Kia's cheeky Soul has come rolling out of the new-product chute in high gear, thanks to its impressive mix of style, features, fun and affordability. While we're still awaiting the arrival of a long-termer for the KBB.com fleet, a recent close encounter of the more transient kind helped reinforce our initial impressions about how and why this diminutive newcomer is currently besting its primary rivals -- the Scion xB and Nissan Cube -- to claim sales leadership in the latest Gen Y Battle of the Boxes.

Spun from a modified Rio platform and blessed with an extremely rigid overall structure, the Soul imparts a major measure of hipness to its squared-off sheetmetal with distinctive contours, a unique bias-cut greenhouse configuration, short front/rear overhangs and a purposeful stance that emphasizes its youthful personality. But large doors and car-like step-in height ensure easy access/egress for passengers of any age and its big, single-piece rear hatch with a bumper-level lower margin adds serious practicality to the mix in all four Soul flavors -- base, Soul+, the Soul! (Exclaim) that we drove and the top-line Soul Sport.

Inside, the Soul's quasi-lounge motif gets pulled together pretty well visually, mixing colors and textures with highly legible analog gauges, extremely functional basic control layouts and lots of stow spaces. Frankly, we think it would benefit most from the addition of some soft-touch surfaces, but it's hard to fault much else about the way Kia has configured the feature mix. Although the $13,995 base model does lack items like keyless remote entry, cruise control, dual 12V outlets, privacy glass and Bluetooth, all of which are standard in the other versions, it still comes with a full range of power assists, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with SIRIUS Satellite Radio, USB/AUX inputs, a tilt steering column and front/front-side/side-curtain airbags. At a still very attractive $18,595 price of entry, our Soul! tester stepped up that content with its standard power moonroof and Audio Upgrade Package that adds a 315-watt amplifier plus a center speaker, subwoofer and driver-selectable mood lights in the door-panel speakers.

Firm but decently contoured, the Soul's front buckets are definitely the preferred people perches, but its 60/40 split/folding rear bench proved surprisingly accommodating, with sufficient head and leg room carry two adults in comfort and enough padding in the center spot to tote a modestly-scaled kid, as well. While it lacks the fore/aft adjustability and variable seatback rake offered by the cube, a quick, easy flip-down process lets you expand the cargo capacity from 19.3 cubic feet to an impressive 53.4 cubic feet of extremely usable space.

In keeping with Kia's safety-centric approach to design, every Soul is equipped with a full complement of dynamic assists -- including stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake-force Distribution. However, the Soul! and Sport also wear bigger 225/45 tires on 18-inch alloy wheels. While that upgrade does help elevate confidence levels during enthusiastic cornering -- a commodity further bolstered by even-tauter suspension tuning in the Sport -- it also causes a bit more bump and thump to be sent back into the cabin when the road surface is anything but first rate. That minor caveat aside, our Soul! was as adept at slipping in and out of urban traffic snarls and congested mall parking lots as it was negotiating two-lane twisties.

Motivation for this engaging front-driver comes in two levels. The base Soul is fitted with a 122-horspower/1.6-liter four-cylinder with a five-speed manual transmission but all other models come with a more potent and more desirable 142-horse/2.0-liter upgrade that can be matched with either the aforementioned gearbox or an optional four-speed automatic. Ours had the latter transmission, and while hardly cutting edge in cog count, it does its part to help bring up 60 mph in about nine seconds and carries the same 24/30 mpg city/highway EPA numbers as the do-it-yourself alternative. The Kia Soul might not be the perfect choice for everyone, but all things considered---including its comprehensive 5 year/60,000 mile warranty -- there's a lot here worth considering.

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