On Autos: Kia adds some zip to popular Soul

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The 2017 Kia Soul combines the comfort, space, refinement and seating position of a crossover with the low price of an economy car. (Brady Holt/The Current)

When the first-generation Kia Soul appeared as a 2010 model, it was an unexpected smash hit. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Soul was so appealing: This tall little hatchback offered a high seating position, spacious interior, distinctive styling and usefully compact footprint, all at a low price. The second-generation Soul, introduced for 2014, added further polish to the same package: more comfortable seats and a smoother, quieter ride. The base price currently stands at an outstanding $16,995.

The 2017 Kia Soul has a well-finished and ergonomically sensible interior. (Brady Holt/The Current)

One main ingredient missing in the Soul had been sporty performance. The car’s unique looks promised a fun experience, but from behind the wheel it was more of a practical economy car than the zippy Nissan Juke or agile Mazda CX-3.

For 2017, Kia attempted to address that. It added a new engine option to the Soul lineup: a 201-horsepower turbo, which is now standard on the top-of-the-line ! model (pronounced Exclaim), priced from $23,695. The 2017 Soul ! also received handling-minded suspension modifications.

Impressively, the turbocharged Soul actually gets better EPA fuel economy ratings than the models with one of the two less-powerful engines: 28 mpg in mixed driving instead of their 27 mpg. Credit goes to the turbo model’s more advanced seven-speed transmission and to the engine’s small displacement — 1.6 liters, compared to 2.0 liters for the most popular Soul + version. A small turbo can sip gas like a little engine when driven gently, while offering more power when it’s demanded. The turbocharged Soul does indeed have more pep than other models, and the engine is respectably smooth and quiet.

The 2017 Kia Soul’s turbo engine doesn’t make it into a truly sporty car. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The experience still isn’t sporty, though. The turbo Soul is quicker but not ferocious, and the steering and handling remain dull. Meanwhile, the performance-oriented suspension and big 18-inch wheels on the Soul ! result in a stiffer ride than other models.

Still, any Soul has a lot going for it: It’s an affordable, city-friendly small car that avoids feeling small or cheap. As long as you don’t demand all-wheel-drive — curiously unavailable on this Kia — it trumps a Honda HR-V or Subaru Crosstrek for refinement and luxury features; a CX-3, Chevrolet Trax or Buick Encore for interior space; and any subcompact crossover for value for the dollar. Furthermore, if fuel economy isn’t a top priority, you can see the Soul as a more space-efficient alternative to popular small sedans like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Just don’t expect fun-to-drive performance.