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Rich in features, inexpensive to maintain

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Rich in features, inexpensive to maintain

Technically a subcompact, Rio's front head and legroom are big sedan: 40 inches to the headliner and 43.8 to stretch out. Starting prices range from $14,550 to $18,650.

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POSTED September 19, 2012 6:39 p.m.

Cheap cars were once necessary evils, coarsely built, frumpy looking and unloved. Keep them through the warranty, then let 'em go. But today there are no throwaways. Competition is strong, and most will serve their purpose with refinement and style well beyond the warranty.

The Kia Rio is an ideal example of a mainstream economy car that has been made desirable by its good engineering and technologies that make life easier. And it's not bad looking. Rio shares an architecture with the Hyundai Accent but with crisper styling.

Sold in sedan and five-door hatchback body styles, pricing starts at $14,550 for the sedan with six-speed manual transmission and ranges to $18,450 for the sporty SV with six-speed automatic, leather and 17-inch wheels. Five-door starting prices range from $14,550 to $18,650.

The EX test sedan — $18,345 with two options — was a contemporary keeper, rich in features but built to be inexpensive to maintain.

Technically a subcompact, Rio's front head and legroom are big sedan: 40 inches to the headliner and 43.8 inches for legroom. The back seat space is short on footroom, the seatback is fairly upright and rigid and there is no center head restraint. But the center tunnel is low, which helps people squeeze in.

Trunk space is generous at 13.7 cubic feet, and the back seat has a 60/40 fold. And don't look for a spare tire; there's a sealant-inflator system.

Drivability is good for how this car will be used, which likely won't be in an autocross. The easy shift points of the transmission turn this little four-cylinder into a hustler. Wail on it, and it doesn't complain. Ride quality is comfortable, but the rear torsion beam suspension can be clunky in some maneuvers. But that can be forgiven because it also allows that big, flat trunk space.

The simplicity of this car is user-encouraging. The doors open wide for access, there are no sightline issues and the gauge presentation is large and readable with what may be the most legible speedometer on the market. The radio and heat/AC controls are foolproof and large. There are everyday pleasures in the automatic up and down function of the power windows and three-blink signal for lane changes. The 33.5-foot turning circle is tight even for a subcompact. And the quality of materials and construction looks as if it should outlast the basic warranty of five years or 60,000 miles with roadside assistance.

The tester's Convenience Package ($1,150) is desirable for its upgrades: 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, power folding mirrors (with turn signals), soft-touch dash pad, front map lights, lighted vanity mirrors and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. But the gems are the rearview camera and UVO infotainment system.

UVO, or Your Voice, is a voice-activated application for drivers and passengers to answer and place phone calls, receive and respond to text messages, pull up music from a variety of sources (such as Pandora) or create your own "jukebox" of tunes.

Standard equipment includes remote locking, air conditioning, Bluetooth phone connection, power windows, power (heated) mirrors and steering wheel controls for cruise-phone-audio. And cars with the manual transmission have hill-start assist for fret-free engagement.

Safety features include six air bags, electronic stability traction control and four wheel disc brakes (not the cheaper rear drum brakes) with ABS.

Rio was redesigned last year, but already Kia has upgraded the 2013 models (on sale now) with an optional Eco package ($400) with Idle Stop and Go technology, which is available on the EX and only with the Convenience Package. The system is a simple engine shut-off at idle or when the car is not in motion — such as at a stop light or in traffic — and automatically restarts when the driver releases the brake pedal. Also new will be paddle shifters for the automatic transmission.

All models have a 138-hp, 1.6-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder engine that with either transmission is rated 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway on regular unleaded. I sailed to 43 mpg without trying and was getting 27 to 35 mpg around town without the Idle Stop and Go feature, which adds 1 mpg city to the EPA rating. The bigger value is not wasting fuel and pumping emissions at stop lights. The car's only downfall as a commuter is its 11.4-gallon tank. Its cruising range of 450 miles isn't bad, but maybe some day a "Big Tank" option (15 gallons?) will target the commuter on the road for 120 miles a day.

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