Owners of small economy cars once just sighed and said "you get what you pay for" when asked about their autos, which were marginal in most respects.
The subcompact Kia Rio has helped change some of the old thinking about "cheap wheels" small cars, although it hasn't been one of the most refined ones.
The front-drive Rio mostly has made a name for itself since its debut as an $8,895 sedan in late 2000 because it's been the lowest-cost car sold in America for most of its life. It's also been backed by an impressive warranty from Kia's parent company, South Korea's Hyundai.
Rio buyers figured the car had to be at least fairly good if it had a five-year/50,000-mile basic warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
The redesigned 2006 Rio continues with that warranty. And it's still among the lowest-priced autos, although it's built on a new platform and has slicker styling, more power, additional room and added safety features.
The second-generation Rio couldn't have arrived at a better time for Kia, considering that high gasoline prices have made small cars more popular this year.
Small-car sales have been buzzing, especially after gasoline hit $3 a gallon. Their market is projected to grow by about 30 percent over the next two years -- or probably more if gas prices go higher or fuel supplies get tight.
Kia continues to add improved products such as the new Rio, and they're helping sales. Kia vehicles found 216,362 buyers through September this year, against 203,671 in the year-ago period.
Horsepower of the new Rio's sophisticated 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is up from 104 to 110. The best acceleration is gotten with the standard five-speed manual gearbox because the engine is small. The Rio is lively to 65 mph, but acceleration is average after that with either the manual or $850 four-speed automatic transmission. Engine revs are high on the highway even with the manual in overdrive fifth gear (3,100 rpm at 65 mph), although the Rio cruises comfortably at highway speeds.
Fuel economy is up 20 percent despite the added power. Both the sedan and hatchback, which weigh 2,365-2,487 pounds, provide an estimated 32 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway with the manual gearbox and 29 and 38 with the automatic. Only regular-grade gasoline is required.
Newly standard are front side air bags and full-length head-protecting curtain side air bags. The wheelbase (distance between axles) is longer to help provide a smoother ride, and there's a wider track (distance between tires on the same axle) for better handling and a more purposeful-looking stance.
The quieter interior has easily read gauges and a refreshingly simple dashboard layout. There's lots of plastic, but cockpit materials look reasonably good for a low-priced economy car. Front seats offer modest side support, but climate controls are large and audio system controls are mounted high.
Both Rio versions have increased width and height to provide roomier interiors that can comfortably accommodate four 6-footers. Tall drivers have plenty of leg room if they shove their seats far back, although such a move results in cramped leg room behind them.
The moderately handsome Rio is offered as a sedan with a conventional trunk in $10,570 base and $12,445 LX trim levels -- and as the $13,500 Rio5 hatchback in SX guise.
Both the sedan and hatchback ride on a 98.4-inch wheelbase, but the hatchback is 158.1 inches long, whereas the sedan is 166.9 inches long.
Anti-lock brakes are optional for the LX sedan and Rio5, but not for the base sedan. The LX sedan has standard air conditioning, AM/FM/CD audio system, power steering with a tilt wheel and a 60-40 split-folding rear seat.
The Rio5 hatchback has all of the LX features and adds 15-inch alloy wheels with wider tires for slightly better handling, fog lights, rear spoiler, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, metal-grain interior trim and metal pedals.
The base sedan is strictly an entry-level model. It isn't available with air conditioning, power steering, audio system, tilt steering wheel, split-folding rear seatbacks and power windows and door locks with remote keyless entry.
A $600 Power package with power windows, door locks with remote keyless entry, power heated mirrors and tweeter speakers is offered for the LX sedan and Rio5 SX. My test car didn't have that package and it thus soon became tedious to manually move the windows down or up and to unlock the back doors from the interior. (You can use the ignition key to open the front doors from the outside, but not the rear ones.)
The hatchback is the way to go for those who want the most cargo room; it has 15.8 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with 11.9 cubic feet for the sedan -- although the sedan's enlarged, nicely shaped trunk is roomy for the car's size. The hatchback provides 49.6 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded forward, while the sedan's cargo area totals about 24 cubic feet with its rear seatbacks flipped forward.
You don't buy a Rio for driving kicks. Being an entry-level car, the Rio sedan has average steering and handling, partly because it has only narrow 14-inch wheels. The hatchback handles a little better with its larger 15-inch wheels and slightly wider tires. All versions have a comfortable ride for a small car, and the brake pedal has a nice linear action.
The new Rio sedan and Rio5 hatchback are expected to attract younger and slightly more affluent buyers, evenly split between men and women. But both models are still mainly for those on limited car budgets.
2006 KIA RIO
Affordable. Roomier. More power. Slicker styling. Added safety features. Long warranty.
Imprecise manual shifter. Lots of interior plastic. Average handling. Spartan base model.