DIFFERENT CAR, SIMILAR CUSTOMERS: The new-for-2014 Kia Soul and Nissan Rogue are different, but aimed at a similar customer. Which car would you choose?
DIFFERENT CAR, SIMILAR CUSTOMERS: The new-for-2014 Kia Soul and Nissan Rogue are different, but aimed at a similar customer. Which car would you choose?
Kia/Nissan

The 2014 Kia Soul and the 2014 Nissan Rogue are perfect examples of the two different paths manufacturers are taking to please a wide range of consumers. They’re among the most popular vehicles in America. One is nominally classified as a subcompact car (the Soul), the other is a compact SUV (the Rogue). Yet both are surprisingly similar in terms of fuel economy, equipment, utility and— depending on trim level—price.

Let’s take a look at the Kia Soul first: Its second generation debuted at the 2013 New York International Auto Show after incredible success with its 2009 launch. Unlike most vehicles that have a six-year run, the Soul sold more and more units every year, ultimately reaching about 118,000 units in 2013. Let that number sink in for a minute: That means that 20 percent of all Kias sold in 2013 were Souls. It also makes the Soul the single most popular subcompact car in America.

The Soul started out as the same kind of urban hipster car that the Element, the Nissan Cube, and the Scion xB did, but because it was priced right, powered right, and packaged right, people who looked as much like urban hipsters as Ronald Reagan were snapping up Souls left and right.

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So it was with great trepidation that Kia launched an all-new Soul in 2014. The basic profile is exactly the same: a two-box design with a sharply angled accent line down the side. It has the same overall height as the previous Soul, but it’s a hair longer, a hair wider, and a whole lot stiffer—by 66 percent—than the car it replaces, thanks to ultra high-strength steel. You have a choice of two engines—a 1.6-liter, 138hp four and a 2.0-liter, 162hp four—and either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission, depending on trim.

What you’ll notice is completely new, though, is the one thing that reviewers and consumers alike complained about in the old Soul: the interior. What once looked like a cheap, bargain-basement interior has been completely revamped. The most unusual feature is the two stacks on either side of the dash that comprise both the HVAC vents and the front speakers.

The thing to understand about the Soul is that while it fits the mold of a compact SUV, it’s really just a well-designed compact wagon. Front-wheel-drive is your only option, so snow tires are important in our region. Either that or you have to step up to Kia’s true compact crossover SUV, the much more expensive Sportage.

The Nissan Rogue takes the opposite tack, putting its chips on all-wheel-drive. Like the Soul, the Rogue is also in its second generation for the 2014 model year. We drove a pre-production model to see how it stacked up against the Soul. It was just unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show and should be on sale at Nissan dealers shortly.

The new Rogue is based on the Nissan/Renault “Common Module Family” (CMF) platform that will eventually underpin 11 Nissan or Renault vehicles by 2020. This platform is composed of four chassis components: the front underbody, rear underbody, engine bay, and cockpit, and also features a common electrical system. According to Nissan, it will reduce the parts cost of these 11 vehicles by 30 percent.

Unlike the Soul, the Rogue features just one engine—a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder good for 170hp—and one transmission. It’s a continuously variable transmission that has the nominal advantage of maintaining a relatively constant engine speed, supposedly increasing fuel economy along the way. Trouble is, the 2.5-liter isn’t particularly powerful; it has 3,600 pounds to push around and it’s lashed to a CVT that makes the engine feel dramatically underpowered.

The Rogue’s major advantage over something like the Soul is its all-wheel-drive (there is a front-wheel-drive version, but I doubt it will sell in New England). Nissan is betting a whole lot of people are going to take delivery of these cars. It’s shifted production from Japan to its Smyrna, Tenn., facility, which can produce 100,000 to 120,000 Rogues a year. It’s also set aside 80,000 units produced in Korea for American sales.

The Rogue is also much bigger than the Soul, though the sixth and seventh optional passenger seats offered are no better than jump seats. Save the money, or buy a bigger car if you actually need to put humans back there. The cargo area is bigger, but it’s shaped kind of oddly, so larger items are going to have to have the seat folded just the way the Soul does. We hauled two good-sized Fender combo amps, two guitars, and microphone stands around in both, and both needed to have the rear seats folded to accommodate the gear.

The Soul looks like a super bargain at $14,700 base price, but as soon as you start tacking on options, you’re quickly into Rogue territory. The as-tested price came in at around $26,750. That’s almost another car’s worth of options. The Rogue’s base price starts at around $22,500, and rises to about $32,400 with options.

Here’s the surprise: With all-wheel drive and 725 more pounds to haul around, the Rogue turns in better fuel economy estimates than the Soul. The Rogue gets 25 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, versus the Soul at 24/29 city/highway. A few things can account for this: Kia is ultra-conservative with reporting fuel economy numbers now, after having its wrist slapped by the EPA last year for over-reporting mileage numbers. Our actual combined number, with a lot of highway driving, was actually right at 29, suggesting the highway number reported to the EPA is actually low.

The Rogue and the Soul are obviously radically different cars, but they’re both particularly good at shuttling around four people in relative comfort for not a lot of money. Your mileage may vary, but the Soul seems to be fighting well over of its weight class now, suggesting that all those people who bought the first generation were onto something.