by: KIA MOTOR COMPANY - Despite its unconventional looks, the 2013 Kia Soul is a surprisingly practical car.It’s a good thing the 2013 Kia Soul is so cute and fun to drive, because it’s almost impossible to review objectively.

The first challenge is how to describe the boxy hatchback. Is it a car, a wagon, a van or a crossover? Then there are the ridiculous names for the two upper trim levels, “+” and “!” — which apparently mean Plus and Exclaim. And why does a vehicle marketed at young urban hipsters even have a top-of-the-line model that includes heated front leather bucket seats and a sunroof?

All those questions go away the minute you see the Soul, however. The weird UFO styling is so unusual, you can’t help but smile, especially at those models equipped with the way oversized 18-inch alloy wheels.

The interior is slightly more conventional, with all the controls in the logical places. But then there’s the knob that controls the color rings around the door-mounted stereo speakers. You can choose Mood for a constant glow or Pulse for a throb timed to the music. Fortunately, you can also turn it off.

But despite all odds, the Soul is a gas to drive — zippy and nimble, with precise steering and good brakes, too. Our fully-loaded test model came with the more powerful 2.0-liter inline four cylinder engine that pumps out a respectable 164 horsepower and a smooth shifting six-speed automatic transmission. That’s right, an genuine automatic, not a noisy, unresponsive Continuously Variable Transmission like so many manufacturers are using these days to maximize mileage.

The combination was surprisingly fast and entertaining for such a boxy vehicle. And speaking of entertaining, we also appreciated the massive stereo meant to appeal to youngsters. We didn’t need the speaker lights to follow the bass lines, thank you very much.

One obvious advantage of the boxy design is an impressive amount of interior space, both in the front and back seat areas. Headroom is not a problem for even the tallest drivers and passengers. Cargo space was limited behind the rear seats, but sizeable when they were folded down.

About the only drawback was a stiff ride over speed bumps caused by the optional 18-inch wheels and low-profile tires. The ride wasn't bad the rest of the time, though.

The Soul competes directly against two other boxy vehciles, the arty Nissan Cube and the squatter Scion xB. Although Toyota founded Scion to appeal to the youth market, the xB is actually more conservative looking than either the Soul or Cube. Other competitors include the spacious Chevy Sonic subcompact, the surprisingly roomy Chevy Spark sub-subcompact and the well-engineered Honda Fit. None stand out as miuch as the Soul, however, if that’s important to you.

And few are as reasonably priced, with the base Soul starting at under $15,000. Our test “!” topped $23,000 thanks to its numerous options, which included a navigation system with a rear view camera and susprisingly large display screen. Considering that’s the most expensive Soul on the market, the value of Kia’s odd little whatever-it-is should be readiloy apparent. No wonder we noticed so many different kinds of people behind the wheel of them during our week of test driving.

Kia is reportedly revising the styling for the 2014 version of the Soul. It debuted in late March at the New York Auto Show. Pictures from there shows it looks smoother on the outside and more refined inside. The change is less notable than what Scion did between the first and current versions of the xB. Although reviewers accused Scion of stifling the xB's quirky character, it gained more interior room, power and fuel economy. Although Kia is promising the name improvements for the next Soul, if you like it now, you'd better not wait.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: Soul “!”

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Styles: Five-door car.

• Engines: 1.6-liter inline 4 (138 hp, 123 lb-ft); 2.0-liter inline 4 (164 hp and 148 lb-ft).

• Transmission: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 25 mpg city/30 mpg (1.6); 23/28/25 (2.0/auto); 24/29/26 (2.0/auto or manual w/eco)

• Price: Beginning at approximately $14,400 ($23,575 as tested).

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