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2012 Kia Soul – A Midterm Refresh on a Best Seller

Jim Brennan November 22, 2011 Kia Reviews, Reviews, Road Test Reviews 9 Comments

Kia Motors is currently one of the more successful car companies. Month after month they set record sales with a product lineup that is increasingly desirable. Much of this new found success can be traced back to a single, model which started it all. That model would be the Soul.

Here is a car that was seen as a competitor to the original Scion xB, and the Nissan Cube, with rather unusual styling features. When introduced, Kia stated that the inspiration was of a cargo carrying Rhinoceros! Coupled with a very memorable advertising campaign (The Kia Hamsters), the Soul went on to outsell both the xB and the Cube by huge margins. So, when it came time to do a refresh, Kia worked on improving their best seller without killing any of its character like Toyota did with the xB refresh.


Kia hasn’t quite shaken off the “buy here/pay here” stigma at some of their dealerships, but if they keep building cars as good as their current lineup, and then pressure the dealers to “clean up” their act, they could become the next Toyota or Honda (an honor they will have to share with sister company, Hyundai). One of the cars leading this charge has been the Kia Soul, and I got the chance to try out the refreshed version while attending the 2012 Kia Rio introduction while in Austin Texas. So what did Kia do to make the Soul an even better value without losing any of its charm?

[Disclosure: Kia offered up the keys to the new Soul, but they had to fly me to a resort on the outskirts of Austin so I could grab them. Then they plied me with copious amounts of food and drink, arranged for a tour of the Circuit of The Americas™, and let me loose with a couple of different cars to try in the Texas hill country. Yeehaw!]

The Kia Soul was introduced to the world in concept form at the North American International Auto Show in January of 2006, where the automaker announced that it would put this model into production for the 2010 model year. The production ready version was unveiled at the 2008 Paris Motor Show, and went on to great success soon afterward. The original models were powered by either a 1.6L Gamma EFI 4-Cylinder that produced 122 HP, backed by a 5-speed manual. The optional engine was the 2.0L BetaII EFI 4-cylinder that produced 142 HP, equipped with either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic.

Standard equipment was the name of the game with this model, and coupled with the unusual styling, attracted a number of buyers to Kia showrooms. Standard interior features for the base model include air conditioning, tilt steering column, power door locks, illuminated window switches, power windows, an upper storage bin, dual-level glove box, and offers the AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system outfitted with SIRIUS Satellite Radio capabilities and standard USB and auxiliary input jacks located in the center console. There are more features that were standard with the Soul+, the Soul Sport, and the Soul!.

Well, the features that made the Soul popular have been retained, but now include two new powertrains, and some enhanced features that should make this car even more popular. The base engine is now the 1.6L Gamma GDI 4-Cylinder that produces 138HP, backed by a new 6-speed manual transmission. This represents a 13% increase in horsepower, while achieving an impressive 4MPG increase in overall fuel economy. The other power-plant that is standard with the Soul+ and Soul! models is the 2.0L Theta II with GDI, and produces 164HP, which is a 16% increase over the previous 2.0L engine. Fuel economy is an impressive 26/34 mpg (city/highway) with either the 6-speed manual, or the new 6-speed automatic.

New for 2012, the Soul and Soul+ models offer an Eco package on the 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter engines with automatic transmissions. This includes ISG technology for improved fuel economy and low-rolling-resistance tires. I got the chance to test this feature with a base Soul throughout the Texas hill country, and found it interesting. At stop lights, and in Eco mode, the engine shuts down (as well as the Air Conditioning… oh well). When you release the brake pedal, the engine re-ignites, along with the climate control. It worked seamlessly, and you can turn off the system if you find it obtrusive. The Eco Package will be available later this year, and it will be available in the Rio as well.

