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Kia returns to its value-for-money roots with a small-battery version of the Soul

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The Kia Soul tends to live in the shadows of some of its showroom-mates. The Kia EV6 gets all the plaudits for its new tech, while the Niro gets love from buyers thanks to its more SUV-like styling.

But Kia is persisting with the Soul because, contrary to what its name suggests, it answers a need for a no-nonsense, good-value EV with a boxy shape for maximum practicality.

The Soul makes good use of its power, with direct and responsive steering that allows you to zip in and out of traffic in urban situations

So the Soul is getting a model-year update. More interesting than the extremely minor facelift itself is the new version that Kia is introducing to the UK.

The third-generation Soul arrived in Europe only as an EV and that’s not changing. The existing Soul, with its 64kWh battery, continues as the Explore model, but Kia is adding a Soul Urban with a smaller, 39.2kWh battery.

The naming is interesting, because Kia is clearly saying: “Look, if you want to go continent-cruising in your EV, we will happily sell you a Soul with a big battery and 280 miles of range, or even a 321-mile EV6 with 240kW charging capability, but you will pay for the pleasure. If, on the other hand, you want an EV for mainly local or urban journeys, you can save some money and buy a shorter-range model.” 

An official 171 miles should still be a useful amount and with a price that is closer to £30,000 than £40,000, this new entry-level Kia EV might hold some appeal.

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Time to find out how much of that range remains in the real world, and whether it can even begin to make sense in the face of the influx of more affordable EVs from China.

Range at a glance

MODELSPOWERFROM
39.2kWh Urban134bhp£32,845
64.0kWh Explore201bhp£39,045

There are only two versions of the Kia Soul in the UK and they are both electric. The powertrain is tied to the trim level. As such, the Urban gets a smaller battery, less power and less equipment than the Explore.

DESIGN & STYLING

kia soul ev review 2023 02 panning

The second generation of the Soul was launched at the start of 2019 and is based on the Hyundai Motor Group’s K3 platform.

So underneath, it’s very similar to the Kia Niro and the outgoing Hyundai Kona. The platform can accommodate piston engines, EVs and plug-in hybrids, but the Soul only comes as an EV in Europe. In the US, you can buy one with a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and a CVT, however.

Not everyone needs a 300-mile range and ultra-rapid charging, but a 45kW peak charging speed is pretty laughable in 2023. It’s not an unreasonable expectation of a £32,845 car that you can take it on a longer trip, at least occasionally.

The nickel-manganese-cobalt lithium ion battery pack is slung under the passenger compartment and comes with either 39.2kWh or 64.0kWh of usable capacity. Kia and Hyundai are annoyingly coy about total and usable capacities, but Kia claims the stated capacity is usable, so we will assume a total capacity of about 42kWh.

The battery powers a single front motor with 134bhp in the Urban and 201bhp in the Explore. The 291lb ft torque figure is the same for both versions. As we will come to, that results in perfectly adequate performance. Where this architecture lags behind rivals is in rapid charging. The Explore manages a rather lacklustre 77kW, while the Urban is pegged back to a disappointing 50kW.

Design-wise, the Soul hasn’t changed since its 2019 introduction. That means it is still unusually boxy for a modern car, with a horizontal roof and vertical tailgate forming an almost perfect right angle, à la Volvo V70. The mostly glass tailgate retains an ‘island’ of bodywork that has become a bit of a Soul design cue. The bluff front houses disgruntled-looking LED headlights, a transparent bar (that doesn’t light up) and the charge port. 

A front charge port seems to be an inherent characteristic of this platform, but while it does have its advantages, we would prefer one on the passenger-side rear quarter for less chance of accident damage and easier parking at rapid chargers.

Every Soul gets MacPherson strut suspension at the front and a multi-link at the rear, and unlike Volkswagen Group MEB-platform cars, they also use disc brakes at the rear.

INTERIOR

kia soul ev review 2023 11 dash

The Soul seems to be from a transitional period in Kia’s interior design between the fairly safe Ceed and previous-gen Niro on the one hand, and the more adventurous EV6 and new Niro on the other.

There’s still a bit of slabbiness to the passenger-side dash and the door panels, but the ambience is livened up with unusually shaped ‘metal’ air vents that also house the tweeters for the audio system.

While Kia noticeably penalises you with lower-grade materials for choosing the lowest trim on the Niro, the Soul Urban is arguably more inviting than the more expensive Explore. The Urban gets textured white trim panels and a mildly interesting triangle-patterned cloth for the seats to liven the place up, whereas the Explore is rather more sombre, with black trim and black leather seats. The door handles also feel surprisingly mechanical. Overall, it’s a nicer place to be than a Nissan Leaf or MG 4 EV.

