The Kia Soul brought a new attitude to the compact segment when it was introduced in the 2010 model year. The wedgy, stylish body defined a new look for Kia, and soon the Soul had eclipsed popular urban wagons like the Scion xB and Nissan Cube, and may have helped send the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevrolet HHR into retirement. The Soul doesn’t change much for the 2012 model year, but new powertrains and a reconfigured lineup keep its ratings here at TCC at the higher end of the compact class.

The Soul wins on styling, hands-down. The reverse boomerang of the roofline is a grabby visual hook that isn’t matchy-matchy with the bullnosed front end. The cabin isn’t as radical, unless smart functionality is a radical concept, with its big buttons and knobs, cheery gauges, and cheeky dashes of pizazz, like the lighted speaker frames that glow to the beat of the Soul’s sound system. This year, the 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines are nudged higher in power and gas mileage. The base engine now has 135 horsepower; the upgrade has 164 hp. With six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, and a new Eco package, the Soul’s fuel economy hits a new peak of 29/36 mpg–still less than cousin Hyundai’s Elantra sedan, but a mile per gallon or more than the 2010-2011 Soul. Handling remains friendly, and the Soul is frisky as an urban runabout, much more than the sum of its parts list in the way old Hondas used to be.

The versatile, spacious interior makes the most of the tall roofline, in front and in back. The Soul’s the rare compact that fits tall adults well, leaving them extra headroom, even. The back seat’s just as fine for two adults or three kids, and the seats fold down to open up a 53-cubic-foot cargo hold. It’s no Honda Element, but then again, neither is the Element anymore, since it’s also been purged from the new-car universe.

The Soul’s extensive equipment list includes the usual safety gear, and a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS. A rearview camera’s now an option–and to go with the stock USB ports and satellite radio, there’s now HD Radio as an option, and a navigation system, which unfortunately can’t be had if you also opt for UVO, Kia’s voice-activated controls for phone and audio. All told, a right-priced Soul at about $20,000 is a great value for anyone who needs a little more wagon in their lives, but could do without the size and weight of a bigger crossover or minivan.

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