Kia's new Soul is the latest car created with freedom-loving Californians in mind

Soul from Seoul? Good, that's the obvious over with. And of course it's deliberate. It's Kia's way of showing how proud it is to be Korean, a cool brand-in-waiting, ready to bask in the kudos of LG or Samsung.

So it's a car with spirit, born out of recent Soul-themed Kia concept cars variously named Soul Searcher, Soul Burner and Soul Diva. These three, and the production version, are all variations on the first Soul idea shown at the Detroit Auto Show in 2006, an appropriate venue for the debut given that this Korean car was designed in the US at Kia's studio in California.

You can see what the designers were thinking. There's a particular strand of Californian youth culture which favours tall, square-cut, van-like hatchbacks, usually fitted with impressive sound systems and giving off strong freedom-enhancing connotations. Toyota has built a whole US brand around the phenomenon, called Scion. Honda's Element is similar, while the new version of Nissan's Cube, now made in left-hand drive to suit the US, is also ready to cash in on affluent youth. (Or so it seemed until recently.)

Small'n'square hasn't historically worked the same way in Europe, with the likes of the old Suzuki Wagon R and Daihatsu Move being bought by a rather greyer clientele than their designers intended. Will the Soul be different? Will it prove the irresistible lurve machine for a ba-a-ad night out? Will buyers be drawn to luminous Soul lettering on the seats and bright red interiors to the glovebox and central storage compartment? Opening their lids is akin to seeing inside a giant's mouth.

Kia, which hopes this will be the first of its cars for which "people will check the colours, trims and accessories before they check the price", describes the Soul as an "urban crossover". There's a sniff of baloney here, as the Soul would also make a good rural wagon, but a chunk of this car's image hinges on its options catalogue. There will be up to 15 versions based around two 1.6-litre engines (a petrol and a diesel) and three trim levels, likely to be called Soul 1, 2 and 3 in the UK. The price, actually, will be from £11,000 and it's on sale from March 2009. The top version can be blinged-up further with three trim packs: Graphite with that luminescent seat fabric, Retro Chic with beige interior panels and houndstooth fabrics (plus a matching panel on the bonnet) and Street Demon in which much of the interior, including the dashboard, is bright red. Naturally you can have enormous wheels, too.

You sit high in a roomy cabin whose components are precisely made and assembled but whose materials aren't exactly lush, but then it's not meant to be a premium product. Rear-seat space is plentiful, but the fold is a bit half-hearted: the backrests fold forward but the cushion stays put. One neat feature is that the screen for the optional reversing camera is built into the interior mirror, with the silvered surface reappearing when you've done manoeuvring.

And to drive? The best version has the 124bhp petrol engine and the 16in aluminium wheels, a combination which proves smooth, adequately lively and supple over bumps given the Soul's bias towards a crisp, agile drive. It's tall but it feels like a proper car.

The diesel, actually more powerful than the petrol version at 128bhp, might seem to make more sense given its more muscular power delivery and lower CO2 output (137g/km), but it's noisy and it sets up vibrations in the trim. This engine is obligatory if you want an automatic, though, which will be an outdated four-speeder. A hybrid Soul will join the range later.

With the 18in wheels option, the ride gets choppy over poor surfaces and you become a fashion victim driving the Soul that most resembles the concept cars. The Soul thus specified that I drove was white. Were I given to naming cars, I would have to call him Barry.

Search for used cars