2014 Kia Soul

MINNEAPOLIS — When Kia introduced the boxy Soul four years ago in Miami, little did the company realize what a hit it would become. Manufacturers love to predict how many cars they will sell and the Soul has far exceeded their initial expectations selling four times as many as planned. Its success has left its closest competitors — the Honda Element, Nissan Cube and Scion xB — all but dead in the water.

Initially aimed at younger buyers, the Soul’s soul and unusual styling has resonated with young-at-heart buyers in all age groups. The lovable hamsters have certainly helped — the dancing hamsters’ ad is currently the third most popular car commercial on YouTube. If you've seen the latest ad for the 2014 Hamsters, sorry — the 2014 Soul, you'll know that the hamsters have slimmed down while the car has been “totally transformed”.

There was no way the looks of the iconic Soul could be radically changed as that’s its strongest selling point so at first glance it's difficult to see the difference, at least from the front or side. It's the Soul's rear end that has changed most dramatically with an eye catching new look.

Although the overall design has not changed, the 2014 Soul features an all-new platform making it slightly larger externally and internally. It is just under an inch lower and has a slightly wider track, giving it a sportier stance.

The two four-cylinder engine choices — a 1.6-liter producing 130 hp or a 164 hp 2.0-liter — remain largely unchanged, although retuning has improved low-end torque. A six-speed manual transmission is only offered with the base engine otherwise you’ll get a six-speed automatic.

Inside is where you'll find the most dramatic changes. It no longer has a cheap plastic feel; instead the surfaces are made from soft-touch plastics with prominent speakers and air conditioning outlets. Even the base model gets this look while the two upper trim levels called + (Plus) and ! (Exclaim) get options such as power leather seats, bigger wheels, a UVO infotainment and telematics system, panoramic sunroof and other mod

We got the chance to try a loaded 2014 Soul ! with the Sun & Sound Package ($2,600) and The Whole Shabang Package ($2,500) on freeways and country roads in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The ride and handling are noticeable more refined than the previous model and the 2.0-liter engine with the six speed automatic transmission provides plenty of oomph. The electric steering has three settings — Comfort, Normal and Sport — I found the comfort setting was not to my liking, as it just does not deliver enough feel. The Normal is okay but I much prefer the Sport setting. In my opinion Kia should just stick with the Sport setting and forget the other two.

I spent a few minutes driving a Base Soul, which starts at just $14,700 (+ $795 shipping and handling) and its performance felt similar to the 2.0-liter model with an automatic. If you don't mind doing your own shifting this model saves you up to $12,000 compared to a loaded top-of-the line Soul, yet delivers the same utility and panache as the other two models, which start at $18,300 for the + model and $20,300 for the ! model.

The hamsters are happy with the transformed 2014 Soul and we think humans will be as well. It retains its cheeky, yet practical character while delivering a much nicer ride, better handling and a greatly improved interior.

— John Rettie