Kia's redesigned Soul and Fiat's all-new 500L are the latest models in the quirky "toaster" class of sub-compact cars.
Picture a square box riding on a car platform. The general idea is combine the comfort and efficiency of a small car with the functionality of a sport utility vehicle or crossover. And style? Let's just say the valet will be parking these behind the restaurant. Next to his car.
The success of these vehicles has been mixed. Honda's Element and the Scion xB, made by Toyota, were the founding members back in 2003. They enjoyed several years of healthy sales. But Honda discontinued the Element after 2011, and by 2013 sales of the Scion xB had dwindled to about a third of their peak numbers, according to Edmunds.com.
Kia's Soul went on sale in 2009, and a year later it began dominating the segment and never looked back. With a savvy mix of street cred, value and usability, the Soul was one of the most popular models on Kia's lot in 2013, pulling in more than 118,000 sales.
For the second-generation version, Kia clearly didn't want to mess with success. The South Korean automaker gave the 2014 Soul a thorough, yet subtle, update. It's a smidge bigger in nearly every dimension, and it rides on a new front-wheel-drive chassis. The styling has been tweaked, but from a distance you'll need your glasses to tell the difference between old and new.
Fiat's 500L is the newest toaster in the kitchen. Picking up where the tiny 500 leaves off, the 500L is an all-new four-door model that Fiat hopes will expand its brand's reach. The fact that Mini started with just the Cooper and now sells seven different body styles is not lost on Fiat.
So with one newcomer to the field and one fan favorite hoping to keep its crown, we grabbed a 500L and Soul to see what's what. A comparison test seemed logical — until we actually drove these cars, and instantly realized there's no comparison.
One of these new squares is exemplary. The other one should never have been let out of the factory.
We'll get right to the point. This is one of the worst new cars we've driven in a long time. Nearly every aspect of this car — from the drivetrain, to the interior, to the design — is a mess.
This was more than a little surprising. On paper, the 500L seems to have a lot going for it. Under the 500L's short hood is the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that Fiat uses in the extra-spicy 500 Abarth. In the 500L, it makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Our tester matched this engine with the six-speed dual-clutch transmission, a $1,350 option.
And yet this pairing sapped all of the joy out of driving. There was too much turbo lag to get any quick acceleration from a stop. Once the engine had revved enough to generate decent power, it was loud and coarse. The transmission lurched and shuddered where its contemporaries breeze through shifts with imperceptible quickness.
The 500L's interior is an ergonomic nightmare. The seats have all the comfort and support of a cast-iron skillet. The climate controls are positioned too low on the dashboard to see during the day. The shoddy construction and hard plastics felt cut-rate and anything but European.
The windshield is flanked by two poorly positioned A-pillars (the piece of metal that runs from the hood to the roof) on either side. This meant less visibility, giving the impression of driving some kind of cranky shuttle bus or London taxi. It looks like one from the outside too.
It's rare that a new car these days has so few redeeming qualities, and we had to search to find them. The navigation system is inexpensive. That was nice. Tall people have enough room in the back seat, something you can't say for Fiat's smaller 500.
The 500L is more fuel efficient than the Soul, putting up 24 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg on the highway against the Kia's 23/31 numbers. And the 500L does manage to throw off a slightly upmarket Euro vibe.
But for a brand looking to leverage its Italian roots while expanding into new segments, the 500L misses the mark by miles. Maybe its the car's provenance: The 500L is assembled at the same Serbian site where the Yugo was built.
The factory might as well be built on a grave site.
Every thing the Fiat did wrong, this refreshed Kia did right. This is a happy car. A week of testing an obnoxiously yellow version left us willing to overlook the Soul's funky styling.
The happiness starts with the drivetrain. Most Souls (excluding the base model) come with a 2.0-liter direct-injected, four-cylinder engine that makes 164 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. The engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The duo was smooth and quiet, with plenty of power to move the Soul around. With help from a stiffer and lighter chassis, it handles better than the 500L, which leaned too much in turns. The seating position is comfortable and offers a great view of the road.
Though the Soul is more than 4 inches shorter than the 500L, the Kia trumps the Fiat's in interior space for both passengers and cargo. Instead of trying to be too stylish or hip, the dashboard is remarkably approachable and intuitive. Nearly any button needed was right where you expected it, and the touch-screen navigation system remains one of the easiest to use in the industry.
When compared with the 500L, our complaints with the Soul's interior are remarkably trivial. The button for the panoramic moon roof is stupid and made it impossible to close the glass but not the sunshade. And we could live without the goofy speakers that would glow a variety of colors depending on the music. At least you can turn this feature off.
Our tester came with everything on Kia's option menu: heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, the massive panoramic sunroof, touch-screen navigation system, backup camera, HID headlights, leather seats, etc.
This pushed its sticker price to $26,195. While the Fiat 500L Easy we tested rang in cheaper ($24,445), it also came with less (no leather, heated seats, heated steering wheel, or moon roof). Pile the same goodies onto the Fiat, and it actually ends up costing about $1,000 more than our Kia.
Bargain hunters should note that the cheapest Fiat 500L (with a six-speed manual transmission) starts at $19,995, while the cheapest Soul (with the 2.0-liter engine) sells for $18,995.
What started out as a comparison between two potentially worthy adversaries ended as anything but. Kia's new Soul deftly improves what made it a darling with consumers.
Fiat, meanwhile, does itself no favors by bringing the 500L to the U.S., a market that is still getting to know the brand after decades of absence. This is a rough reintroduction, and Fiat should have known better. We're not a group that likes the smell of a Yugo.