- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Uncertainty regarding fuel prices has made headliners out of low-end models that only months ago were thought of as little more than bit players.

These econoboxes are attracting more than just first-time buyers on a budget and parents trying to equip their teenagers.

When operating expense trumps image in decision making, cost-conscious commuters and family second-car intenders are also dipping into the entry-level vehicle pool.

What they are discovering is that the choices aren’t all that bad in the shallow end. The redesigned Kia, for instance, combines a K-Mart price with an impressive number of standard amenities.

Sure, the $10,570 stripped-down base Rio is little more than transportation at its most basic; however, the $12,445 Rio LX and the $13,500 Rio5 (hatchback) are well equipped and comfortable to boot.

If attracting attention is important, the Rio will be a disappointment. It’s about as noticeable as a ringing cell phone at a Rolling Stones concert.

Small and nondescript, the Rio isn’t going to turn heads or cause much envy. Its styling is simple and uncluttered.

Affordable utility is its mission and here form most certainly follows function.

Simplicity extends to its powertrain as well. Every Rio derives its propulsion from a new 110-horsepower 1.6-liter four with variable valve timing.

This isn’t much muscle, but neither is there a lot of iron to push around.

The Rio5 is the heaviest version and it tips the scales at less than 2,500 pounds.

Although the Rio isn’t scalded-cat quick, it is sufficiently mobile to keep pace in city traffic. It doesn’t strain to cruise the interstate either.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard on every Rio, but for an extra $850, it can be replaced with a four-speed automatic on the LX and Rio5.

The manual is more fun to drive and coaxes a bit more performance out of the engine, but the automatic only mildly dampens the experience.

Fuel economy is excellent. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the automatic-equipped Rio at 29 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway.

The manual transmission increases city mileage by three, but loses three on the highway.

While the previous Rio’s suspension delivered ride quality on par with a roller skate, the new Rio dispenses a much more civilized experience.

A front independent suspension is combined with a torsion beam rear suspension.

The torsion beam arrangement doesn’t provide the fluidity of an independent multilink setup, but does offer some give while its less intrusive structure supplies more width for rear-seat passengers.

Over all, the ride is decent and the handling adequately solid and predictable. Both sedan trim levels come with 14-inch wheels and tires.

The Rio5 gets 15-inch alloy wheels. Braking duties fall to discs up front and drums in the rear on all versions.

A sensible $400 upgrade on the LX and Rio5 is an antilock brake system that includes discs on the rear wheels, too.

There is no mistaking the Rio’s interior for anything but an entry-level compact; however, the styling isn’t bland and all the pieces seem carefully screwed together.

Look elsewhere for high-tech gizmos, bells and whistles, but all the essentials are here and neatly located. All controls are easily deciphered and the gauges nicely placed.

Not much time was spent styling the three-spoke steering wheel, but that’s about the only element detracting from an otherwise neat package.

The front seats are very supportive. Even basic essentials such as air conditioning or a radio are absent and unavailable in the base Rio.

Oddly enough, one of the only two options offered is a $250 nonfunctional rear spoiler. Go figure. The other is a $70 set of carpeted floor mats.

The LX, though, is loaded with air conditioning, four-speaker audio system with CD player, tilt steering wheel, a 60/40 split rear seat and power-assisted steering.

In addition to its larger wheels, the Rio5 gets some interior metallic accents and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Plunking down an additional $600 for the Power Package (LX and Rio5) will save you from manually rolling the windows up and down or locking and unlocking the doors.

This option also includes power outboard mirrors, remote keyless entry and a pair of tweeters for the audio system.

All Rios come standard with front seat-mounted side-impact air bags and full-length side-curtain air bags.

All three rear-seat positions are equipped with three-point seat belts and front-belt pretensioners are standard.

Searching for prestige won’t bring anyone to Rio; but for transportation on a budget, it makes good sense.

You can’t fault its fuel economy, standard safety features or its much ballyhooed warranty that includes a 10-year/100,000 mile limited powertrain provision.

When money really matters, the Kia Rio makes entry-level look pretty good.

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