You may be looking at the images of these decidedly non-SUVs wondering why this story is even included on trucktrend.com. Well, for those who want a crossover or SUV but need something small and efficient, the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, or Scion xB might be just what they're looking for. These are the vehicles that are the closest to crossover alternatives that money can buy. Plus, their combination of low base prices, surprising interior volume, and safety features appeal to parents looking for cars for their teen- and college-age drivers, and the cool styling appeals to the kids themselves. These vehicles combine sporty, cool styling with genuine function and efficiency--and for buyers looking for just one of those attributes, getting the other is a great added bonus. In this story, Motor Trend's Ed Loh and other members of the MT team go on a road trip to a college to see what the kids on campus think of these compact boxes. - Allyson Harwood

Spore. Beer Pong. Flight of the Conchords. Superpoking on Facebook. Any of these sound remotely familiar? If not, it's because you're old and unhip. These terms belong in the vernacular of a specific subset of the American populace.

Whether you call them Gen Y, Echo Boomers, or Millennials, they're the next generation of young drivers and car buyers-and they are different from you and me. They grew up not on Atari or Commodore64, nor even Nintendo or SEGA, but on PlayStation and Xbox. They Google, Yelp, and Twitter -- often while simultaneously LOLing on IM or downloading the latest iPhone apps. See? Unhip.

Toyota is not only a student of this generation, it's at the head of the class when it comes to identifying and codifying their existence. Toyota wrote the playbook back in 2004, when it launched the Scion brand and unleashed the xA and xB twins. Four years later, when Scion replaced the xA with xD and brought a larger, more powerful xB to market, it was regarded as the auto industry's most successful youth brand.

Naturally other auto manufacturers, like Kia and Nissan, took notice, particularly as the xB became the poster box of Scion's youth-targeted movement. So are their new boxy offerings CliffsNotes versions of the xB, merely clever cribbed summaries based on Scion source material? That's what we aim to find out.

Rather than simply speculate, we had Motor Trend's intrepid young Nate Martinez, himself a recent college graduate, corral some bright young minds from his alma mater for a little Q and A session. For the parental perspective, we brought along Thomas Voehringer, father of a college-bound 18-year-old.

We meet down in breezy San Diego at the famous Mission Beach. Joining us are Josh Gurr, Eddie Navarro, Thi Ngyuen, and Al Rojas. All are either current students or recent graduates of the University of San Diego and squarely within the Kia, Nissan, and Scion box demographic.

After a brief introduction, notebooks are handed out and our collegians are unleashed on the vehicles-each a front-drive, five-seater equipped with inline-four-cylinder engines. The 2010 Kia Soul Sport is the top-step version equipped with a 2.0-liter, 142-horsepower engine and five-speed manual transmission. Nissan's 2009 Cube 1.8S has a 1.8-liter, 122-horsepower engine mated to a CVT. The 2009 Scion xB comes equipped with a 158-horse, 2.4-liter engine and a four-speed automatic.

With the Scion xB, our crew seems a bit bored-like they've seen this show before. "Bland look and feel," says Nguyen, a junior majoring in accounting, "But still modern. You can pink it up." As an xA owner, she really appreciates the room and power of the xB. So does Gurr, a recent grad and working chemist. "I love the pep," he says and also finds the xB's stereo "very decent," but the HVAC control layout "awkward." Freshmen premed Navarro gives the xB points for the "sweet" gauges and the rear cargo area that becomes "bedlike" with the seats folded down.

"No bueno," is Nguyen's first impression of the Cube. "I don't like the look of the front." Navarro agrees, "The Cube is toylike, maybe too much." On the inside, their views thaw a bit. "Cheap-looking dash, but nice interior space and seats," says Gurr. "Boring, but comfortable. Doesn't represent the eccentric outside," notes Navarro. When it comes time to drive the Cube, all are impressed. "Cube handling is great, turning is smooth," comments Nguyen. "I'm impressed with the Cube," adds Rojas, our other recent grad. "I didn't really think it would drive as well as it does. But I didn't have that high an expectation."

In the same way they've universally panned the Cube exterior, all our collegians absolutely love the Kia's styling. "Exterior is the best; doesn't start off like a box car, has some curve to it," Navarro states. "I like the shape of the windows and taillights," says Nguyen, impressed with the details "I'm a little surprised that I liked the Kia. Stylingwise I think they got it right," Rojas declares.

Inside, the Soul gets high remarks for its sound system and slick two-tone dash. "Nice use of color," Gurr notes. On the road, the reception is warm as well, but without the same level of enthusiasm as the Cube and xB garner.

Before sending our collegiate panel back to their classes and jobs, we ask them which of these players they'd like to own. Without pause, each picks the Soul on the strength of its exterior design. Interesting.

