The Kia Soul is a high-profile, quasi-crossover, compact wagon thing built to compete in the same space as Nissan's Cube and Scion's xB. Clearly Kia did something right when they introduced the Soul in 2009 because it went on to sell in numbers far greater than originally expected, while both the Cube and xB have found themselves cold chillin' on the chopping block. For 2014 Kia is launching a second-generation Soul and we're happy to say it's really quite good.

High on any car designer's list of no-no's is "kill an automotive icon." Gray hairs and sleepless nights inevitably peak whenever a Mazda MX-5 Miata, VW Beetle or Ford Mustang is due for redesign. How relieved Kia's design team must be then to have successfully navigated the treacherous waters of concocting a new Kia Soul. View the 2014 Kia Soul in isolation and the newness of its exterior might not be obvious, at least not from the front or profile. However, use the current car for reference and it becomes clear that the Soul's shape has been deftly modernized and elevated. All of the key details from the original car remain - rising roofline, dipping belt line, tiger-nose grille - but in a cleaner, more sophisticated form that respects the original car while also accepting the need to evolve.

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Similarly evolved is the interior. Dimensionally the new Soul is only marginally larger inside than the old one, but passenger space was never really a concern. Material quality is where you'll find the big improvements. Poke and prod your way through the interior and you'll notice expanded use of soft surfaces. You might also notice that the window switches and turn stalk operate with a decidedly un-cheap feel. That impression of quality is further enhanced by the cabin's fresh design. The previous circular theme remains, but expressed in impressively upscale fashion. Favorite details include artful speakers placed atop the dash vents and a hefty, ergonomically satisfying steering wheel.

Sure, that steering wheel is fun to hold but is it fun to turn? That depends on your expectations. If you were hoping for meaningful two-way communication with your Soul then the new car might be a disappointment. Not much information coming through the wheel to the driver; that's the bad news. The good news is that very few drivers actually care about steering feel. Things like interior noise and a ride that's not jarring are far more important and on both counts the 2014 Soul is greatly improved. Our drive route included a grab bag of pavement types and the new Soul dealt with each in dignified fashion, largely unfazed by all but the worst bumps. We also managed to get lost along the way, inadvertently detouring into some tight, twisting mounting roads. Steering feedback aside, the Soul turns predictably and corners with a level of confidence unfamiliar in the old Soul, which tended to skitter when steered over less than pristine roadways. 

Adding to the comfort of the 2014 Kia Soul are seats that are softer and more comfortable than the old car's excessively firm units, but that's not the only trick the new seats have up their metaphorical sleeves. Heating in the four outboard positions is now optional with ventilated front seats available as well. Sweaty/chilly hind quarters everywhere should thank the heavens for trickle down vehicle technology. And in now-familiar Kia fashion, numerous other upscale options are available including automatic climate control, a heated steering wheel, a 350-watt Infinity premium audio system and a nifty navigation system with a fast-reacting 8-inch touchscreen.

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With everything so thoroughly enhanced there has to be a catch, right? Well, kinda. Maximum power for the 2.0-liter engine remains flat at 164 horsepower with only a slight bump in torque, while the base model's 1.6-liter has actually lost 8 horsepower and 5 lb-ft of torque. That sounds bad but the underwhelming peak numbers are actually the result of a retuning effort to increase torque in each engines lower rpm range, all in an attempt to make the Soul feel zippier without having to spin its engine to the rev limiter. We only drove the 2.0-liter and, while it's still no rocket ship, at maximum acceleration the engine did seem less strained and buzzy.

Having spent quality time with the new Soul we're fans; and for the right reasons. Yes, it's a good looking car but without a little substance the charm of good looks wears thin quickly. It's true with cars and it's true with people. The 2014 Kia Soul is beautiful inside and out, impressively refined for its $15,495 starting price (that's including destination) and can march on proudly as a wonderfully practical compact car alternative. Look for the 2014 Kia Soul to start arriving at dealerships in October 2013.

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