So how did Kia change the Soul without actually changing the car? Very carefully. The base Soul looks the same on the outside, with visual enhancements reserved for the Soul! [Ed. Note – Do you have to scream at the dealership if this is the one you want to test drive?”I WANT THE SOUL!”] in the form of projector headlamps, and LED Tail-lamps and a set of visually stunning Alloys. The interiors have received a slight upgrade as well, which includes an optional Audio Upgrade Package for Soul+ featuring an Infinity audio system with UVO technology that enhances the sound with a center speaker, subwoofer, external amplifier and speaker lights in a rainbow of colors that pulse to the beat of the music or add mood lighting. A rear camera display is part of the audio upgrade package for enhanced visibility.

The Soul is a very easy car to drive, and with someone my age, that’s great. the seats are higher that those in the Rio I tested, and the materials are first rate. The Electric Power Steering takes some getting used to though, with absolutely no feel as to what surface you are driving on. Although, it was one finger light in parking maneuvers. The Kia representatives said the Soul reduced the NVH levels, but my overall impression was one of doubt. They really need to revisit this area because when driving over rough blacktop, it was rather noisy. Noise aside, the handling of the car is rather well balanced. The automatic shifted on command, except if you were in “ECO” mode, then downshifts didn’t happen in any fashion. The ride was compliant yet controlled, better than the competition (I’m looking at you Nissan)

With two brand new engines and transmissions, the Soul is an actual bargain. The base LX Soul with the 6-speed manual has an MSRP of $13,900. Move up to the 6-speed automatic, and the price jumps $1,800. Continue up to the Soul+ with the 2.0L GDI engine, and the price is still a friendly $16,300 with the 6-speed manual and $1,000 for the Automatic. The top spec Soul! comes in at $19,600, but that includes almost everything standard. The option levels are fairly affordable as well, Audio Package Upgrade for the Soul+ coming in at $900. Climb all the way up to the Soul!, and you can opt for the Premium Package, which includes Navigation with SiriusXM Traffic (this replaces the UVO System), Push Button Start/Stop with Smart Key, Leather Seat Trim, Heated Front Seats, and a Power Sunroof with tilt, all for $2,500. That gives you a loaded Soul with a retail price around $22,000.

The Soul has been a best seller for Kia, and these improvements will only make the brand stronger. With more power, an increase in fuel economy, state-of-the-art features, and a best in the business warranty, there is nothing that can match the overall package the Soul offers.

  • Devin

    I can totally believe they reduced NVH levels, the older one was super noisy, and they weren't happy noises, so I didn't buy one. New engines make me think about reconsidering, but I'd probably go for a Rio if I'm honest.

    Also, they got rid of the fantastic bright red glove box interior, and that makes me sad.

    Also, fun fact, it's the number one Kia for really fat people in my area. A good hip point and wide seats mean it's ideal for the obese. Thanks, Kia sales lady, for telling me that one.

    • pj134

      Should have peed on her.

      No lawyer would have prosecuted.

      • Devin

        It wasn't a sarcastic thanks, it came up organically and she wasn't recommending it for me specifically because of my prodigious girth, though I suppose the mental images of the morbidly obese clambering in and out of Souls might not be entirely pleasant.

        • I'm sure she was referring to overweight hamsters.

  • Good review, Jim. Not my ride of choice, but I don't disrespect anyone who chooses it. Much.

  • $kaycog

    I saw a Soul's rear for the first time yesterday. I laughed.

  • MattC

    My friend is a liquor salesman. He goes through cars very quickly. Usually, he is replacing his cars at about every 3 years (by that time about 150k on very hard driving. Stop and Go is the norm). He recently bought a Kio Soul (in green). He bought his car practically loaded out the door for a hair over $15k. This is the first car that he had raved about, excellent gas mileage, great factory stereo, and nice ride. (his previous rides included a Mazda Tribute, Toyota Corolla and a collection of other bland cars).

  • eggsalad

    So why don't any of the reviews of the Soul point out that the car does not come with a spare tire? I was about this close to buying one until I found that out. Also, in the base model, there is no way to open the hatch from outside, i.e. no keyless entry, and no keyhole on the hatch. Fail.

  • craigsu

    *Disclaimer: Kia Hamsters not included. Audio Upgrade Package on Soul+ not for epileptics due to flashing speaker lights. Please see your dealer for details.