Owners of the cheapest new cars used to hide them from neighbors. Those autos were styling and technological throwbacks, with underpowered engines, beer-can bodies and laughable warranties.
Remember the Yugo? Well, forget that one and the list of former cheapest new cars, which drew cost-conscious buyers who didn't want a used car.
The lowest-cost 2001 car is South Korea's surprisingly competent Kia Rio, which keeps its title despite a recent price hike from $8,595 to $8,895.
But be forewarned that the front-drive Rio has a limited amount of standard equipment, including a console, rear defroster, dual outside mirrors and power brakes. A radio and power steering cost extra.
An AM/FM/cassette costs $320. And a $380 upgrade package includes power steering, tilt wheel, full wheel covers, bodyside moldings and visor vanity mirrors.
A four-speed automatic transmission is priced at $875, while air conditioning is $750. Anti-lock brakes set you back another $400.
However, some economy cars don't offer anti-lock brakes and often are offered only with a three-speed automatic transmission. And you can even get a Rio body color rear spoiler for $85.
South Korea's Hyundai owns Kia, so the Rio gets the impressive warranty that's helping Hyundai sell a large number of cars in this country. It's a five-year/60,000-mile basic and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Rio buyers also get a five-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan.
But there's more to the Rio than a great warranty. It looks good, with a slickly styled body that has four doors and a regular trunk--instead of the two-door hatchback design of many of the old blue-light specials.
Moreover, there's decent room for four 6-footers in the fairly quiet interior--if a driver doesn't shove his seat back too far. The interior fit-and-finish is quite good. Radio controls are tiny, but climate controls are OK and gauges can be easily read.
The lack of a tachometer shows cost-cutting. But four windshield washer jets--instead of the usual two--keep the windshield especially clean.
The comfortable front bucket seats are supportive even when the car is zipping through curves. Storage pockets in doors are handy, but the offbeat upholstery pattern may raise eyebrows in Kia showrooms.
The trunk is pretty roomy, but the lid's manual hinges didn't work smoothly on my test car. However, the Rio had no squeaks, rattles or groans.
The stout 1.5-liter, 96-horsepower four-cylinder engine is small and not especially fuel-thrifty for its size--providing an estimated 27 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on highways. It's sophisticated, with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, but it gets buzzy when pushed.
Performance is lively to 60 mph partly because the Rio weighs only about 2,300 pounds. But acceleration slows considerably above 65 mph, which can make passing maneuvers on two-lane roads a nervous affair.
The power steering is a tad slow. The standard five-speed manual transmission allows the best acceleration, but has a sloppy shifter. The clutch has a long throw, but takes little effort to depress.
The small standard 13-inch wheels, narrow 70-series tires and soft suspension cause marginal handling and considerable body sway. But the ride is supple. Optional ($275) 14-inch alloy wheels and 65-series tires allow slightly better handling. The brake pedal is soft and stopping distances are average without the anti-lock system.
The Rio's main rivals are used cars such as Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics. But they don't have the Rio's warranty--or new-car smell.