It’s OK, critics. Go ahead and sneer about the little car that used to be powered by hamsters.

But those early commercials worked, planting a product seed that has led to the compact Soul leading all its rivals on the sales charts.

And Kia cheers all the way to the bank as its diminutive volume-leader, five-door wagon has outlasted several small-car competitors as consumers gravitate to crossovers and cars that work like crossovers.

Who knew that hamsters could be so powerful?

For 2019, consumers get the third generation of the Soul, a sub-compact car with compact-class space inside. Barely 163 inches long, the Soul is shorter than Honda’s HR-V, Chevy’s Trax, Jeep’s Renegade, and Nissan’s new Kicks.

But like the Kicks and Toyota’s CH-R, the Soul is front-drive-only in a market that appears to be embracing AWD with its small wagons. Advantage to the Soul for nimble handling, lighter overall weight, and efficient packaging all around – but a downer during a Maine snowstorm, when all four wheels providing propulsion would have been much appreciated.

Since day one, Kia has kept the Soul a solid entry-level value. Base models, now with a 1.6-liter 130-hp engine and six gears that you row yourself, start at only $16,490 with EPA estimates of 24/30/27-mpg. Didn’t learn to operate three pedals, or just not interested in that much driving exercise? The Soul with a six-speed automatic climbs to $18,190.

Full of easy-to-use buttons and dials, delivering excellent tactile feel, the Soul covers all of the essentials: power locks, windows, and mirrors; tilt and telescoping steering column; cruise and climate, back-up camera, and automatic headlamps are all standard, as are rear cross-traffic alert and blind spot monitoring systems. Two power sockets and a single USB port front the console’s open bin space; other electronic driving aids are options, or are standard on other Soul models.

And there are several Soul editions to get your groove on with. Kia now offers three different gas engines, 1.6-liter, 2.0-liter w/160-hp, 1.6 liter turbo with 201-hp, plus the six-speed transmissions as well as a new seven-speed dual-clutch automatic for the turbo engine. The Kia Soul Turbo will also feature optional two-tone paint schemes.

A fourth model in the lineup sees the most changes, and will debut late this spring as a 2020 Soul.

The fully electric Soul EV used to have a 111-mile range when fully charged – barely more than the first generation Nissan Leaf. The second-gen Soul EV will feature a larger battery pack, a more potent 201-hp electric motor, and an expected full-charge driving range double the previous Soul EV.

Pricing has yet to be released, and only certain states will get the Soul EV initially, but consumers should expect little deviation from the previous EV’s $33,950 base price. The Soul EV will share componentry with the Hyundai Kona EV.

Given a wheelbase of just 101 inches, drivers can be forgiven for expecting a choppy ride. The Soul surprises with impressive ride balance. The Kia’s throttle tip-in is spot-on, rendering enthusiastic power without flooring the right pedal for modest gains in speed – an engineering attribute still missing on many mainstream products.

This helps the car along easily, building momentum as requested, or, squirting into traffic when necessary. After 10 minutes behind the wheel, it’s hard to not be grinning while driving the Soul.

The cabin is muted at all speeds, the doors close with a nice thunk, and rear seat passengers have plenty of head and leg room. Under the rear liftgate rests a deep cargo well – with a low lift-over angle so heavy items are never a strain – that easily expands to more than 60 cubic feet, with folding seatbacks that have release levers reached from the back.

Great space utilization, comfortable cabin, composed driving dynamics, plus unique styling all add up to the essence of the Soul, a small car that delivers big impressions.

Kia’s dealer network will have even bigger news later this spring, when the made-in-the-USA Telluride eight-passenger SUV debuts. This rugged-looking take on the Chevy Tahoe class will give Kia a product that is different from crossovers, but not as truck-ish as the top-selling Chevy.

With more than 40 percent of its products now made in America, Kia has come a long way – and plans on going a lot further. Just think, much of it started with those little hamsters.


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