It has a lot of new in it, on it and under it, but unless you're really paying attention, you might not realize it.

On the surface, you have to wonder about the time and money spent to build the 2014 Kia Soul, but it's really no different than with brands such as Mini that spend millions on a new car that looks much the same as before. That's "the brand", after all.

The Mini has more history than the Soul, but the Soul is no less unique and there is a certain cachet about it. Only a handful of models have tried to match the Soul's artful shape since it arrived for the 2011 model year.

For the mid-cycle refresh, Kia's California- and Korea-based design teams used the 2012 Track'ster concept show vehicle as a starting point. They did tone down that bit of zaniness (a two-door wagon doesn't cut it out in the real world), but a number of shape-shifting elements were passed along to the 2014 Soul.

In front, a revised "bulldog" nose and enlarged grille adds greater definition, while at the opposite end the Track'ster-inspired boomerang-shaped taillights appear to be floating inside the rear glass, as does the rear body panel built into the liftgate. The effect is simply brilliant.

The Soul's overall packaging has also been upsized a bit. The distance between the front and rear wheels increases by nearly an inch while a half-inch has been added to the width.

These changes, along with a slight body-height reduction, give the Soul a more planted appearance. On the practical side, cargo space has been increased slightly (with the rear seats up or folded flat) and the liftgate opening is now 2.4 inches wider.

The added size comes from a new platform that's larger and considerably stiffer (by 29 percent). Combined with a numerous suspension revisions, Kia claims the 2014 Soul is quieter and has an improved ride that performs more smoothly over bumps and undulations.

Also adding to the cabin's allure is a thoroughly revised and upgraded dashboard, control panel and seat coverings. Nearly all of the plasticity bits are now covered in/replaced with soft-touch materials, as are the door panels.

The steering wheel resembles a game-console controller, but at least the controls are now large enough to be activated by average-sized digits.

Both of the Soul's four-cylinder engine choices return for 2014, albeit in slightly revised form. The base 1.6-liter unit is rated at 130 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque (previously 138/123), while the optional 2.0-liter four-cylinder returns with the same 164 horsepower as before, but with a slight increase in torque. Kia says both powerplants make more torque in lower rev ranges for better around-town performance.

The 1.6 comes with a six-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed automatic, but the 2.0 is only available with the automatic. Both engines are rated at 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

With a $15,500 starting price (including destination charges), the base Soul covers the basics, but includes air conditioning, heated outside mirrors, six-speaker audio system and Bluetooth short-range wireless networking.

Along with the larger engine and standard automatic transmission, the mid-range Soul Plus (+) adds a floor console with storage box and an integrated armrest, a rear-seat center armrest and 17-inch alloy wheels (16-inch steel wheels are standard).

Atop the Soul trim trio, the Exclaim (!) has 18-inch wheels and power-folding mirrors, while the interior comes with a 10-way power driver's seat, chilled glove box and a rearview camera.

The options list is truly extensive and covers off a navigation system with eight-inch touch-screen, power-sliding panoramic sunroof, leather-covered seats (heated in front) and premium Infinity-brand sound package.

Taken in its entirety, the Soul, like the Mini Cooper, is set up to be a niche brand unto itself, with a wide range of pricing and options and, of course, that unmistakable "Soul-ness."

What you should know: 2014 Kia Soul
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact wagon
Engines (hp): 1.6-liter DOHC I4 (130); 2.0-liter DOHC I4 (164)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic (opt. with 1.6; std. with 2.0)
Market position: Small and tall wagons that maximize interior space and fuel economy are ideal for anyone seeking the maxim in utility for a relatively minimal price. But, as Kia demonstrates, boxiness can be done with plenty of style.
Points: Styling updates enhance its unique character; Base and optional four-cylinder engines focus on thriftiness, but one of Kia's nifty turbocharged engines would make a nice option; Ride and handling improvements should make Soul more appealing to buyers; Plenty of available up-level content for a well turned-out wagon.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 24/30 (1.6)
Base price (incl. destination) $15,500


Fiat 500L
Base price: $20,000
Four-door is more practical than base 500, but maintains unique style.

Nissan Cube
Base price: $17,600
Love it for its roomy interior fuel-efficient engine and look-at-me shape.

Hyundai Veloster
Base price: $18,400
A sporty three-door hatch that's ahead of the curve for style and affordability. 

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