Time for our professionals, who first must come to grips with the specs and test numbers. Though the Scion is initially more expensive because of its larger size and engine, the vehicles can be comparably and comfortably equipped for under $18,000. None of these boxes is a track star, but the Kia does take the fight directly to the Scion. Its 8.7-second 0-to-60 time is only two tenths off the xB's pace, while its 16.7-second quarter mile is but three tenths behind. The smaller-engined, CVT-churning Cube brings up the rear, with 9.3- and 17.2-second runs, respectively.

The Kia stops the shortest, needing seven fewer feet than the Scion xB does, which partly can be attributed to the Soul's 18-inch wheels and tires. Surprisingly, despite tiny 15-inch wheels and rear drum brakes, the Cube beats out the xB by a foot. Must be the additional 270 pounds in xB curb weight. On the skidpad, the Kia shines again, posting the lowest figure-eight time and highest lateral g. More surprising is that the Cube manages to eke out a slightly better g number than the xB.

Small victories? Yes, because when it's time for subjective evaluations, the gaps grow much wider. "There is no denying the xB's once-controversial styling is now the most conservative of the trio. That's a good thing. The sleeker, angrier look of the Gen2 xB is tame and disciplined compared with those of the Cube and Soul," says Voehringer. Young Martinez agrees, "The Godfather still is a strong contender. Styling looks outdated versus the other two, but that's not to say it's unattractive. Interior is where the Scion blows the rest away. It's attractive and simple, with everything within reach.

The Cube evokes the strongest reactions: "The most offensive characteristic of the Cube is its bulldog-ugly styling. The asymmetrical design is awkward and confused, the profile unredeemable," Voehringer opines.

Martinez is a bit more charitable: "The bulldog front design is indeed cute and likeable. The rest of the exterior styling, like its wraparound rear window, adds uniqueness, not attractiveness." The Cube splits votes for the interior layout and amenities. "It feels more spacious inside than seems possible from outside. The seats are firm yet comfortable and the glovebox is huge," says Voehringer. "Other than the rippling headliner, the Cube's interior is a tsunami of uninteresting waves," he continues. Martinez finds a lot to like in the Cube's many details-from grocery-bag hooks to the deep well behind the reclining rear seats (the only one of our group with this feature).

As for the Soul, well, perhaps kids these days do know a thing or two: They're in lock step with our seasoned pros. "Its plain to see Kia's putting considerable thought and effort into styling the Soul in and out. It's got a wealth of creased and angled sheetmetal that works well together. The interior is really something else: What incredible detail here, particularly the way the sound system controls are integrated," comments Voehringer.

"Styling is a modern hodgepodge of bits and pieces from every corner of the automotive world. Looks great and is definitely hip," says Martinez though he's not as impressed with the interior. "It's a bit much on the eyes-too much two-toning on the doors. The central speaker on top of dash adds chunkiness to the otherwise clean setup."

On the road, our evaluators reshuffle the deck, giving the Kia high marks for handling, but little else. "Though responsive, steering is too light. Combined with the loose, tricky manual trans, the drivetrain is just a small four-banger capable enough to move the Soul there and back," notes Martinez. "Not peppy and anxious like the Cube with CVT and not a surprise stoplight-jumper like the Scion and its regular automatic."

The Cube catches everyone off guard. "The Nissan is surprising, perhaps because I didn't expect much. It had no problem passing traffic and superseding the freeway speed limit," says Voehringer. "Drives impressively. Engine is responsive with the slightest throttle tap, and it happily revs to produce all of its 122 horses-a fun ride full of spunk," judges Martinez.

Still, the overall win on the road has to go to the Scion. Martinez lauds the xB for its bigger driving character over the other two. "Road feel and steering sensitivity are most fun compared with the lighter, more electronics-involved steering of the Kia and Nissan. And it has ample power for freeway passes at speed," he adds. "By far the most well sorted," says Voehringer of the xB. "The most power, the most stable, the most solid feeling-essential attributes for a vehicle responsible for getting my kids around town."

Which leads us to the final component of our box car breakdown, the unseen force that must be considered when choosing any of these vehicles. What do the old folks think, especially when they're likely to be footing at least some of the bill?

"My parental concerns revolve around safety, reliability, and economy, in that order. I'll defer amenities and style to my kids," says Voehringer. That being the case, he picks the xB as his favorite. "I'd feel the most assured with my daughter driving the Scion, a known quantity (and quality). It's beefy and reliable with enough power to suit most any situation."

So where does that leave us? With regard to the Cube, Martinez sums it up best: "Those looking for the unique and different will instantly take a liking to the Cube. It's a well-engineered vehicle with a great base price and fuel economy, but its styling is something I can't get past." He sides with his Soulful schoolmates, but the more experienced hands at Motor Trend must give the Scion xB the victory by the slimmest of margins.

