top dog, the Limited. For this it achieves a snazzier signature two-tone (in our case, white body, red roof) paintjob, HID Xenon lights instead of the usual projector headlamps, gets twin exhaust tips, and adopts a useful under-floor compartment in the boot, but also loses the cheaper car’s full leather for leather cloth trim and divests front parking sensors, ventilated front seats and mudguards.

An assertive stance and a fun-seeker air has always supported conjecture that the Soul isn’t just for park-up posing, but there’s no argument that this engine certainly raises the bar in respect to how it drives.

For sure, there’s some context required. While the new drivetrain effects positively in respect to the 0-100kmh time, which Kia cites as 7.5 seconds – and so the smartest step-off for any Soul to date – the sizzle is barely entry-level hot hatch output.

Even so, in isolation the engine does a respectable job. With its best delivered between 3000-5000rpm, it’s not an engine that asks to be absolutely revved out, but the DCT suits its delivery, with snappy but smooth gear swapping. The torque is the main strength; it gives the car the confidence it has previously lacked in respect to entertaining nifty overtaking and the like. The open road performance also feels more big-hearted and, around town, the elevated step-off is always patent.

Those behaviours are quite in tune with what you’d want from a performance hatchback, but that’s about as far as at it goes to emulating the previous Kia to carry this effervescent engine, albeit with a manual gearbox.

The Kia Pro’ceed was a nifty performance hatch, with a sweet chassis thanks to some brilliant work undertaken in Europe so that it would specifically meet tastes there.

The Soul couldn’t be more different. Not only was it designed in South Korea but the dynamics were also sorted there. They just don’t have the same touch. Plus it is, in any case, a larger car – which is especially relevant.

Basically, one of the best things about the Soul in its non-turbo format is that it imparts something of a big car feel. That’s great for relaxed driving, not necessarily quite what you need when whizzing around corners.

Anyway, this – and the fact that it’s also a little on the tall side – all has effect on the driving demeanour. Fettling of the suspension, steering and braking undertaken in Seoul has made it feel a bit sharper, but it’s not goiung to cut through with street racers.

It starts with the seating position – tall and upright, as you would expect from a SUV but not quite is synch with the performance push – and then the steering offers quick enough response and precision, but not masses of information or feel.

 While the front strut, torsion beam rear chassis delivers reasonable grip and traction, it lacks control and falls short on subtlety. Mid-corner bumps can upset it, push hard into a bend and – as you’d expected from something that looks a bit like a small van – there is a bit of body roll before it falls into understeer. I was surprised by lateral movement because the suspension is quite firm, to the point in fact where the ride tends toward brittleness. Tyre noise on stone-intensive surfaces is also rather obvious. All in all, it’s hardly a lost cause, but neither is the be-all by any means.

Thought about this also applies when considering how the car shapes up in a broader context.

While it kits reasonably well in some aspects – it’s nice to have heated mirrors, a power driver and passenger’s seat, climate controlled air conditioning, keyless entry and start, cruise control and auto headlights – Kia surely now stands to be penalised for not updating the technology even more.

When the new Rio has a smartly modern cabin that features a modern display screen configured to run Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and sat nav, you expect the same if not more from the Soul. No such luck. Instead, it gets a five-inch screen that, while larger than before and now in colour, supports none of those modern functions and is also too small to be a truly useful in its secondary role as a reversing camera viewer. Not good for a $38k car.

Likewise, it also smarts that while it has six airbags and a rear-view camera, rear parking sensors, blind spot protection, lane change assist and rear cross traffic alert, the in-vogue features of forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking do not feature.

Even though the boxy body is something of love or hate proposition, but there’s no denying it offers practical benefits. The low floor (with an almost flat foot space in the second row), narrow doorsills and tall doors make for good entry and egress. The back seat also offers better space than most of the small SUVs in the segment.

The rear seats fold down almost flat, with no annoying lip between the boot space. The cargo space isn’t massive at 238 litres, but there’s enough space for a couple of bags and you have that wet-or-dry under floor storage bin, too.

In-cabin storage is very good - bottle holders in the doors, cup holders between the seats, a mesh map pocket on one of the seat backs and so on – and the trim has been improved, with contrasting stitching providing a nice touch, though there are still some hard plastics.

All in all, the Soul turbo is a bit troubled. The drivetrain enhances its performance, no argument, and the updated styling, the space, practicality and even the smart paintjob also add points, but it has fallen behind in the cabin: Sat nav is a fundamental at this price; a car with such funky looks also demands the latest in infotainment.