First Drive | 2020 Kia Soul GT-line

Let’s just get this out of the way – I really like the 2020 Kia Soul. It crams fun, tech, practicality and value into a familiar, but modernized, boxy shape. Done. You can stop reading now.

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EXTERIOR

In a sea of meh-looking new cars, the 2020 Soul stands out and – dare I say – has a personality. This latest iteration doesn’t reinvent the box, which largely retains its recognizable profile, but it is 2.2 inches longer and includes heavily redesigned front and rear ends.

Look at the face of a top-level GT-line model and you see an oddly satisfying mashup of Range Rover Velar, Chevrolet Camaro and Stormtrooper with thin LED headlamps and daytime running lights connected by a piano black accent. Below, a new supersized iteration of Kia’s “tiger nose” grille is flanked by large fog light/turn signal housings – creating a more aggressive look than previous Souls, while retaining its funky character. Out back, massive “boomerang” taillights (as Kia calls them) wrap the top half of the liftgate nicely and a center dual exhaust finishes the sporty look.

Soul X-line models (shown below) project a more rugged look with plastic body cladding all over the exterior, roof rail “inspired accents,” and unique 18-inch wheels … but that’s about it. There’s no suspension lift or available all-wheel drive, but, let’s be real, if you’re buying a Kia Soul, you probably don’t need all-wheel drive anyway.

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INTERIOR

Inside, the party continues – or starts, depending on how you look at it. Circular elements are everywhere; steering wheel controls, HVAC knobs and the whole center console design, to name a few. Available mood/beat-syncing lighting around the speakers and on the upper portion of the door panel bring the club right to your seat.

Hop in a Soul GT-line, and things feel decidedly upscale. There’s nice red stitching on the seats, center armrest, steering wheel and gauge cluster; and high-quality, soft-touch materials throughout. Sitting in the top-spec Soul may make you question the worth of costlier premium compact crossovers like the Mercedes-Benz GLA, BMW X1 or Mini Countryman.

Not to mention, the Soul has a larger available center touchscreen than each of those “premium” offerings, measuring in at a wide 10.3 inches. And it has one of the most intuitive interfaces to back it up; it’s quick to respond to inputs, highly configurable and beautifully displays Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. All that extra surface area brings life to apps like Apple Maps and allows for one more row of apps on the home screen than most mainstream touchscreens show.

As big as the new center touchscreen is, a small and dated screen remains between the two analog gauges from previous-gen Souls. To compensate, I guess, is a new 8-inch head-up display projected on a small piece of glass that rises theatrically from the instrument panel. It clearly displays stats like vehicle speed, lane departure warnings and speed limits, but doesn’t quite match the quality of some head-up displays that project directly onto the windshield.  

Lower-grade X-line models also come nicely equipped with features like a 7-inch touchscreen and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, but with a noticeable downgrade in materials. Some soft panels in the GT-line switch to hard plastic in the X-line. Even so, the 2020 Soul’s interior is a fun place to be with its quirky design and intuitive layout.

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DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

Press the center console start button of a Soul GT-line and you’ll wake up a tiny 1.6L turbocharged inline-four-cylinder engine that produces a healthy 201 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. Thankfully, it’s mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic that responds promptly to throttle inputs and delivers quick shifts. Putz around town and the 1.6L hums along smoothly with a good amount of low-end torque. Engage sport mode, hammer the throttle and the engine happily gets the Soul moving.

GT-lines are also blessed with a sport-tuned suspension that keep the Soul planted in the corners without delivering too harsh of a ride on rougher roads. Steering weight is on the lighter side and doesn’t give too much info on what the front wheels are doing, but the effort noticeably firms up in sport mode for a more engaging drive.

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A non-turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces a less spritely 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque will motivate most Souls. You can get a 6-speed manual, but most buyers will opt for the continuously variable transmission. It does a fairly good automatic transmission impression in most driving conditions, but reveals its droning roots when pushed or climbing a steep grade.  

But the best part of the driving experience doesn’t have to do anything with the Soul’s driving dynamics. While it’s capable of handling twisty, Southern California mountain roads with poise, the Soul shines when equipped with the banging 10-speaker Harmon Kardon sound system that pumps out 640-watts of clear, bassy goodness. Unfortunately, this option is only available on top-dollar GT-line models.

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CONCLUSION

A base Soul will set you back about $17,490, while the GT-line model I spent most of my time in starts at $27,490. Choose any of the Soul’s seven trim levels and you’ll get a capable, feature-packed box that, to me, is the life of the compact crossover party.


Base Price: $17,490
Price as Tested (GT-line): $27,490
EPA City/HWY: 27/32 mpg
Engine: 1.6L turbocharged I-4
Power: 201hp, 195lb-ft
Drivetrain: FWD