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 U.S. and abroad.

The boxy model is not unique in concept, with the Honda Element and Scion xB already on sale for years, and the Nissan Cube arrives this month.

All aim to blur the lines between car, minivan and utility vehicle, with lots of interior space, easy ingress and egress and sometimes head-scratching styling.

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

The Soul is a perfect vehicle for the 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 features, inside and out.

Ward's tests two Souls, 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 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 only outguns the Cube, which has a 122-hp 1.8L I-4 but is the smallest physically of the boxes.

The Soul Sport has a tightly tuned suspension, but pristine Miami-area roads provide little challenge to the chassis. Still, the vehicle's high center of gravity translates into unwanted 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 bares its design soul with this subcompact. It's nice to see the auto maker pay so much attention to interior detail.

This approach is evident in the tooth-like scalloping of the buttons framing the stereo. Optional door-mounted speakers, with red lighting that pulses to the beat of the music, are very cool.

The 60/40 split rear seat folds almost flat. The pin-style 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 other vehicles.

Ward's editors were so impressed by the bold red trim and pulsating speakers, 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 the concept displayed at the 2006 Detroit auto show, minus exaggerated wheel wells.

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

One complaint: The Soul's standard top-hinged rear door is not as user-friendly as the Cube's refrigerator-style, left-hinged door.

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 than the larger '09 xB and much better than the 20- and 22-mpg (11.8 and 10.7 L/100 km) averages for 2-wheel-drive Elements.

Kia isn't releasing sales expectations but says it will receive 40,000 Souls from KMC in 2009, indicating high hopes as the model arrives now at U.S. dealers.

The Soul offers a 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.

The Soul might be the box to beat.