MIAMI – Kia Motors Corp. has waited anxiously for the Soul for three years and now is hoping the subcompact cross/utility vehicle will put the budget South Korean brand on more buyers’ radar screens, both in the key U.S. market and abroad.

The boxy model is not unique in conception, with the Honda Element and Scion xB already on sale in the U.S. for years, and the Nissan Cube is arriving in May.

All aim to provide something different, blurring the lines between car, minivan and utility vehicle, with lots of interior capacity for passengers and cargo, easy ingress and egress and sometimes head-scratching styling.

But combined with its fresh and distinctive high-quality interior, quirky-but-not-too-far-out exterior and an incredible value proposition, Kia’s Soul shows the brand is serious about making a play for design respect.

With the Soul, Kia hits the market with a perfect vehicle for these times: It is not too big, nor too small; has a choice of two reasonably fuel-efficient, if somewhat underpowered, engines; offers four trim levels, each with ample standard equipment; and has oodles of progressive but sensible design features, inside and out.

Ward’s tests two Souls here, an $18,345 Soul Sport, the top-level trim, and an $18,595 Soul! (yes, Kia is so excited with the funky trim level it gets an exclamation mark).

The other Soul trims include a base model and the Soul+, both of which slot under the Soul! Prices include a $695 destination and handling charge.

All but the base Soul, with a 122-hp 1.6L 4-cyl., come with a 2.0L all-aluminum I-4, mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.

The Soul Sport tested pairs the 142-hp 2.0L with a 5-speed manual. In mostly slow-speed city driving, this combination proves relatively peppy, but it’s less enthusiastic when accelerating on the freeway. Downshifting doesn’t help much.

The 4-speed automatic in the Soul! blunts the 2.0L’s performance even further, constantly downshifting, without boosting torque noticeably.

But either combo is sufficient for everyday driving.

The 2.0L’s performance specs only outdo those of the Cube, which has a 122-hp 1.8L I-4 but is the smallest physically of the boxes.

The Soul Sport appropriately has a tightly tuned suspension, but pristine Miami-area roads provide little challenge to the chassis.

Roads here are flat and mostly straight, but in turns downtown and passing on freeways, the vehicle’s high center of gravity translates into excessive body roll.

The Soul Sport comes with a standard red and black interior. It’s fetching and a nice alternative to the staid black or grey interiors of the Scion xB and Nissan Cube.

However, for some buyers, Kia’s loud color combination might get old.

The Soul! has a sand and black scheme that complements the standard hound’s tooth fabric bearing the same colors. Kia wisely uses the sharp-but-loud fabric minimally, trimming just the top of the four main seats and all five headrests.

Kia truly bares its design soul with this subcompact, and it’s nice to see the auto maker pay so much attention to detail in the interior.

This approach is most evident in the tooth-like scalloping of the buttons to the left and right of the stereo, accented with grey lines, and the stamped plastic on the dash, which has impressions that mimic the mesh of the speaker covers.

The speakers, themselves, are used as design elements, integrated into the vents and topping the center stack. Optional door-mounted subwoofers, with red lighting that pulses to the beat of music, are very cool.

’10 Kia Soul Sport
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine DOHC 2.0L I-4 with iron block, aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 142 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 137 lb.-ft. (186 Nm) @ 4,600 rpm
Compression ratio 10.1:1
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 100.4 ins. (255 cm)
Overall length 161.6 ins. (410 cm)
Overall width 70.3 ins. (179 cm)
Overall height 63.4 ins. (161 cm)
Curb weight 2,800 lbs. (1,270 kg)
Base price $13,300-$16,950
Fuel economy 24/30 mpg city/hwy (9.8-7.8 L/100 km)
Competition Scion xB, Nissan Cube, Honda Element
Pros Cons
Snappy, fresh interior Lots of hard plastic
Easy in and out Liftgate seems passe
Fuel sipper 2.0L I-4 lacks punch

The 60/40 split rear seat can fold almost flat. The pin-style pull levers at the top of the seatbacks are large enough to hold when lowering the seats, so they don’t slam down violently, as in so many other vehicles.

Ward’s editors were so impressed by the pulsating speakers, bold red interior trim and ample roominess, the Soul receives a special-achievement award for “Grooviest Interior” in the 2009 Ward’s Interior of the Year competition.

The Soul’s exterior is true to that of the concept shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2006, minus exaggerated wheel wells.

Side mirrors are black on the base Soul and body-colored on the three upper trims, as is the case with the door handles.

The stingray-like front fascia has large, high-mounted headlamps and a centered, horizontal grille opening.

Another design feature is the reverse greenhouse, with the rear window’s glass subset below the pillars.

One complaint: The Soul’s standard top-hinged rear door is not as user-friendly as the Cube’s refrigerator-style, left-hinged door. While Ward’s hasn’t conducted a full test of the Cube, a weekend in a Cube S CVT proves its swinging door handy when loading groceries in a busy parking lot.

Real-world fuel economy could not be registered in either of our 2.0L-equipped Souls, as neither had a mileage computer.

Kia says the models will get 24/30 mpg city/highway (9.8-7.8 L/100 km), slightly better in each category than the larger ’09 xB and much better than the 20- and 22-mpg (11.8 and 10.7 L/100 km) averages for manual and automatic 2-wheel-drive Elements.

Kia’s Soul is looking like the box to beat due to its high-quality, thoughtful interior and relatively low price tag, starting at $13,300 and hitting just below $19,000 for a fully loaded Sport model.

A 2WD Element can’t be had for under $20,000; an xB begins at $16,420. While the Cube will start low, at $13,990, it tops out at $19,370.

Kia Motors America isn’t releasing sales expectations for the Soul but says it will receive 40,000 units from KMC in 2009, indicating high hopes for the model, which is arriving now at U.S. Kia dealers.

The Soul’s pricing and features should prove attractive to anyone shopping for an affordable, functional, stylish and comfortable cute ute.