The new Kia Soul begs one big question: Is this thing cool?

The Soul is a five-door hatch about a half-foot shorter than a Scion xB, one of the youth-market vehicles that likely inspired Kia to enter this niche (the Honda Element is another; ditto the Nissan Cube, the all-new version of which will arrive here next spring as a 2009 model). The Soul began life as a very cool concept car in 2006, but the powerful, big-haunch look and a lot of the trick, appealing aspects have been finessed out in the obligatory production compromise.

Looks are the whole ballgame here, because beneath the radically angled window line and the buff fender bulges and the seat fabric that glows in the dark with the word “soul” is basically a good-sized but unspectacular economy box.

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