A case of "Father Knows Best"? Hardly. When driven back to back to back and compared on merits more than skin-deep, the xB consistently comes out on top. "Kia should be lauded for its efforts because, if judged on style alone, it has clearly won the hearts and minds of our jury young and old. The Soul has a lot going for it. It's a new, engaging design that's obviously been given a lot of attention by Kia. Still, the overall package is not as refined as the xB," concludes Voehringer.

And so, the one that opened the box up to America, remains on top of it.

1ST PLACE:
SCION XB

The benchmark maintains its position based on solid execution, performance, and value. The formula needs fine-tuning, however, as competitors loom large in the mirror.

2ND PLACE:
KIA SOUL SPORT

Solid A for effort. Stunning design makes it the unanimous undergraduate pick. More powertrain refinement and a couple of tweaks will easily put this at the head of the class.

3RD PLACE:
NISSAN CUBE 1.8S

Awkward proportions and asymmetric styling prove big barriers that mask the Cube's many strengths-including a lively drive, impressive interior room, and attractive details.


  2010 Kia Soul 2009 Nissan Cube 2009 Scion xB
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front-engine, FWD Front-engine, FWD Front-engine, FWD
Engine type I-4, iron block/alum head I-4, alum block/head I-4, alum block/head
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement 120.5 cu in/1975 cc 109.7 cu in/1798 cc 144.1 cu in/2362 cc
Compression ratio 10.1:1 9.9:1 9.8:1
Power (SAE net) 142 hp @ 6000 rpm 122 hp @ 5200 rpm 158 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 137 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm 127lb-ft @ 4800 rpm 162 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Redline 6500 rpm 6400 rpm 6400 rpm
Weight to power 20.2 lb/hp 23.1 lb/hp 19.6 lb/hp
Transmission 5-speed manual Continuously variable auto 4-speed automatic
Axle/final-drive ratios 4.19:1/3.26:1 5.47:1/2.34:1 2.74:1/2.79:1
Suspension, front; rear Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs
Steering ratio 15.1:1 18.4:1 16.0:1
Turns lock-to-lock 2.7 3.3 2.9
Brakes, f;r 11.0-in vented disc; 10.3-in disc, ABS 11.0-in vented disc; 11.7-in drum, ABS 10.8-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS
Wheels 7.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum 6.0 x 16-in, cast aluminum 6.5 x 16-in, cast aluminum
Tires, f;r 225/45R18 91V M+S, Hankook Optimo 195/60R16 87H M+S, Toyo A20 205/55R16 M+S, Goodyear Eagle RSA
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase 100.4 in 99.6 in 102.4 in
Track, f/r 61.8/62.0 in 58.1/58.3 in 60.0/59.8 in
Length x width x height 161.6 x 70.3 x 63.4 in 156.7 x 66.7 x 65.0 in 167.3 x 69.3 x 64.7 in
Turning circle 34.4 ft 33.4 ft 34.8 ft
Curb weight 2875 lb 2821 lb 3091 lb
Weight dist., f/r 60/40% 59/41% 63/37%
Seating capacity 5 5 5
Headroom, f/r 40.2/39.6 in 42.6/40.2 in 40.0/41.2 in
Legroom, f/r 42.1/39.0 in 42.4/35.5 in 40.7/38.0 in
Shoulder room, f/r 55.2/55.1 in 52.2/52.4 in 55.8/54.7 in
Cargo volume 19.3 cu ft 11.4 cu ft 21.7 cu ft
TEST DATA
Acceleration to mph
0-30 2.8 sec 3.4 sec 2.8 sec
0-40 4.3 5.0 4.2
0-50 6.2 3.9 6.2
0-60 8.7 9.3 8.5
0-70 12.2 12.5 11.0
0-80 16.1 16.6 15.1
0-90 21.5 22.4 20
0-100 30.9 32.8 -
Passing, 45-65 mph 5.0 4.9 4.5
Quarter mile 16.7 sec @ 81.3 mph 17.2 sec @ 81.3 mph 16.4 sec @ 82.6 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 119 ft 125 ft 126 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.83 g (avg) 0.80 g (avg) 0.78 g (avg)
MT figure eight 28.2 sec @ 0.59 g (avg) 28.8 sec @ 0.57 g (avg) 28.5 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 2600 rpm 1950 rpm 2350 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $17,645 $13,990 $16,420
Price as tested $17,645 $16,385 $17,944
Stability/traction control Yes/yes Yes/yes Yes/yes
Airbags Dual front, front side, f/r curtain Dual front, front side, f/r curtain Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
Basic warranty 5 yrs/60,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 10 yrs/100,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside assistance 5 yrs/60,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles NA
Fuel capacity 12.7 gal 13.2 gal 14.0 gal
EPA city/hwy econ 24/30 mpg 26/30 mpg 22/28 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.74 lb/mile 0.70 lb/mile 0.80 lb/mile
MT fuel economy 22.0 mpg 23.5 mpg 21.2 mpg
Recommended fuel Unleaded Unleaded Regular

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