2014 Kia Soul+: Adding some heart.
Price: $24,010 as tested ($18,200 for a no-options Soul+, or $14,900 for a Base)
Marketer's pitch: "Totally transformed."
Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com liked the "loads of available features, attractive cabin with user-friendly controls and ample passenger space and long warranty," but not the fact that "desirable options are buried in expensive packages that must be purchased in combination with each other."
Reality: Perhaps not a transformation, but a noticeable improvement.
Outside the box: When Kia made much of its new, improved Soul last summer, I immediately thought, "How much can you do with a box?"
A lot, it turns out.
Not much on the outside. A few minor updates have given the Soul a more zippy and modern appearance, but the overall shape remains unchanged.
Inside the box: Throughout its lineup, Kia has focused smartly on dressing up its products, and getting away from the chintzy feeling of the Rio and Sportage models of yore.
This shined through on the Soul+. The leather seats were extremely comfortable and contoured for drivers. My notes include the phrase, "This is one of the most comfortable cars I've spent any time in." Comfort can be in the rear of the beholder, but that's still high praise at this end of the price spectrum.
The small, soft leather-wrapped steering wheel was a nice touch -- head and shoulders (and wrists and fingers) above the sad plastic circle that guides Mrs. Passenger Seat's 2013 Base model.
Smoother: From the time I first drove a friend's early model upgraded Soul, one noticeable downside was a bouncy ride. The old Soul lost its composure over bumps in truck-like fashion. The 2014+ model is a whole new ballgame. A much smoother ride really is good for the Soul.
Up to speed: Acceleration is quick and smooth with the 2.0-liter four (a 1.6-liter still powers the Base, just like in 2013). The 164 horses came through a six-speed automatic with shift capability in my tester, and the transmission mostly did what it was asked. But the shifting felt awfully marshmallowy and often the gears didn't change when I thought they should have. Shifts in automatic mode felt fine for the most part, although they can be a bit abrupt when the Soul is cold.
More nice touches: The steering wheel controls for stereo and cruise control get a better look and feel than the old plastic levers on previous models.
Play some tunes: Kia's $1,400 Audio Package adds Infinity audio system, navigation, 8-inch screen and automatic climate control. The problem common to Kia models, where it skips the opening notes of each song, has been eliminated by removing the CD player from the system. I think this is a bit of a technology rush. The sound, though, was superb, and the touch screen functioned well.
Family comfort: A trip across Pennsylvania with 5-foot-3-inch Sturgis Kid 3.0 and 5-foot-6-inch Sturgis Kid 4.0 elicited no complaints about legroom or footroom.
The $3,000 for heated rear seats and panoramic sunroof also helped (the package also included heated and ventilated front seats and front fog lights).
Night shift: The interior lighting shone brightly enough to see by but did not interfere with the driver's ability to see the road.
Keeping apprised: The Venn diagram gauges, which seemed a little annoying in our 2013, seemed much more difficult to read in the 2014 model. I found myself having to crane my neck to see certain dashboard lights and other information.
Going down: Kia has relocated the hatch handle down near the bumper from the center of the door.
This is a bad idea outside of Southern California and the desert Southwest, as we often collect remnants of road salt and other goodies down there. Ick.
Fuel economy: I had trouble cracking 25 mpg -- pitiful for its size, but not unusual for its shape.
Where it's built: Hwsang, South Korea.
How it's built: Though the redesign means Consumer Reports won't predict its reliability yet, 2010 through 2013 models range from average to excellent.
In the end: Kia has really done right by the Soul this time around, and I'd definitely pick it ahead of a 500L. I hope someone figures out how to get better fuel economy out of one of these boxes, though. The Mazda CX-5, Kia Sportage and Honda CR-V all beat it for fuel sippery.
* "Wheels," a special advertising supplement, appears inside today's Post-Gazette.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at email@example.com