I like boxy, practical cars — as far back as my first vehicle, a beat-up ’51 Chevy panel truck.
I applauded the arrival of the Toyota Scion XB and the Honda Element when they were both introduced in 2003, and the Nissan Cube when it appeared in 2009.
But I didn’t always like the way those cars drove. Big and square, and generally underpowered, they were built more for getting stuff done than for getting there in a hurry.
My feeling about that has changed, though, with the Kia Soul Turbo. It’s squat and square like the other box cars, but it’s fast and fun to drive too.
I can almost forgive that Darth Vader face.
The turbo version of this car is officially known as the Soul! — with the exclamation point. It’s fitted with a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Those aren’t big numbers, but on this light, front-wheel-drive go-kart, which weighs just over 3,200 pounds, they’re big enough to give the Soul Turbo a great, sporty feel.
The sport sensation increases in Sport mode, activated by a button on the steering wheel and with the transmission in its manual stick-shift configuration.
Although not quite as fun as it would be with an actual stick shift — only the $16,100 base model Soul Turbo can be had with a manual transmission, while the Soul+ comes with a six-speed automatic — it’s like driving a factory-tuned “tuner.”
MacPherson struts keep the suspension taut. Electronic steering improves the handling. The very tight turning radius makes parking a breeze.
Though there’s a little turbo lag to overcome, the Soul is zippy corner to corner and around city streets. But it really comes into its own on twisty canyon roads, where it’s almost as much fun to drive as a more powerful, and more expensive, European sports car.
No one will mistake it for that on the freeway, which is where the Soul’s bargain-basement price point suffers the most visible defects. The car feels clunky and noisy at highway speeds.
This seemed less true on the Kia Soul EV, the plug-in version that features the same boxy body but is driven by a battery-electric engine. I found that car surprisingly quiet on the road, even at higher speeds — a real achievement, considering electric cars, making no engine noise, often feel very loud when they’re flying down the freeway.
Kia has gone to some lengths to outfit its appealing-priced and youthfully aimed Soul with adult accouterments.
So, a 10-way power seat with lumbar adjustments is an option, on the turbo model. A heated steering wheel and heated seats are too, but — bummer for Californians — ventilated seats are not. (They are available as an option on the mid-range Soul+ model, a result of the different upholstery offered on the two trim lines.)
The turbo version can be had with a panoramic sunroof for an extra $1,000 and a “technology package” that includes an improved navigation system, power mirrors, blind spot detection and a Harman Kardon audio system, for an additional $3,000.
Cargo volume is 61 cubic feet, with the seats folded flat — enough to carry a bicycle, your golf bag and your golf partner — partly because there’s a tire repair kit instead of an actual spare tire, lug wrench and tire jack.
The car is smart, or maybe half-smart. Standard with keyless ignition, it senses the key fob’s presence, and the folding rear mirrors swing out as the driver approaches.
But the doors won’t unlock unless the driver pushes a button telling them to.
All three Soul models feature the same exterior specs and the same grimacing front grills, which is probably enough to scare away older, more traditional new-car buyers.
But I don’t think many Soul customers will care about any of that — although they may be excited about the sound system and the sunroof.
This car skews young and is going to appeal to a performance-oriented driver who doesn’t have the wallet to get into a Porsche, Audi or BMW.
For that buyer, though, like the discontinued Scion line, the Soul offers a lot of fun for the money.
If I were 27 years old and had $27,000 to spend, I would be all over this car.
2017 Kia Soul Turbo
Times’ take: Funky looking and fun to drive
Highs: Great value for money
Lows: That face
Vehicle type: Four-door, five-passenger SUV
Base price: $23,500
Price as tested: $27,620
Powertrain: 1.6-liter, four-cylinder, turbo-charged gasoline engine
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Torque: 195 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 26 miles per gallon city / 31 highway / 28 combined