That said, this is not exactly a plush cabin and most of the materials are hard plastic, which is fine in what is supposed to be a more budget-oriented EV. By and large, the build quality seems good, as we are used to from Kia, but there is one exception: the centre console is really quite loose, and moves about a centimetre when you lean your knee against it.

The Soul retains plenty of physical buttons (and a fair few button blanks in this de-contented version), so you are never left swiping through menus for basic functions. The climate control is only single-zone, though, and frustratingly for an EV, the Urban model does not get heated seats, nor can they be added as an option (you have to upgrade to Explore trim). A heat pump is not available on the Soul at all.

Although the Soul Urban gets a more basic central infotainment screen, the gauge cluster – a part-analogue, part-digital unit – is the same on both versions. It’s not especially fancy, but it is very clear, with big numbers, simple graphics and menus that are easy to fathom.

The Soul is a smaller car than most of the C-segment electric hatchbacks, but it’s much bigger than a supermini, and that is reflected in its back-seat accommodation. Adults will feel a bit cramped when coming from a Cupra Born or even an MG 4 but can still absolutely fit and will have slightly more leg room than in a Citroën ë-C4. And thanks to the Soul’s horizontal roof line, they could wear quite a bulky hat if they feel like it.

At 315 litres, the boot isn’t anything special, but it’s a nice square shape and even this entry-level version gets a variable-height floor that creates a good space for charge cables and creates a flat load bay when you fold down the rear seats. There is no luggage space under the bonnet.

Kia soul ev review 2023 15 screen 0

Multimedia system

One of the most noticeable downgrades from the Soul Explore to the Soul Urban is the infotainment system. Instead of a 10.25in screen, the cheaper version gets a fairly low-resolution 8.0in display that lacks navigation.

It may not look like much, but if you are the kind of driver who simply defaults to phone mirroring, it works absolutely fine, as it has wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto, which integrate well with the (basic) native interface.

Strangely, the upgraded infotainment system only has wired CarPlay, while the one in the Urban only works wirelessly. During our time with the car, the connection proved stable.

From previous experiences with Kias, we know the upgraded system to be logical, easy to use and responsive with a built-in navigation system that does the job, but it is nowhere near as clever as a Tesla’s in planning routes via rapid chargers. Both systems get a row of physical shortcut buttons, as well asa physical volume control. Audio quality was satisfactory.

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

A total of 134bhp in a modern electric hatchback sounds like a reason in itself to upgrade to the longer-range, more powerful Explore version, and a 9.9sec 0-62mph time will be disappointing, too, if you’re expecting EV punch.

However, we suspect the Soul Urban’s electric motor isn’t quite as pegged back as Kia says it is, because in our testing it beat its claimed 0-62mph time by a very substantial 1.3sec. That makes it a good deal quicker than the Citroën ë-C4 X and closer to cars like the BYD Atto 3 and Volkswagen ID 3. The Soul runs into its limiter before it can reach 100mph. 

The front tyres, made by Nexen, do struggle with the (potentially more than) 134bhp. With the traction control switched off, the Soul will furiously spin its wheels for quite a distance, even in the dry. Thankfully, if you leave it on, it reins in the power quite smoothly to avoid wheelspin. It can be foxed in tight corners, but is worlds better than the dim-witted systems in cars like the MG 5 EV, Renault Mégane E-Tech and BYD Atto 3.

As we have come to expect from Kia, the regeneration is very flexible to suit all driving styles and preferences. The steering wheel paddles let you cycle through three set regen strengths, multiple adaptive modes and a coasting mode. It works slightly differently from other Kias because there is no true one-pedal mode. However, holding the left paddle will brake the car to a stop and then revert to whichever mode it was in before.

The brake pedal is easy enough to modulate and stopping distances in the dry are fine, although the car did wander a bit and left black lines down the track during our emergency stop. Over repeated tests, the stopping distance also increased very slightly.

One minor annoyance is that, like in other Kias, the rotary drive selector isn’t as intuitive as a simple lever, and will refuse duty if you haven’t got your foot firmly on the brake pedal. The latter is most likely a safety feature, but when you quickly want to shift from reverse to drive to get away from traffic but the car remains in reverse, it can feel like it has the opposite effect.

RIDE & HANDLING

When we road tested the mechanically similar Kia Niro EV, we found it to be a surprisingly keen handler, with steering that communicated clearly if a little heavy-handedly, and with an amusingly throttle-adjustable handling balance.

When you drive the Soul, it’s clear that the two share their underpinnings, because it has the same fundamental balance, though the Soul doesn’t feel quite as natural.

The suspension is relatively firm, but it’s never brittle or crashy, no doubt helped by the meaty sidewalls on the 17in wheels. However, it can feel somewhat bouncy and underdamped, which doesn’t affect control but does introduce some restlessness to the chassis.

