MINNEAPOLIS – Kia’s Soul is that rare niche model that exploded in volume.

The brand believed it could sell 40,000-50,000 units annually upon the box’s 2009 launch.

But sales exceeded 60,000 units in 2010 and in 2011 hit the 6-figure mark. This year, Kia expects to match the Soul's 2012 tally of 115,000.

Was it the car or the dancing hamsters? We may never know.

But understand this: Kia has a success on its hands, and when you have one of those in this industry, you tread carefully.

That’s why the new, second-generation Soul, on sale this month at U.S. dealers, is in many ways not that much different from the ’09-’13 first-generation model.

Yes, the interior is completely changed, upgraded with higher-quality materials, including plentiful amounts of soft-touch skin and a newly designed center stack. But most of the vehicle’s updates are more subtle.

That’s smart because, given the once-hot-now-not Scion xB, buyers in this segment don’t embrace change well.

One thing they especially don’t like is a change in size, a stumbling block of the bigger second-gen xB.

Kia wisely keeps the second-gen Soul’s dimensions more or less intact.

The ’14 model is just 0.8 ins. (2 cm) longer overall and in wheelbase than the ’13 Soul.

The car appears more than the 0.4 ins. (1 cm) shorter it is, but that's just visual trickery, as tweaked styling gives the Soul a squattier appearance than its predecessor.

The '14 Soul’s taller vertical wraparound taillights and black horizontal trim across the liftgate, plus a narrower upper grille and bigger lower intake in front, give the cute car some needed edge.

WardsAuto gets behind the wheel of a $24,010 Soul+ and a $26,195 Soul! here in the City of Lakes.

Both come standard with Hyundai/Kia’s new 2.0L gasoline direct-injected 4-cyl. engine. Base models, not available for testing here, use the 1.6L GDI 4-cyl. from Kia’s subcompact Rio, winner of a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award in 2012.

Improving the Soul’s driving performance was a key goal for the second-gen model, as reviewers decreed the original Soul looked good but lacked punch, specifically low-end torque from its previously non-DI 2.0L.

Kia says it has resolved this issue for ’14, with 2.0L DI-equipped Souls hitting 151 lb.-ft. (205 Nm) at 4,000 rpm compared with the 148 lb.-ft. (201 Nm) at 4,800 rpm for the old non-DI 2.0L.

But an even lower torque peak would be great. The 2.0L Soul might not leave you white-knuckled with an 18-wheeler bearing down, but a few beads of sweat will develop on your brow. A turbocharged Soul would be ideal. Nissan’s similarly sized Juke, with its 1.6L turbo DI 4-cyl., achieves peak torque as low as 2,000 rpm.

Claims engine noise is reduced from the old model hold true…until hard acceleration. Upon hitting 2,500 rpm, groaning from the 2.0L fills the cabin.

Measures taken to quell clatter, including padding behind the instrument panel and expandable foam in pillars, are no match for the naturally raucous DI.

Still, time spent above 2,500 rpm will be rare, and an upward roll of the radio volume knob should drown out most racket.

The vibration countermeasures hold up better. Only a slight tingle is present in the accelerator pedal, and no vibration is transmitted to the steering wheel.

Steering errs on the heavy side, with only slight play in the wheel.

Hyundai/Kia’s driver-selectable steering settings, Normal, Comfort and Sport, are available on the ’14 Soul but not tested here. Previously, WardsAuto has found little difference between the three, except in low-speed city driving.

As is typical of Hyundai/Kia automatic transmissions, upshifts come fast in our 2.0L testers, both of which have standard 6-speed automatics (the 6-speed manual now is available only with the 1.6L). If a more leisurely pace through the gears is desired, the manual shift mode works fine, but higher rpms will mean more noise.

The car’s completely remade interior has its pluses and minuses.

The old, hard-plastic cabin was more fashionable. Trim pieces were textured in a cool cubic pattern and the vertical oval center stack was kooky but neat.

However, slush-mold urethane skin on the new Soul’s instrument panel and upper door panels is an achievement not to be sniffed at in a car starting at $14,700.

And the loss of the old center stack makes way for a larger touchscreen, 8 ins. (20 cm) compared with 4.3 ins. (11 cm) in the ’13 Soul.

One of the best features is seats, with stellar lumbar support.

Fit and finish is very good in test cars. Even the normally flimsy cargo cover is solid.

The Soul rides on the third iteration of Kia’s small-car platform. The new chassis sees torsional rigidity rise 28.7% from ’13 to ’14.

The car retains a MacPherson-strut-front and torsion-beam-rear suspension setup, but Kia engineers moved the front stabilizer bar further back for better handling at high speeds and while braking in corners.

That improvement, plus vertically orienting shock absorbers to stifle big bumps, gives the ’14 Soul a comfortable ride: not too bouncy nor too numb.

Proving Kias sometimes beat the sticker, real-world fuel economy averages 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) in both grades tested, at the same average speed of 41 mph (66 km/h), bettering the EPA-estimated 26-mpg (9 L/100 km) combined average.

A variety of upmarket features are available on the ’14 Soul, including heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear outboard seats, leather-trimmed seats, Kia’s UVO eServices infotainment system, navigation, and a panoramic sunroof.

While its performance isn’t perfect, the Soul remains an awful lot of fun, a great value for buyers looking for style, space, fuel-efficiency and creature comforts.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

 

'14 Kia Soul+
Vehicle type 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive compact car
Engine 2.0L DOHC direct-injected 4-cyl., all aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 164 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 151 lb.-ft. (205 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 81.0 X 97.0
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 101.2 ins. (2,570 mm)
Overall length 163.0 ins. (4,140 mm)
Overall width 70.9 ins. (1,801 mm)
Overall height 63.0 ins. (1,600 mm)
Curb weight 2,837 lbs. (1,287 kg)
Price as tested $24,010 incl. $795 destination
Fuel economy 23/31 mpg (10.2-7.6 L/100 km) city/hwy
Competition Nissan Cube, Nissan Juke, Scion xB, Fiat 500L, Mini Cooper
Pros Cons
Lower torque peak Could stand to be lower still
Soft-touch interior Design more subdued
Quieter cabin Until you push it