Toyota RAV4 vs. Kia Soul: Which crossover is tops?

The Toyota RAV4 and Kia Soul stand in sharp contrast across a sea of crossover vehicles. Both of these models offer impressive levels of practicality to suit frugal requirements, but it will take a test drive to determine which is right for you. 

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
The 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is presented at the New York International Auto Show in New York.

The Toyota RAV4 and Kia Soul are models for which ‘tall wagon’ may be a more apt description. They're sure not sedans in form and function, yet they may handle many of the same needs that basic sedans previously have for cost-conscious small families or urban commuter types. In truth, that’s about where the similarities end.

The Soul and RAV4 stand in sharp contrast across a sea of crossover vehicles. The latest RAV4 is solidly a compact crossover wagon, with an overall length of around 180 inches. And it fits right into its class. The Soul might be nearly a foot and a half shorter, as well as narrower, but there’s something to be said for its packaging, which brings nearly as much real-world-usable space. That packaging, and its design, also mean that it stands out.

These two models are both very popular, yet they’re pretty much polar opposites with respect to styling. One of them, the RAV4, essentially plays it safe, with a profile that blends in alongside other affordable compacts like the Honda CR-V, Chevy Equinox, and Mazda CX-5. Up close, it’s far from inspiring; although a refresh on the way for the 2016 model year fine-tunes some of the details and tweaks and adds more soft-touch surfaces.

The Soul, on the other hand, makes a memorable, unique statement from first glance, and we’d call it the winner from a style standpoint. Its blunt front end and boxy shape and silhouette are unmistakable, as is its roofline, which appears to float over a blacked-out greenhouse. Altogether, it adds up to a look that’s distinct but not too gimmicky. On the inside, it’s mostly good stuff, although a bit more small-car ordinary, with some nice details, including available LED cabin mood lighting.

Performance for both of these models is far from stellar. We’d place both soundly in the ‘adequate’ category, but driving enthusiasts or anyone with serious performance expectations might want to look elsewhere. The RAV4 does just fine with its 176-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and it rides and handles like a relatively nimble sedan. Four-wheel drive is an option, and there’s even a 4WD Lock mode for predictable traction in snow or mud. As for the Soul, 4WD or all-wheel drive aren’t at all offered, so again it’s a bit difficult to compare. Its driving manners are essentially like those of a soft-riding compact car.

We’d recommend that you go for a Soul with the larger 164-hp, 2.0-liter engine; this engine is effective in moving the Soul quickly enough with the six-speed automatic transmission, although the combination can get quite boomy at times (like up long grades or with a few passengers aboard). A six-speed manual is offered on the Soul, but only with the smaller engine. The Soul maneuvers really well around tight spaces—a definite advantage over the larger RAV4—but for both of these models the steering itself suffers from a lack of feedback, and weighting could be better.

You might find a quick consult of the official interior specifications for these two models a bit surprising. Despite being a class apart with respect to exterior size, they’re near equals in terms of EPA passenger space, and their all-out cargo space isn’t too far off. Credit the Soul’s boxiness.

In reality, the usability of the two cabins is a bit different. Both of these models have back seats that aren’t as comfortable as what you’d get in a mid-size sedan; they make some compromises in contouring and support in the name of flat folding for expanded cargo space. The third-row seating option the RAV4 offered in its last generation is now a distant memory, and both models have a reasonably spacious back seat. Where you’ll notice the Soul’s smaller dimensions is in its width; placing three adults across in the back seat is pretty much impossible in the Soul, but doable for short stints in the RAV4. Ride quality is quite impressive in either of these models, but we’d probably give the RAV4 our comfort preference for its generally quieter cabin.

The RAV4 is strong on safety, but it’s by no means class-leading. Although it now achieves a mix of four- and five-star federal ratings, and all ‘good’ ratings from the IIHS, it lacks any active safety or frontal crash prevention (that’s another thing that’s going to change for 2016, by the way). The latest Soul gets better absolute safety ratings than the RAV4—top IIHS ‘good’ results right from the start, as well as five stars in all crash categories—though it too lacks active-safety features. Outward visibility in either of these models isn’t ideal, however.

The Soul may be a class below the RAV4 in size, but it doesn’t skimp on features. Especially near the top of their respective lineups, you might argue that the Soul is the better-equipped of the two, as it offers things like ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and a heated steering wheel—all of which aren’t offered on the RAV4. The Soul offers a pretty great infotainment system, with UVO eServices telematics, but we’d probably give the 576-watt JBL audio and Entune app-based infotainment system in the RAV4 a nudge ahead for audiophiles.

One final note: This current generation of the RAV4 has done away with the V-6 engine that used to be an option; but some shoppers will be pleased that there’s a high-mileage hybrid model on the way. With a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor system, as part of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, the upcoming 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid will offer stronger performance as well as EPA fuel economy numbers anticipated near 35 mpg Combined. That will make the RAV4 a game-changer in many comparisons, including this one.

As for now, it’s tempting to call the Kia Soul the winner, because it’s far and away the higher-rated here in our full reviews. Both of these models offer impressive levels of practicality to suit frugal requirements. We’d strongly recommend driving them both, and seeing which style and layout best fits what you want and need.

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