The 2017 Kia Soul is undeniably weird, but there's still room for fun and quirky cars

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The 2017 Kia Soul is undeniably weird, but there's still room for fun and quirky cars

  • The Kia Soul's punchy turbocharged engine and refined chassis make it a fun choice for back-road drives.
  • While the exterior looks fantastic and is a lesson in smart design, the interior lacks the quirkiness and fun you'd expect in a car like this.
  • Still, the Kia Soul dares to be different in an increasingly conformist marketplace, so it won the heart of CNBC's reviewer.
The 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
The 2017 Kia Soul

The Kia Soul — remember the commercials with the dancing hampsters? — is proof that there's still a spot in this world for quirky, slightly weird cars.

It breaks the mold from a lot of the bland vehicles you see on highways and was a lot of fun to drive during my review period. It's not perfect — there are certainly some flaws worth discussing — but it ended up earning a special place in my heart.

Here's what you need to know about the 2017 Kia Soul.

Exterior: Embracing the weird

The 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
The 2017 Kia Soul

In its first generation, the Soul looked awkward. It was like Kia's design team had tried to make a quirky and out-there concept but the suits in the marketing department asked them to dial it back at the last minute. It was different, but always looked like Kia had tried to restrain the first Soul to avoid alienating customers.

But today, the Soul has become its own brand. The weird commercials of dancing hamsters and crazy music carved out a niche for the boxy hatch, giving the designers the freedom to make the second generation model even more visually fun.

Side of the 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Side of the 2017 Kia Soul

The result is this 2017 model, fully embracing its weird side. A slim black plastic faux grille defines the car's face, with a gigantic air intake flanked by fog lights taking up the rest of the fascia. On this $27,620 ! Turbo model (that ! is actually the trim name), slim red accents frame the lower edges of the design. A silver front skid plate adds toughness to the face, and blacked-out pillars on the front windshield add a "floating roof" aesthetic.

While the distinct shape and stature of the Soul do most of the heavy lifting, little styling flairs like these really help separate the Soul from any other small crossover. Better yet, they manage to do so without the Soul ever looking like it's shouting for attention.

That's not to say everyone will like it. It's undeniably weird and carries a bit of a "look at me" stigma, but as an exercise in brand identity and automotive design it's truly fantastic.

Interior: Surprisingly restrained

Inside the 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Inside the 2017 Kia Soul

I'd always expected the Soul to have a zany interior, like a Mini. A cult-classic car like this seems like it'd come with a brightly colored, oddly shaped interior. But climb inside and you'll find the Soul tastefully appointed and premium-feeling.

The dash is definitely more bubbly than a typical car and the seats have an interesting, almost-plaid pattern on them. Other than that, it's typical Kia with lots of well-placed buttons and the company's Uvo infotainment system. As I've said many times in my reviews, Hyundai and Kia share one of the best infotainment systems in the business, with clear and easy-to-navigate menus controlled by a quick touch screen.

The driver seat of the 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
The driver seat of the 2017 Kia Soul

My tester also packed the optional panoramic sunroof, which brightens up the cabin with lots of natural light. That's much needed, as the inside of the Soul is mostly monochrome. Different shades of black make up the entire inside, save for small touches like the red-orange stitching. Kia does offer two lighter interior colors, but they aren't available on the top-level trim.

It's well laid out and very comfortable, but I think a fun-looking car like the Soul deserves a more adventurous interior.

Driving: The hot hatch of the crossover segment

The 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
The 2017 Kia Soul

Any absence of interior fun is quickly forgotten once you hit the road. The 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder delivers 201 horsepower through a 7-speed, dual-clutch transmission. The mill delivers oodles of torque even low in the rev range, with the slick gearbox quickly following any orders from the wheel-mounted shift paddles. When things get twisty, the Soul remains competent and controlled.

The zippy gearbox and competent cornering behavior don't come without cost, though. The transmission falls flat at low speeds, a common problem with dual-clutch units. It slips the clutch to emulate a more traditional automatic transmission, but often feels jittery and unrefined when creeping in traffic.

The back of the 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
The back of the 2017 Kia Soul

And at speed, the fully loaded Soul isn't as relaxing to drive as, for instance, the Toyota CH-R that I reviewed last week. The Soul bounces and jitters on expansion joints and generally feels unsettled on the highway. The boxy shape contributes to a disappointing helping of wind noise, but tire and engine noise are well-damped.

Finally, it's worth noting that advanced driver assistance systems aren't available on the Soul. There's no adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking or lane-keeping on offer — strange omissions in a tech-focused segment.

Value: Premium options, mainstream price

The Kia Soul branding
Mack Hogan | CNBC
The Kia Soul branding

This segment is still developing. It used to be that small SUVs were spartan inside and poorly optioned, purely aimed at people who couldn't afford the automaker's larger offerings. Now, more and more companies are trying to bring their subcompact SUVs upmarket.

The Soul falls into that category, as do the Mazda CX-3, Nissan Rogue Sport and Jeep Renegade. Similarly equipped, the Jeep and Nissan are pushing about $29,000. The Mazda is about $800 less than the Kia, but is missing a panoramic sunroof and is down about 50 horsepower compared with the Soul.

The $27,620 Soul is a great value if you want a small SUV and still want a premium experience. Even on lesser trims, the Soul feels upscale and looks unique. It's not exactly surprising that a Kia is a great value, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve credit.

Final thoughts

The 2017 Kia Soul
Mack Hogan | CNBC
The 2017 Kia Soul

The negatives are so vastly outweighed by the positives. Make no mistake: The Soul is a flawed car. The ride and noise on the highway are irritating, and the interior isn't as exciting as the exterior may suggest.

However, the engine is delightful, and the car's well-suited for spirited backroad driving. The infotainment is best in class. The boxy shape makes the cabin open and airy. The gas mileage easily averages above 30 miles per gallon. The price is fantastic.

I could go on. But I'll end with the most important bit: There's a terrible trend toward conformity and bland indifference in the automotive world. It's very easy to buy an anonymous blob that will only ever be "good enough" at everything.

I love the Kia Soul because it's fighting back. It reminds me that there's still a place for weird, fun cars out there.

Rating:

Exterior: 4.5

Interior: 3.5

Driving Experience: 3.5

Value: 5

Overall: 4

Price as configured: $27,620