Like your most tragic greying uncle rocking out to The Rolling Stones at a family wedding, Kia Motors can claim to have been into supermini crossovers since long before they became fashionable.
And yet the second-generation Soul follows a car that, despite having a head start on the likes of the Renault Captur, Vauxhall Mokka and Nissan Juke, failed to pull up many trees in European sales terms.
Now that the new crop of competition has arrived, Kia can ill-afford for the Soul to be so marginalized in one of the market’s fastest growing niches, so it has duly aimed for smarter styling, better quality, a more mature drive and a higher kit count this time around.
Like the previous Soul, this new one was designed in California primarily for the US market of 20-something college-goers. The irony is that, in the UK at least, the last car found more homes with customers the age of the parents those college-goers were so desperate to leave behind. Kia insists the new version's added material richness, refinement and polish will make it more palatable to Europeans of all ages.
The car has a new platform based on that of the larger Kia Cee’d hatchback and a much more rigid body-in-white. More sophisticated suspension and steering arrangements are alleged to deliver much better ride and handling and improved sound insulation is employed to make for a quieter cabin.
Meanwhile, the car is slightly larger and more roomy than it was, has more upmarket interior fixtures and fittings and features DAB radio, 8in colour sat-nav and auto-dipping xenon headlights in the equipment catalogue.
A pair of 1.6-litre powerplants make up the engine offering: a cheaper direct-injection petrol unit with 130bhp and a 126bhp turbodiesel. Both are available with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.
The manual diesel shows evidence of Kia’s investment mostly by way of class-competitive cabin quality and equipment level, improved occupant space and decent mechanical refinement.
Kia's Soul could rival a Skoda Yeti on outright headroom, and while rear cabin space and cargo volume aren’t quite in the Skoda’s league, they’re still good for the smallest crossover class. The fascia could afford to be richer and more colourful, though. It still under-delivers on character relative to the esoteric exterior styling but the quality and finish of the Kia is up to the prevailing class standard.
The diesel engine is as good as most of a similar size on performance, noise and response. It's a little bit off the pace on efficiency, but well capable of a day-to-day 45mpg. Expect that to be slightly poorer in the case of the torque-converter automatic, which we’ve yet to have a chance to sample.
The cheaper 1.6-litre petrol looks conspicuously short on mid-range torque on paper, and would be unlikely to better 40mpg in real-world use – although confirming that will likewise have to wait until we’ve had the opportunity to test one.
The Soul’s chassis has evidently been tuned to feel energetic and lively in order to chime with the tastes of the youthful customers who bought the first-generation car. So it’s stiff. It's also upright and quite directionally responsive to steering inputs, but a little too disposed to fidget and ping over bad surfaces than is ideal.
A respecification of the suspension for a gentler, better-damped gait would solve that, but isn’t on the cards. The Soul has already been through a retuning program for Europe, Kia Motors Europe says. No more likely is a reappraisal of the power steering tune to suit UK tastes, unfortunately; it feels always light and offers little feedback.
Overall, you’d say Kia has made some of the changes needed in order to turn the Soul into proper competition for the burgeoning new ‘B-SUV’ set, but has left a couple of bases unguarded – and they’re important ones.
This is a practical, well finished, well priced and perfectly habitable car with plenty of kerbside appeal – but it does lack a clinching selling point next to the even more extravagant Juke, the pragmatic Yeti and the chic Renault Captur.
Proper alternative charm deserves to earn the Soul greater success than many of the bandwagon entrants it’s suddenly up against, mind you – but it’s likely to remain a bit-part player in Europe.