Wednesday, March 1, 2017

2017 Kia Soul Turbo first drive: A sporty option at last!

Kia's pocket Soul crossover, destined to always be referred to as "quirky," has finally received a sporty but not-quite-performance version: The new Turbo trim breaks through the 200-hp barrier. The figures only tell half the story, though: The Turbo model has pulled the Soul out of the stodgy end of the segment and into the fun half of a lineup that is getting larger by the month.
Those expecting an AMG-style performance upgrade need to temper their expectations; the Soul's turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder pumps out 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. This unit is borrowed from the Kia Forte Koup SX and the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, both much smaller cars. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission sends power to the front wheels, leaving the base Soul's naturally-aspirated 1.6-liter in the dust. In this respect it makes more sense to look upon the Soul Turbo as a range-topping premium trim level that offers more oomph, along with nicer trimmings and just about all the option boxes checked. Still, a gain of 40 hp is a lot when it comes to four-cylinder in mass-market crossovers, and the fact that fuel economy is better in this version is an extra benefit.
The engine and transmission aren't the only thing that Kia has upgraded; the Soul Turbo features stiffer dampers and springs along with redesigned front and rear fascias, skid plates, rocker panels and twin-port exhaust out back. Inside, the Soul Turbo offers a D-shaped steering wheel (sans paddles), metal accents for some switchgear and a unique seating surface design, lending the crossover a distinctive if not fully race-inspired design.
The Execution
Fans of the Soul who have been itching for a go-faster version of the hamster-friendly crossover will be pleased; the Turbo model serves up quicker acceleration without revving itself into a frenzy, plus greater flexibility in all driving conditions. The difference isn't as great as that between a base VW Golf and the Golf R, but the net result is a Soul that doesn't get winded passing trucks or resort to keeping the needle near the rev limiter to tackle some twisty asphalt.
We drove the Turbo on the Pacific Coast Highway, which reliably serves up plenty of twists to get a feel for the retuned chassis, and came away impressed with the ease of use and the ergonomics of this new version of the Soul. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission proved itself smooth and unobtrusive, offering crisp and well-timed shifts. We didn't push the Soul too hard -- it would have seemed out of step with the laid-back vibes of northern California -- but a few quick blasts along the roads revealed solid driving dynamics and a well-tuned suspension that errs on the side of everyday comfort. This goes for the steering as well; it's tuned to mute out imperfections in the road rather than offering something out of DTM racing. 
The Verdict
Overall, the feel of the Soul Turbo is closer to that of a hot hatchback than a scaled-down midsize crossover. With excellent road manners, a capable engine and a crisp-enough gearbox, this version of the has a lot of things going for it in a segment that is still accepting new applications. The Soul is still different enough from its competitors -- Mazda CX-3, Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, Nissan Juke, Honda HR-V to name a few -- to attract its own niche audience while offering a driving experience close in feel to the latest Kia and Hyundai crossovers.
The Soul Turbo catches up to and passes just about all competitors when it comes to power, and its starting price kicks off a few thousand dollars south of those same vehicles. With hatch-like handling, the Soul Turbo sits atop a price ladder spaced close together, making picking this range-topping version a very easy proposition.

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