Road test: 2015 Kia Soul 2.0

Gaith Madadha has plenty of fun with Kia's updated crossover on the streets of Chile.

The new Kia Soul, which comes with 1.6L or 2.0L engines, tackles busy streets with aplomb but is also equipped to take on bumpy dirt tracks. Courtesy Kia
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To say Kia has come a long way in a short time may seem like a platitude, but comparing the new Red-Dot-design-award winning Soul to the anonymously neutral line-up of not too long ago, there really isn't a better way to put it. The second all-new model released during Peter Schreyer's tenure as Kia design chief, the original Soul's sharp motor-show concept design was a bold statement of intent that projected Kia's new-found fun, accessible and design-led self-image.
Launched in 2008, the cross-segment Soul's straight lines, angles and quirky detailing proved that Kia design could be trendy and innovative. Swimming in a crowded pond alongside an eclectic bunch, including the Nissan Cube and Juke, Ford B-Max and EcoSport, Suzuki SX4 and Peugeot 2008, the Soul sits between hatchback, mini-MPV and urban/compact crossover. Stylish, well-packaged and good value, its successor is tidier, more assertive and better appointed, but stays true to and distils its predecessor's character, and primarily targets "active" urban 20- and 30-something clients. And I've travelled to ­Santiago in Chile to test it out myself.
The new model takes its lead from the 2012 Kia Track'ster concept and has more resolute road presence, with better-reconciled design, lines and details. With wheels pushed far out to corners and broader, more defined wheel arches and a more upright fascia, the Track'ster's influence is evident. The bigger footprint and rear wheels' noticeable negative camber create a road-hugging perception to offset the Soul's boxy, upright and tall body, and have practical purpose. Tailing a briskly moving Sorento SUV - mistaken for a support vehicle, after a series of detours - the Soul's big footprint provides unexpected grip and stability through winding Chilean side-road switchbacks and off-camber corners.
The outgoing Soul's clear plastic rear-light casings are thankfully gone, while LED running lights are adopted, front and rear. Best in primary colours, the Soul is offered with optional, contrasting two-tone body colour and alloy-wheel insert combinations. And while four-wheel-drive is ruled out, an optional "Urban Active"-style package accentuates the Soul's SUV-like looks and a Track'ster-inspired "Red Zone" package emphasises its sportier side. The angular and upright design provides excellent headroom and good front and side visibility for manoeuvring and parking.
Keener and more refined, the new Soul has firmer suspension rates and bushes, and uses more high-strength steel in construction, which together translate into a 29 per cent torsional rigidity increase, thinner pillars for better visibility and improved ride and handling. Compact and manoeuverable on Santiago's busy streets, the Soul's tightened suspension, longer wheel travel and tall ground clearance are a boon along dirt roads, where bumps are easily dispatched. Its compact size and big footprint provide cornering agility and stability on dirt roads, while on tarmac it turns in tidily and remains faithful even with sudden steering and throttle corrections at the edge of its grip limit.
Offered with combinations of 2.0L and 1.6L, naturally aspirated, multi-point injection four-cylinder engines and six-speed manual or automatic gearboxes, Kia however admits that its 200hp, 1.6L direct- injection turbo engine is being considered for the Soul's midlife refresh in two to three years' time. Driven with self-shifter during its Santiago launch, the more powerful version is a confident performer with decent mid-range flexibility and a 188kph top speed.
A classier affair than its predecessor, the Soul gains better interior design, equipment and ergonomics along with improved cabin refinement. Redesigned for a more "organic" look, the dashboard, console and door panels are more fluidly styled, while its chunky, leather-bound steering wheel and deep-set gauges look sportier. In addition to more prominent use of soft textures and discrete placement of hard plastics, glossy piano-black plastic panels create a more upmarket ambience. Classy in a business-like way in black leather trim, the two-tone beige and black is best between four upholstery trim options.
Comfortable and ergonomic, the Soul features optional eight-way adjustable electric seats with supportive side bolstering, and further seat heating and lumbar support options. With seats set lower, head pace and step-in accessibility are improved. Extensive standard and optional features - depending on model - include the panoramic sunroof, heated mirrors, smart key, six-speaker stereo, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, climate control and front and rear parking sensors.
A significant improvement on its predecessor, the trendy new Soul may not be to everyone's taste. And while detractors of its quirky, cutesy ways will be unswayed, its tighter design, sportier dynamics and more upmarket cabin and kit will likely clinch quite a few converts from the hatchback and compact-crossover segments.
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