boston.com   your connection to The Boston Globe

Rio's easy to sum up: It's a bargain

As international travel has become common over the past two decades, millions of Americans have seen what the rest of the world drives.

Even though people in other countries remain astounded by our fixation on gas guzzlers -- from SUVs to vans and minivans and luxury cars -- American travelers wonder when some of the neat ''little cars" they see overseas will come to US highways. And they wonder how such small vehicles would fare on interstates populated by SUVs, vans, and 18-wheelers.

Well, some of those cars are here now, including the ''all-new" Kia Rio, a sibling of the Hyundai Accent. The Rio is hardly alone in a burgeoning compact sedan segment that now includes about 20 vehicles, ranging in price from $10,000 to $25,000. And it's making room for newcomers from Toyota (Yaris), Honda (Fit), and Nissan (Versa).

Technically, small cars have been with us for decades. But in the past few years they've become quality vehicles, unlike earlier models, such as the Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega, AMC Pacer, Hyundai Excel, first-generation Kia Rio, and even the Toyota Echo.

All of the above, save one -- the Rio -- have one more thing in common: They've been consigned to the pages of automotive history.

Generally, the auto industry isn't big on small cars, because they generate less profit than trucks and SUVs. Nor has small been big in the advertising world. Luxury is glamorous; entry level isn't.

But even though many of us may aspire to the world of Acura, BMX, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes, and beyond, the reality is we stretch to make the payments on either a used intermediate vehicle or new small one.

The new generation of small cars boasts better performance, reliability, and fuel economy. The Rio debuted in 2000, the fifth model launched by Kia in the United States. It was redesigned in 2003 (along with the Rio Cinco wagon). While those versions weren't particularly appealing, the 2006 model is a huge leap forward.

Let the numbers -- the ones on the window sticker -- speak for themselves. You can opt for the base model with a manual transmission at just $10,570. The other eye-catching numbers are EPA gas-mileage estimates of 32 m.p.g. in city driving and 35 m.p.g. on the highway.

Our test vehicle, a fully optioned LX with an automatic transmission, cost $14,905 and had EPA mileage of 29 m.p.g. in the city and 38 m.p.g. in highway driving.

It came with front and side air bags, ABS, air conditioning, a CD player, and a 60/40 fold-down rear seat.

For my purposes, the only thing missing was cruise control, a feature I've conditioned myself to use both on long stretches of highway and on heavily patrolled secondary roads where it's easy to exceed posted speed limits.

Also missing was the stigma of driving a Rio. I remember driving down the road in one of the original Rios -- a copper-colored sedan -- and feeling as if everyone was staring, out of sympathy or out of ridicule.

No longer.

The 1.6-liter, in-line four had no trouble merging on the highway or keeping up with traffic. My simple ''Is it underpowered?" test is to find a hilly road like Route 1 between Topsfield and Ipswich. If it's downshifting to make it up the hills, it's laboring. The Rio handled the task with ease. It didn't exactly have a performance suspension, but it was more than adequate for daily driving.

Finding a comfortable driving position was easy with the eight-way manually adjustable driver's seat. The inside was basic cloth and plastic, but without looking cheap. Controls were logically located and simple to use.

Trunk space was adequate and squared off, with fold-down rear seats offering additional carrying capacity in a pinch.

The middle to high end of the compact sedan market can bring you more in the way of performance and amenities: the Honda Civic, Mazda3, and VW Golf (now Rabbit) or Jetta, for example. And the near-luxury Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series are also considered compact sedans.

But you can spend more than twice as much and not get any more economy or reliability than what the Rio offers. And Kia retains its 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. The company has backed its vehicles, something that's allowing it to stand out these days.

There's a pretty simple description for a package like the one Rio offers: a bargain.

2006 Kia Rio

THE BASICS

Base price/as tested: $13,295/$14,905

Fuel economy: 29 m.p.g. city/38 highway (EPA figures)

THE EARLY LINE

The baby of the Kia line has come a long way with this redesign for 2006. One welcome carry-over: the 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

THE SPECIFICS

Drivetrain: front-wheel drive

Seating: five passengers

Horsepower: 110

Torque: 107 lb.-ft.

Overall length: 166.9 inches

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Height: 57.9 inches

Width: 66.7 inches

Curb weight: 2,403 pounds

THE SKINNY

Nice touch: The eight-way driver's seat. Spend a few moments and you can find a comfortable driving position the old-fashioned way: manually. And top it off with great headroom, far better than what's found in more expensive models.

Annoyance: Maybe it's because the expectations weren't that high, but the nits were minor: the lack of cruise control and an engine that buzzed under a load.

Watch for: Kia seems to have sales momentum. These days, an economy sedan is a nice vehicle to have in the showroom.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES