2016 Kia Soul: Tougher than You Think for the Money

This will not qualify as a massive automotive news scoop, but the Kia Soul is not a Land Rover nor a Jeep. It’s not built for the same heavy duty performance as those off-roading staples, but it also doesn’t carry their price tag, either. However, during a recent test drive across the sometimes dusty, sometimes muddy roads of rural Montana, it became clear that the Soul is tougher than you might think.

The 2016 Kia Soul is designed primarily as an urban crossover — a compact SUV for city and suburban use. With an MSRP starting at $15,900 and finishing up just north of $21,000, it offers moderate power, comfortable seating for four and enough space in the back for more cargo than your average hatchback can handle.

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The exterior styling stays true to the spirit of an SUV, getting away from the oversized hatchback look many automakers are selecting for their crossovers currently. If you took a full-size SUV from the modern Asian design schools, got it wet and tossed it in the dryer, it might come out looking like a Kia Soul.

The Soul offers three trim levels, and all three offer an inline four cylinder engine. The entry level Base has a 1.6 liter, 130 horsepower version, with the + and ! editions up the game to 2.0 liters and 164 horsepower. I suppose the significance of the ! maxed out trim has something to do with saying “Soul!” with more volume and urgency.

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A six-speed manual transmission is available, but the electronically controlled six-speed automatic is the more popular gearbox. All versions are front wheel drive and offer 27 and 26 overall mpg.

Its build quality is solid enough for its intended market — younger city drivers looking for a vehicle small enough to be manageable on the street, but more useful with extra carrying capability. But, at first perusal, this reporter didn’t expect that construction to hold too well for wilder and more demanding duties. It seemed a little to thin across the beam and a shade too tinny to stand up to much punishment.

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I underestimated this Kia’s soul, to make what now seems an almost unavoidable turn of phrase. With MacPherson Struts on the from wheels and Coupled Torsion Beam Axle out back, the Soul manages to ride high over rougher bumps. Its electric power steering might not be as tight as a sportier roadster or coupe, but it’ll put the nose where you’d like it to be.

To let this 2016 Kia Soul off the leash a bit, I led it out to dirt roads about 45 minutes outside of Missoula, Montana for a couple days of misbehaving. While I never took it truly off-road and made the crossover stand up to rocky includes or ford streams, the dirt roads of the Montana wilderness can go from dusty slick to muddy mess in short order.

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To sum up the Big Sky Country verdict on the Soul, it was an absolute ball to drive along those trails. It’s well balanced if you can forgive just a bit of top-heaviness, so I could let the back end out with confidence — enjoying some reckless understeer and power-sliding around curves (front wheel drive be damned). It’s quick enough to gather up speed uphill and tough enough to absorb a pothole or sudden stop.

While the Kia Soul’s performance along the dirt shouldn’t persuade anyone to make this vehicle a primary choice for off-pavement work, it’s nice to know a $15,000 vehicle can manage it when needed.