If you were to drive both versions of the Soul back to back, you would find the 140kg-lighter Urban to be marginally more agile. In any case, body control is good, and the Soul can be stroked along a B-road at a very decent pace. There is far less torque steer than in the more powerful Niro.

The Nexen tyres offer up decent grip but lack a bit of initial bite, so a lift of the accelerator can bring the rear axle around, but if you don’t time it right, sometimes it feels as if the front axle digs in and just scrubs off speed. 

While the steering is communicative enough for this type of car, we do wish it was a little more predictable. It feels a touch too quick around the straight-ahead, which makes it a little nervous, but then seems to slow down as you get into the meat of the steering lock, so it still requires some arm twirling while manoeuvring. 

Still, the Soul is much more entertaining on a country road than it strictly needs to be for its ‘urban’ remit, which we can only applaud.

While it doesn’t have the freakishly small turning circle of some EVs on account of being front-wheel drive, the Soul is still very manoeuvrable, and its big glasshouse and upright proportions give it good visibility, making it an easy car to thread through town.

Kia soul ev review 2023 02 panning 0

Comfort & Isolation

Apart from the slight bounciness already mentioned, the Soul’s ride is unremarkable. It’s neither bothersome from its stiffness nor outstandingly cosseting.

The Urban gets far less fancy seats than the Explore. They lose leather upholstery, electric adjustment, heating and adjustable lumbar support. However, it’s not as much of a downgrade as it seems, because the cheaper seats are softly padded and have decent lumbar and thigh support. They proved quite comfortable on long drives, so on the shorter hops the Urban is meant for, they are more than adequate.

Noise refinement in the Soul turned out to be slightly better than in the more expensive Niro, with less suspension noise. At a 70mph cruise, we recorded 2dBA less. Its reading of 69dBA is fairly typical and on a par with the MG 4 although a Renault Mégane E-Tech and even the budget-oriented Citroën ë-C4 X were a few decibels quieter.

 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

kia soul ev review 2023 01 tracking front

Kia has introduced the shorter-range Soul Urban as a more budget-conscious choice, which puts it right in the firing line of the Chinese assault on the European market.

The Soul Urban lowers the barrier of entry to an electric Kia, because unlike Renault, Peugeot or Vauxhall, Kia doesn’t have electric versions of its smaller cars yet. Compared with the similarly priced Zoe, e-208 or Corsa Electric, you get more car for your money with a Soul Urban, but less range, which will be a fair trade-off for some buyers.

Cars like the Citroen ë-C4 and Nissan Leaf, never mind the MG 4 or BYD Dolphin, show Kia no longer has the value chops it once did, however. The MG and BYD offer similar interior space but are cheaper and have more range. 

Things aren’t much better on finance. On a three-year PCP, with a £5000 deposit, our test car would cost £472, but an equivalent Leaf would be £394 and a standard-range MG 4 would be under £300.

The Soul does claw back some points on range, however – thanks to the efficient way in which it uses its energy. Test conditions were mild, but an average of 3.8mpkWh is still very strong and stretches the smallish battery to a real-world range of 147 miles, which isn’t too far from what we got from the Citroën ë-C4 X, and is better than what you can expect from a small-battery Leaf. It’s still no match for any MG 4 or Dolphin, however.

When you recharge, you will want to do it overnight, because the Soul’s rapid charging isn’t up to much. The Explore is rated for only 77kW, and that drops to just 50kW on the Urban. What’s worse is that in our rapid-charging test, it topped out at just 45kW. A Leaf also peaks at only 50kW, and needs a Chademo plug, but all other rivals do better.

Owning a Kia is likely to be a largely painless experience. The brand came seventh in the 2022 What Car? Reliability Survey, and if things do go wrong, Kia still offers a seven-year warranty as standard. That also applies to the battery, which is guaranteed to retain 70% of its capacity for seven years and 100,000 miles.

VERDICT

kia soul ev review 2023 24 static front

It has been a few years since Kia could be comfortably labelled a budget brand. And purely on numbers, its tentative return to its value roots isn’t entirely convincing.

The incoming Chinese manufacturers have cornered that market now, offering faster charging, more electric range and better standard equipment for the same money.

But what those companies are still learning is the thing that Kia has got so good at in recent years. This is a very mature product that simply has very few vices. It shares a lot of its technical make-up with the excellent Niro EV, and that shows in the easy, and even mildly entertaining, way in which it drives.

It’s not perfect, but the flaws in its chassis and interior are small enough that they are fairly easy to overlook. All the systems on board simply work, and its interior is ergonomically well considered.

There’s no getting away from the fact that 150 miles of range and 45kW rapid charging will limit the Kia Soul Urban’s appeal. However, as a commuter EV that keeps costs somewhat manageable, it’s very complete.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Kia Soul EV First drives