Ubiquitous and funky, the VW Bug of the last century and the Kia Soul of this one share many common characteristics.
Affordable and durable, both get love from moving owners from point A to point B for decidedly fewer dollars per mile. Lower purchase prices, less fuel consumption, and even lower insurance premiums because, hey, they don't cost as much to replace, all make these perfect vehicles for those who demand purchases be efficient.
Both also benefitted from unique but similar places in history. When Hitler commissioned the design of the car for the people, Volkswagen in German, fewer than 5% of his citizens owned a car. Yes, Porsche and Mercedes Benz built them, but those were exclusively for the wealthy. On the other side of the Atlantic, thanks to the genius of Henry Ford and the Model T, nearly 40 percent of Americans owned self-propelled vehicles.
The numbers are different today, but the dynamics are nearly the same. In the past four years, the number of new vehicles selling for less than $25,000 has declined 76%, according to Cardata.com. At the same time, the number selling for more than $60,000 has increased by 160%.
Like the Depression era, new vehicles have become the province of the wealthy, or at least those willing to spend like they are. According to Kelly Blue Book, since 2018, the average transaction price of a new vehicle has jumped more than 50% to more than $48,000. AAA says the average owner now pays $894 a month to own and operate a vehicle.
Kia has not sold nearly as many Souls as VW did original Beetles – about 2 million in the past 14 years vs. 30 million bugs in more than half a century – but the Soul seems to have many lives yet to live. Think about this: In four years, with a decent trade-in or tax refund, you could pay off a brand-new, well-equipped, 2023 Soul for half that much. You would still have six years left on the warranty on a paid-for car.
The Soul starts at $19,790 – less than the cost of just the options on a new Chevy Tahoe– and tops out at $27,220 for a maxed-out GT-Line with a kicker sound system, LED lamps all around, and smart cruise control with stop-and-go.
From any angle, the Soul exudes personality and cuteness. It's no surprise that Kia chose hamsters bopping to dance music to introduce the 2023 refresh. This is the third generation for the Soul. The last major redesign came in 2019.
The latest version is certainly the most striking, with narrow headlamps embedded in a new front fascia. Available LED headlamps brighten the darkest backroads at night.
My standard dad joke about this car is, "Nice box. Where's the car that came in it?"
Yet, one must respect the box, for it contains a roomy and practical cabin. This may be a compact SUV, but when I sit in it, this six-footer finds ample room. The seats are comfortable and supportive, though I am not sure this would be my first choice for a lengthy road trip.
The car has a compliant, well-planted ride. Handling is a little on the soft side. Push it a little through a roundabout and the body lean is obvious, but few people buy one of these to go Rallye racing.
The 2023 Soul comes with one engine choice, a 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated inline four-cylinder turning out 147 hp. It is mated to a variable transmission. Acceleration is leisurely – 60 mph comes in eight seconds – but the car feels peppy and agile around town.
Gone is last year's 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-l powerplant. Much ink has been spilled in this space regarding the hazards of high-output small-displacement engines. Even more has been spilled covering Kia's disastrous class-action lawsuits related to fires in such engines.
The cabin is tech-forward, with an abundance of charging ports and healthy doses of safety, information, and entertainment technologies – fields in which Kia excels. Cleverly placed switchgear falls readily to hand.
With hands off the wheel, the Soul's lane-keep technology keeps the car in its lane through an S-curve, a feat we are still waiting to see accomplished by any American-built machine.
The Soul is offered in LX, S, EX, GT-Line, and GT-Line Tech trim lines, each featuring a long list of standard and available equipment.
Standard on all are:
Forward collision avoidance assist-pedestrian
Lane-keeping assist plus lane-following assist
Driver attention warning
Lane departure warning
High beam assist
Rear occupant alert (door logic)
The GT-Line Technology Package ($2,400) includes:
Forward collision avoidance assist with junction turning capability (radar + camera type)
Highway drive assist, which maintains a safe distance from the vehicle ahead of you and keeps the vehicle centered in the lane.
Navigation-based smart cruise control, which uses radars to help determine the distance between the vehicle and the one ahead. Once the speed and distance are set, the system will automatically maintain and adjust itself based on surrounding traffic conditions.
Electronic parking brake
Power driver seat
High-gloss interior trim
LED headlights and taillights
All but the LX get Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, a 10.25 touchscreen, wireless charging, and Bluetooth® voice recognition. All models get power locks and windows, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth® wireless technology, and steering-wheel-mounted controls. and an anti-theft immobilizer.
Yes, I said an immobilizer. Kia and its big brother Hyundai have been under the gun for not providing these, which are chips that match one in the engine to thwart thieves. Videos of how to steal cars without them are popular on social media.
Some insurance companies refuse to write theft insurance because of high theft rates. All Kias and Hyundais produced after Nov. 1, 2021, have immobilizers. The companies this month rolled out software updates that they said would protect earlier models, which is a good thing because a used Soul is also a smart buy.
If you shop used, be aware that Kia and Hyundai's best-in-business, 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty is not transferrable. It applies only to the first owner. I used to recommend against extended warranties, which tend to be large profit generators for dealerships, but now some private vendors, such as CarEdge.com, sell them at reasonable prices. Sites such as thedetroitbureau.com review compliance records.
I'm not saying don't buy one from a dealer. Just first find out what one should cost and who meets their obligations.
Bottom line: Costing thousands of dollars less than competitors like the Mazda CX-30, Honda HR-V, VW Taos, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trailblazer and Toyota Corolla Cross, the Soul is a smart play for those on a budget.
We remain convinced, however, that the best deal in the new-car market, however, is the Nissan Versa SR, which comes exorbitantly equipped and has a near-luxury feel at $20,815.