Honda HR-V vs. Mazda CX-3 vs. Kia Soul vs. Buick Encore:

Small-crossover four-way.

This week: 2015 Kia Soul!

Price: $26,715 as tested (more about options later). The trim-level price started at $20,700, and a base model can be had for as low as $15,690.

Marketer's pitch: "Totally transformed."

Conventional wisdom: What's a little box like this doing in a comparison of small crossovers?

Reality: A worthy adversary.

Crossover? OK, OK, so whether the Soul is technically a crossover may be debatable. But it's the most spacious of these four vehicles and by far the cheapest, almost no matter how you package it. About the only downside is the lack of all-wheel drive.

A long-term test drive: Though I had the top-of-the-line Kia Soul! for only a week, I'm intimately familiar with the 2015 Kia Soul, from being permitted on occasion to drive the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat's + version.

What it is: The Kia Soul carries over from the 2014 model year, when the little boxy hatchback received marked improvements over previous incarnations. (It was launched in 2010.) Indeed, not much is changing for the 2016 model year, except for some packaging.

The handling, the ride, creature comforts, and interior design were all sore spots in the earlier versions, and Kia apparently listened when it came time to add soul to the Soul.

On the road: The handling has gotten less milk truck and more sportyish hatchback. I found leaving it in the right gear - usually third or fourth - could make winding, hilly country roads a real treat. The handling at this sweet spot approaches some Mazdas or, dare I even mention it in a Kia review, the Mini Cooper. The bumps are not as enhanced by the suspension as once before, although the Soul remains less than smooth.

Up to speed: Acceleration from the 164-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine in the + and ! models is brisk at the low end. Some heavy throttle will get drivers into traffic in pretty good time, although here it's more Mazda (fast-ish) and less Mini (hot rod).

The 1.6-liter base engine motivated our former 2013 model quickly enough, but buyers miss a lot of packaging at the base level.

Shifty: The six-speed automatic offers fairly direct shifting capabilities, and that makes the driving more enjoyable for control freaks like Mr. Driver's Seat.

The Soul offers pep in the lower gears, but sixth and even fifth can be kind of useless for adding any oomph. This means passing on highways requires at least two clicks of the shift lever before the Soul finds its motivation.

Driver's Seat: The + and ! seats are trimmed in leather and 10 adjustments offer all the comfort of any midlevel sedan. Specially packaged in the + and ! models are heating in all four corners and cooling in the front - part of the $2,500 Whole Shebang package, which also adds heated steering wheel and push-button start.

Inside: The stereo speakers dress up the dash like old-style electric wiring knobs. The rest of the gauge pod offers beauty and function.

Outside: Bigger lights and more masculine stance give the Soul some heft in its appearance.

Play some tunes: The optional eight-inch navigation screen - part of the $2,600 Sun and Sound package, which also added sunroof, automatic climate control, and speaker lights - seems huge. The radio has buttons for the sources outside the touch screen, and also for starting settings changes as well.

The sound is not perfect, about a B+ for range and clarity.

Friends and stuff: So what, you may ask, is the Kia Soul doing in a comparison of the latest small crossovers? This is another improvement in the latest Soul incarnation; it hosts 61 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat down.

Passenger space is also generous. Sturgis Kid 4.0 is approaching 6 feet, and he found the Soul to be the roomiest for his legs among the four vehicles.

Night shift: The interior lights have plenty of Soul, and cast the light-blue glow that's bright and direct that's usually limited to more expensive cars.

Fuel economy: This is the Soul-crushing part of the experience. I was averaging 26 m.p.g. in the usual range of highway and country driving. That is, until I started having some fun in the Soul. It quickly declined to 24 m.p.g.

Where it's built: Hwsang, South Korea.

How it's built: Consumer Reports predicts a better-than-average reliability rating for the 2016 model.

Next week: The 2015 Buick Encore, and the small-crossover verdict.