Kia baring its Soul before youthful carbuyers

When piloting the 2010 Chevy Camaro sport coupe through the Detroit 'burbs, jaws dropped, eyes popped and one loyalist was so moved he broke into a gallop to try to catch up with it for a closer look.

When cruising in the 2010 Kia Soul around Chicagoland, onlookers broke into giggles, laughter and even a guffaw. Rather than hopping in for the ride to school, granddaughter No. 2 took off in the opposite direction.

Apostille documents. Document authentication. Birth certificate apostille.

Soul is a member of the fraternity of really weird-looking vehicles aimed at youth short on coin. Others are the Scion xB on sale now and the Nissan Cube, which arrives in May.

Kia says buyers will range from 18 to 35 years old. Based on that, many Souls will be bought on the monthly payment plan, with Mom and Dad co-signing for a few, if not writing some checks.

Soul's goal is to be sufficiently different from the regular cast of characters at dealerships to be considered cool, though it's basically a small, high-mileage station wagon. Some might call it a crossover, but to Kia it's an "urban passenger vehicle," to put distance between it and the "w" word.

While xB is wide and square with a flat roof, Soul is narrow and rectangular with a flat roof. Like xB, Kia figured a novel design along with an odd name would attract attention, so in addition to a base Soul, there are "+," "!" and Sport versions. The "+" model is called Plus, the "!" is called Exclaim. We tested the "+," which most will call Plus rather crossing their fingers when asked what they're driving.

A 1.6-liter, 122-horsepower 4-cylinder with 5-speed manual powers the base model; a 2-liter, 142-h.p. 4 with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic is in all other versions. We tested the automatic. The 2-liter is rated at 24 m.p.g. city/30 highway with either it or manual, so there's no need for rush-hour shifting to get the most mileage.

But the 2-liter tends to growl when you give it some gas. And rather than break from the light, it takes a brief pause for a deep breath. The 2-liter clearly is meant for entry into the 30 m.p.g. club.

With a short, 100.4-inch wheelbase, you'd expect harsh ride that makes logs of tar marks in the road. Nope. Soul minimizes bumps and bruises. Good room front and rear for legs and head. But the wide console between the front seats squeezes the hips.

The back seat holds two adults or three kids. It's in front of the rear wheels, so you don't suffer each bump.

All seat backs are decorated with the word "Soul"—dozens of them. Doesn't necessarily look good but helps hide dirt. You also can find a little bit of Soul on the front floor mats. Either Kia is catering to the clergy or helping the laity get a closer parking spot at church.

All doors have bottle holders, with warnings cans or cups aren't welcome. The center console offers tiny stowage space underneath, but the glove box is large, with a top shelf to hold more.

Space behind the rear seat is good for duffel bags, sports gear and a few groceries. Rear-seat backs fold flat to fit more, and parcel containers rest under the cargo floor. The tailgate lifts up, hatchback style, for easy loading or unloading.

USB and iPod connectors in front of the center console are flanked by a pair of power plugs. And the test car added a $400 audio upgrade featuring red mood lighting in the door speakers that keeps the beat.

Soul Plus with automatic starts at $15,900 with air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio and satellite radio, Bluetooth phone capability, power windows/locks/mirrors and rear washer/wiper. A power sunroof at $800 completes the package.

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