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AUTO REVIEW: Kia Soul mixes offbeat cool, performance

Like the way the godfather of soul James Brown's style and energy blasted American music out of the easy-listening blahs, the 2010 Kia Soul hatchback mainlines fun and funk into a bland brand heretofore defined by the logical appeal of low prices...

Like the way the godfather of soul James Brown's style and energy blasted American music out of the easy-listening blahs, the 2010 Kia Soul hatchback mainlines fun and funk into a bland brand heretofore defined by the logical appeal of low prices and long warranties.

Leave your left brain at home, clap your hands and say yeah as the eye-catching Soul rolls into sight, lights in its speakers flashing in time to the tunes pouring out of your iPod.

The Soul is the latest player in the offbeat-cool class of small cars inspired by the Honda Element. Exactly the same length as a Honda Fit subcompact, the 161.6-inch-long Soul combines a low price with high fuel economy, arena-like interior room, spunky performance and unique looks in a winning package.

Prices for the 2010 Soul start at $13,300 for a base model with a 122-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission.

Kia offers four equipment levels: base, the cutesy-named + and ! and the less-cloying Sport. Stepping up to the + gets you a satisfying 142-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and manual transmission for $14,950, and the automatic version of the + will cost another $950. Top-of-the-line ! and Sport models get the 2.0-liter engine and go for $16,950 with the manual and $17,900 with the four-speed automatic transmission.

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I tested a very well-equipped manual transmission Soul Sport that stickered at $17,650. All prices exclude destination charges.

While it's the same size as the sleek and aerodynamic Fit, the Soul's offbeat looks and roomy interior make it a more direct competitor for cars like the Chevrolet HHR retro wagon, the bigger and boxier Honda Element and the cool-to-be-square Nissan Cube and Scion xB.

The four-cylinder engine in the Sport provides plenty of zip for dicing in traffic. The Kia's long wheelbase and wide track provide a stable, road-gripping ride that encourages sporty driving. The Soul is considerably more entertaining to drive than the bigger xB or underpowered Cube.

The transmission lineup is a bit archaic in a world of six-speed manuals and five-speed automatics, however. The Soul Sport I tested accelerated ably, but a sixth gear would be welcome to boost performance and fuel economy while reducing engine noise.

Despite the dated transmissions, the Soul has excellent EPA fuel economy ratings. The 2.0-liter engine returns 24 m.p.g. in the city and 30 m.p.g. on the highway, while the 1.6-liter achieved 26 city/31 highway.

An innovative exterior design complements those mechanical virtues with a cheeky long-nosed body that features an aft-sloping roof, big doors for easy passenger access and a large and convenient tailgate. From its high roof and big wraparound headlights to a long wheelbase that pushes the wheels to the corners, there's nothing quite like the Soul on the road.

Outward visibility is excellent, thanks to large sideview mirrors and expansive windows all around.

The Soul offers a cavernous 102.3 cubic feet of passenger space and 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat. That's as much passenger space, and more cargo room, than most midsize sedans offer.

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With the seat folded flat, cargo space rises to 53.4 cubic feet.

The Soul tops the xB's passenger space and has nearly as much cargo room, despite the Scion being 5.7 inches longer. It offers considerably more room than the smaller Cube.

While the Soul Sport I tested assaulted the eye with a bright red and black interior, it also offered welcome features like USB connectivity for iPods, a separate auxiliary input jack and Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phones.

Adjustable mood lighting includes a feature that set lights in the front-door speaker grilles flashing in time with music from a good six-speaker sound system.

Hit the lights, cue the J.B. horns and get on up. Kia's got a groove. Make the scene like a Soul machine.

KIA SOUL AT A GLANCE

Front-wheel drive, five-passenger subcompact hatchback

Powertrain: 122-horsepower, 1.6-liter or 142-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine; five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

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Price range: $13,300 to $17,900.

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