MINNEAPOLIS—There’s nothing like success to make you fat and happy. Take a look at those joyriding hamsters, the lovable rodents who propelled Kia’s Soul into an advertising and marketing success story over the last five years.
In their latest incarnation, the characters hit the gym to both slim down and become “totally transformed’’ into well-dressed, red-carpet, trendsetting urbanites. The commercial’s message says this is the audience Kia is targeting with its second generation of the Soul, which is just hitting dealer showrooms.
To understand where Kia is today, it’s necessary to look at where it had been.
In 2008, before the hamsters made their debut, the Kia nameplate could have been used as the definition of fringe player on the US automotive scene.
• Kia sold 273,397 vehicles here and had just a 1.9 percent share of the market.
• Even worse, it had even less presence in the top 20 markets for style and affluence.
• It’s appeal to the next big buying group—Gen Y—was equally limited.
Enter the hamsters, who made advertising history and turned the boxy Kia Soul into an unlikely halo car, a spot usually reserved for a brand’s most luxurious entry.
At the time, one reviewer wrote (and Kia saved) the comment, “Just think, it might actually become cool to own a Kia.’’
Over the past five years:
• Sales have increased 250 percent (300 percent in the top 20 markets)
• Kia is No. 8 in US volume.
• Soul has joined Optima and Sorrento as the company’s best-sellers.
The subliminal message in the new Soul commercials, of course, is that Kia isn’t becoming fat and happy and the new Soul is adding sophistication to its fun and funky reputation.
Such change is necessary because the competition is changing, too. Soul originally competed with Honda’s Element, Nissan’s Cube, and the Scion xB in the “boxcar’’ segment. The Element has been discontinued and the xB now has a more rounded appearance.
At Kia, the challenge is to upgrade the now-iconic Soul without making the changes too drastic, using Mazda’s work with the Miata and VW’s with the new Beetle as models.
These days, the Soul also is competing with new players that are trying hard to think within-the-box—the Mini Countryman, Fiat 500L, and Nissan Juke.
“Our goal is to remain relevant, add desirability inside and out, and improve the dynamic driving experience,’’ says Orth Hedrick, Kia’s executive director of product planning.
“Striking the right balance between the wonderful design of the original car and the audacious proportions and stance of the Trackster [concept car] was daunting,’’ says Tom Kearns, Kia’s chief US designer.
The result is slightly longer, lower, and wider but still instantly recognizable as a Soul—especially when it’s painted in its original Alien Green color. Among available new colors are unique-to-Soul Solar Yellow, Kale Green, and Inferno Red. LED taillights will become Soul trademarks as they are recognizable as a set of parentheses on the rear C pillar. Up front LED driving lights and projector headlights set the ’14 Soul apart from its predecessors.
Inside, soft-touch materials abound on the instrument and door panels and seats have surprisingly nice thigh and lateral support. Because music always has been central to the Soul (a killer Infinity system is optional), the lighted circular speakers remain in the doors and the circular theme continues in unique dash speaker towers in the dashboard corners (where they’re combined with a defroster and vent), and circular designs everywhere from gauges, to shift knob, unique push-button start position, and power window and lock positions.
Perhaps the Soul’s biggest improvement is in the NVH (noise-vibration-harshness) realm, part of what you’d consider automotive refinement.
Kia has used stiffer steel in the chassis, foam-injected sound-deadening materials in the frame, and new bushings in a revised suspension. The result is a quieter ride with less road noise, easing one of the prior generation’s few drawbacks.
When pushed, the Soul’s four-cylinder engines still are buzzy. However, the torque curve has been improved for smoother and more powerful launches. The base 1.6-liter engine has 130 horsepower and is available with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions and is rated at 24 miles per gallon (city) and 30 (highway).
The 2.0-liter four is standard in the Plus and Exclaim editions. It produces mpg numbers of 23 (city) and 31 (highway).
Soul’s target audience remains the 18- to 29-year-old Gen Y, an urbanite with a day job, side passion, and love of music and technology. However, the average buyer’s age is 48, which leads Kia to conclude that Soul fans really are Gen C, connected folks of all ages with a youthful state of mind.
Pricing (including destination) ranges from $15,495 for the base to the $26,000 range for a loaded Exclaim edition.
The available android-based navigation system has bright graphics, split-screen capacity, and is intuitive to operate. Driving on unfamiliar roads along the Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we missed having a speed-limit display feature. The unit also occasionally would emit a double beep, causing the Soul’s occupants to reach for their phones; however, as best we could tell it was a built-in program that alerted the driver when the car crossed state lines, something we did frequently on a route that zigzagged over the Mississippi.
All told, first impressions are that the Soul has kept its soul and Kia has done a good job of thinking inside the box.