The Kia Soul is the first car that ever startled me.

It wasn't the boxy exterior design that, while fashionable these days, hardly makes it the most outlandish car on the road. Neither was it the Korean crossover's performance, which is pedestrian at best and far from heart-stopping.

No, while I was out for a spin with my cell phone connected to the Soul's Bluetooth system it rang, and when I answered it the car's speakers pulsed a bright red in time with the voice of the person on the other end. That it was my mother-in-law had nothing to do with the quick spell of uneasiness I felt before I figured out what was going on.

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I knew that the upgraded stereo system in my Soul! (the "!" is part of the model name) had lights in the speakers that could be set to follow the beat of the music, but I hadn't expected them to kick in during a phone call. It was a disconcerting experience, one that brought to mind countless films featuring sentient technology taking control and committing dastardly acts on its human creators.

Thankfully, by the time I explained where she could find the baby stroller and returned my attention to trying not to look like an overage hipster behind the wheel of my “Alien” green Soul, I'd pretty much gotten over it. At least I was prepared to brace myself for the next call.

The only thing about the Soul that is more remarkable than this utterly unnecessary, but devilishly cool feature, is how well-done the rest of the car is. Remember, whether they like to admit it or not, Kia is basically the discount version of Hyundai. Think Old Navy to Hyundai's Gap.

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While the upmarket “!” is priced at $18,595, including shipping, the “Base” version starts at an outlet center price of $13,995. At either end of the spectrum you get an exterior that looks like it just graduated from auto design school, and an interior layout with a fit and finish so good that you hardly notice it is made almost entirely from rock hard plastic.

The hooded, triple-gauge instrument cluster could be from one of Kia's sports cars, if they made any, and the center stack bulges out from the dashboard putting all of the climate and audio controls within easy reach. Fortunately, mine was done up in a black and tan two-tone with houndstooth accents on the upholstery, as the top of the line “Sport” model is dressed in a bright red that may be as shocking as my experience with the phone.

The “!” comes standard with the aforementioned 315-watt audio system complete with 8 speakers, a subwoofer, satellite radio and the disco lights. The sound is clear and strong, helped by an interior that is absent of wind noise to a level uncommon in a car with such an upright, foursquare profile. You expect the rush of hurricane force winds, but the aural beating is no worse than water coming out of an aerated faucet.

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Road roar is also subdued, which is a surprise since the “!” is fitted with 225/45-series tires on 18-inch wheels. That is nearly as large as the rubber on a Ford Mustang GT, a performance car with more than twice the power of the Soul’s 142 horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. At this level of oomph, shoes that big are about as necessary as speakers that shine in the dark, but on a vehicle that's barely a foot and a half longer than a MINI Cooper, they do give the visual impression that it's wearing dubs.

The base model has 122 hp 1.6-liter motor that is fitted with more sensible 15-inch wheels, but you'll want to step up to the bigger engine because even it left me wanting.

From zero to 20 or 30 mph, or whenever the optional 4-speed automatic transmission happens to shift into 2nd gear, the powertrain feels strong, but after that it gives up the ghost and takes on a decidedly unhurried demeanor. This is fine for trundling around town, but nothing to get excited about on the open road. If you hope to have anything resembling fun with the Soul, skip the slushbox and stick with the 5-speed manual.

The “Sport” gets its name from its specially tuned suspension, but the setup on the “!” strikes such nice balance between comfort and handling that I see no reason why Kia wasted the effort. It will take on cobblestone streets without punishing its occupants, and you can even coax the back end to slide a bit when you drive it hard through corners, despite it being available only in front-wheel drive. Among the current crop of boxes on wheels - which includes the Honda Element, Nissan Cube and Scion Xb - I'm going to have to give the kudos to Kia for cracking this elusive code.

The Soul is exactly the same length as the subcompact Honda Fit, which is great when you're looking for a parking space or squeezing your way through stop and go traffic. However, even though it is about three inches taller and wider, the Soul has less luggage room than that car, rear seats up or down. Granted, Honda has somehow managed to contain a small black hole in the back of the fit, so it's hardly a fair fight, but one does wonder where all of those cubic inches went.

Fuel economy of 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway for the big motor won't amaze anyone, but it shouldn't disappoint either. Compared to the compact crossover competition, it's right on the money, and the automatic transmission returns the same mileage as the manual. For those who dare go for the entry level engine, the payoff for austerity is an EPA rating of 26/31 mpg.

To keep things simple and cost effective, Kia offers the Soul in just four trim levels (one called "+" slots in between “Base” and "!") and there aren't many factory options available for each one. But if you’d like to tinker, there is a catalog full of all kinds of accessories that do everything from dress up the body to pretend to make the car faster, so if you think the Soul is lacking in spirit, you can always pimp it, or slam it, or whatever they call it these days.

My mother in law wouldn't know what I was talking about anyway. Neither would I.


2010 Kia Soul

Base Price: $13,995

As Tested: $18,595

Engine: 1.6L inline-4, 2.0L inline-4

Power: 122 hp, 115 lb-ft torque, 142 hp, 137 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic

MPG: 26 city/31 highway, 24 city/30 highway

What do you think of the Soul?

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