If you put a few things together, you could describe the 2014 Kia Soul as a hamster with a halo.
It takes a bit of explaining. In 2009, Kia of South Korea introduced a boxy new four-door hatchback called the Soul that the company described as its halo car. Ordinarily in the car biz, that designation is reserved for the flagship or performance car-something like the Corvette Stingray over at Chevrolet.
But here the halo hovered over a humble economy car that was-and is-near the bottom of the line. The difference was that Kia decided to make it funky and appealing to younger customers.
To attract them, it produced an ad series of cute animatronic hamsters driving and otherwise engaged with Souls. They were an instant hit, and have remained so popular that the company has developed a new, chartreuse colored logo featuring a hamster.
The box on wheels concept was not unique. Scion had introduced its xB, which was at least as boxy and funky. And Nissan brought out the Cube, which looked very much like its name. But when Scion brought out the second generation xB it was transformed into more of a square family station wagon. And the Cube, with its sideways opening cargo door, never caught on.
So the Soul scooted to the front of the funk pack. In the first nine months of 2013, Kia sold 90,624 Souls, compared to 13,992 for the xB and 4,422 for the Cube.
As you might imagine, Kia didn't want to tinker much with a successful formula. So the 2014 model, although built on a new platform, looks much like the old one to the casual observer.
But it is more refined, with a sloping roofline that makes it look from the side somewhat like the way more expensive Range Rover Evoque. It also is slightly longer, lower and wider, with upgraded interiors, easier entry and exit, more front seat travel for taller drivers, and exterior trim changes to distinguish it from its predecessor.
In the manner customers have come to expect from South Korean brands, even the base Soul, with a price tag of $15,610, comes equipped with features that are extra cost options on many other cars, including Bluetooth connectivity and Sirius/XM satellite radio. But an automatic transmission and cruise control are extra cost options.
Every Soul comes with full safety equipment, including stability and traction control, hill start assist and tire pressure monitoring.
The base car, with comfortable cloth upholstery and plastic covers on steel wheels, gets its motivation from a 130 horsepower, 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine. Power goes to the front wheels through a smooth shifting six-speed manual gearbox, unusual in a class where five-speeds are more common. The combination delivers 24/30/26 mpg on the EPA's city/highway/combined cycles.
There are two other models, Plus and Exclaim, which come only with a six-speed automatic transmission connected to a 164-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It is rated at 23/31/26 mpg.
The mid-level Plus starts at $18,995 and, as driven for this review, had a bottom line sticker of $24,010. The top-line Exclaim starts at $21,095 and, with what Kia calls the Whole Shebang option package, checks in at $26,195.
The tested Plus had options that included automatic climate control, panoramic glass sunroof, pushbutton starting, leather seat trim, heated and ventilated front seats with a power driver's seat, rear camera, upgraded Infinity audio system and a heated, leather covered steering wheel.
On the road, the Soul Plus had a solid, planted feel with a heft to the steering that made it feel more like a larger car than an urban runabout. With an independent front suspension and a rear torsion beam axle, it had a settled ride that became bouncy only on rough surfaces or roads with expansion strips.
The 2.0-liter engine and six-speed automatic delivered decent, though not head snapping, acceleration and passing power. The engine struggled on long hills, requiring downshifts from the transmission.
Front seats were supportive and comfortable, and the surroundings had a first cabin look with soft touch, textured surfaces and elegant piano black accents.
With its high roof, there's plenty of headroom front and back even for cowboys wearing hats. Knee and leg room also are generous and there's 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat, more than what you'd find in the trunk of a full-size sedan. Folding the rear seatbacks expands the cargo area to 61 cubic feet.
Model: 2014 Kia Soul Plus four-door hatchback.
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, direct gasoline injection, 164 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Overall length: 13 feet 7 inches.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 97/24 cubic feet.
Weight: 2,837 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 23/31/26 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $18,995.
Price as tested: $24,010.