By Alex Taylor III
May 15, 2009

Are Americans ready to think small – this time for real? Plenty of import manufacturers think so, and increasingly American makers will too.

U.S. buyers give up their trucks, SUVs, and V-8s only reluctantly. And why not? American cars are designed for American roads and American gas prices. The only time drivers think small is when small is cute (think Volkswagen’s Beetle in the 1960s) or when small is smart (if gas prices spike as they did last year).

The way to lure drivers out of their big cars, and foreign manufacturers have learned this, is to convince them that small isn’t a synonym for cheap. Detroit is right behind.

Ford (F) is launching its upscale Fiesta and Focus next year, GM (GM) is readying the Chevy Cruze, and Chrysler hopes to have some Fiats in its showrooms by 2011.

They will find plenty of company when they get here. Example: the Kia Soul Plus. With a base price of $15,900 and an as-tested sticker of $17,795 (sunroof and audio upgrade options), it certainly falls on the inexpensive end of the spectrum.

Yet the Soul Plus is powered by a peppy 2.0 liter 16-valve engine with dual overhead cams, enough power for its 2,800 pounds – and for the driver and a passenger or two to enjoy themselves without getting into trouble.

The quality of the materials and fixtures in the Soul’s interior is higher than I’ve seen in cars costing more, though I’d stay away from the two-tone contrasting treatment in favor of solid black. And the design of the exterior is fashionably squared off, though not as refined as the old Scion xB or the new Nissan (NSANY) Cube.

The hatchback and the fold-down rear seats render the Soul as practical as they come. Fuel economy is rated at 24 miles per gallon city, 30 miles per gallon city.

Quality has been a concern for Kia (KIMTF) owners in the past. I can’t vouch for the long-term reliability of the Soul but my initial impressions were all positive.

I wouldn’t choose the Soul for a cross-country trip with three friends. Nor would I activate the orange lights around the audio speakers that pulsate in time with the music. But for the kind of short trips on winding country roads that account for half my miles these days, the Soul fills the bill.

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