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Preview: 2006 Kia Rio and Rio5

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2006 Kia Rio5

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2006 Kia Rio

By Carey Russ (c) 2005

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Kia

Subcompact sedans and hatchbacks like the Kia Rio and Rio5 have gotten little respect over the years. Such cars have none of the attributes that can make a car exciting or desirable. Subcompactland, unless you count the laugh factor that occasionally occurs when some clueless bureaucrat includes an exotic sports car in the category based on its interior volume, has for the most part been home to cars bought by necessity and on price. And the manufacturers don't help matters much, as in the subcompact class profit margins are as low as any expectations for refinement or excitement. Incentives for excellence are low, to put it mildly. Often, a used car from the compact class is a better deal.

The first-generation Kia Rio fit the above description all too well. I drove one shortly after it was introduced in 2001, and was less than impressed. ``Refinement'' related only to the fuel it ran on. It felt like a brand-new 1985 car, and an entry-level one at that. Performance, with a 96-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine, was marginal. The automatic transmission in the one I drove prohibited the sort of acceleration necessary for secure merging in traffic. To describe that car as ``no-frills'' would be too generous. The only thing the first-generation Kia Rio had in its favor was a bargain-basement price.

Since that time, though, Kia has undergone a metamorphosis, from being a maker of low-quality entry level cars - as typified by the 2001 Rio - to a full-line manufacturer of contemporary cars, SUVs, and minivans with, especially in the newer models, high build quality and very good value. So when I was invited to preview the upcoming 2006 Kia Rio, I was very interested. Other recent Kias that I have driven have been near the head of their classes in refinement, comfort, and value. Would Kia elevate the lowly Rio in the same way?

After a day spent driving both the 2006 Rio sedan and Rio5 sporty hatchback in the Seattle, WA area, I would answer that question with an emphatic ``yes.'' The new Rio has nothing in common with the old but its name. In either form, it offers more interior space - greater than some popular compacts, actually - European-inspired styling, a high degree of chassis refinement, and more power. The new chassis structure is lighter, improving both performance and fuel economy. It is built above the expected subcompact level, with standard equipment including triple-sealed doors to help reduce interior noise levels, and six standard airbags - dual front, front side, and side curtain - adding to safety in all models.

A new 1.6-liter four-cylinder dual overhead cam engine uses continuously-variable valve timing on its intake camshaft to help make 110 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque - and improve fuel economy by up to 20 percent compared to the old Rio. With today's escalating gas prices, the EPA economy figures of 32 mpg city, 35 highway with the standard five-speed manual transmission or 29/38 with the optional four-speed automatic look enticing.

The chassis layout is standard subcompact fare, front-wheel drive with a transverse engine, independent MacPherson strut front suspension, and a semi-independent torsion beam axle in the rear. But, unusually for the lowly budget class, it is executed in a first-class fashion. Driving through the highways and secondary roads near Seattle, on surfaces from fresh, smooth new pavement to cratered construction zones, the Rio and Rio5 showed levels of sophistication, comfort, and ability above the expected.

The model lineup is simple, with the base Rio sedan with manual transmission at $10,570. The LX sedan, expected to be the mass-seller, upgrades the wheels and tires, adds air conditioning and an AM/FM/CD audio system, and has a number of upscale options, with a $12,445 MSRP with the stick or $13,295 with the automatic. The Rio5 comes only in ``premium'' SX grade, similar to the LX sedan but with sportier interior appointments. It has the highest price, at $13,500 manual, $14,350 automatic.

Option packages, for the LX sedan and SX 5-door are antilock brakes, a $400 upgrade that also exchanges the standard rear drums for four-wheel discs, and the $400 ``power package'' of power windows, mirrors, locks, and remote entry. The LX can be fitted with a rear spoiler for $70, and all models can get carpeted floor mats for $70. The destination charge is $540. So MSRP on a fully-loaded SX automatic should be $15,760. No, that's not an under-$10,000 bargain-basement basic transportation price. It's not a bargain-basement basic-transportation vehicle, either. It's a very pleasant small car.

I spent the morning in a Rio5 SX with the optional antilock brake package and the five-speed. It was the first press car I've been in for ages with roll-up windows, but how hard is it to roll a window up or down? And air conditioning is standard. So is a cheeky, energetic personality. Acceleration is not particularly blistering, but quick enough, and there was more than adequate power even headed up the highway grade to the Snoqualmie ski resort.

Most surprisingly, the first time we came to a stop, I turned to my co-driver and asked if the engine was still running. It was, but it was that quiet at idle, with none of the noise and vibration common in inexpensive small cars.

Off the highway and on the old road, well, the tighter the road, the more fun was to be had with the little beastie. As the old saying goes, it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. The SX has an excellent suspension set-up, not ``for the class'' but period - meaning better than some name-brand sports sedans that cost twice as much, or more. Moderately soft springs and shocks with well-matched tuning and long travel mean comfort on bumpy road surfaces and nimble handling in spirited driving. The new Rio's longer wheelbase and wider track help here, too, for additional stability - and more passenger space.

Later it was time to get into an LX sedan with the automatic. This was nothing like the generation-1 Rio, thankfully. Unsurprisingly, it was much like a slightly-smaller Kia Spectra sedan, well-appointed and finished. Yes, there was a tradeoff in convenience versus performance with the automatic, but it was still a pleasant small car. Given its level of comfort and current gas prices, a Rio LX could make a fine commute car, as well as an everyday car for anyone on a tight budget. Ditto and more so for the SX, which adds five-door hatchback cargo-carrying and versatility - and more fun-to-drive character.