2006 Kia Rio5
The Kia Rio5 raises suspicions. Examine, if you will, the little spoiler perched just above its hatch, the metal pedals ensconced in the driver's footwell, the fifteen-inch, five-spoke wheels at its four corners, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob installed in the cockpit. Could it be that this puny, pipsqueak of a machine has sporting intentions? Could it also be that this isn't such a laughable notion?
The answers are yes and yes. Thanks to decent steering feel, competent underpinnings, and a relatively low curb weight (around 2400 pounds), the little Kia is a spirited, fun car to run around town or down a twisty mountain road. The key is to keep to roads that point downhill, or at least not uphill, because while the Rio5's 110 hp is competitive with its rivals, it isn't enough to put up much of a fight against inertia. The Rio5 also falters on the freeway, where it becomes loud, jittery, and generally unpleasant. But when not overly taxed, the 1.6-liter four-cylinder is agreeable enough, especially when paired with the five-speed manual, and it will return combined fuel economy in the mid-thirties. You'll want to avoid the automatic transmission, but that's the case with most small cars.
The Rio5 starts at $14,040 and includes six air bags, a CD stereo, all of the sporty bits described above, air-conditioning, and even a pair of foglights. ABS is optional, though, and when fully loaded with carpeted floor mats, an automatic transmission, power windows and locks, keyless entry, two extra speakers, and power heated side mirrors, a Kia Rio5 runs $15,760. That's still a relatively inexpensive price, but it nevertheless exceeds those of the base model Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, cars that are up a notch in size and refinement. (Forget the autobox and the price dips back below $15K.)
The Rio5, though, offers the versatility of a hatchback and is pretty darn stylish to boot. The sheetmetal is crisp and handsome and manages to avoid appearing too cutesy or too cheap. But aside from the aforementioned leather items, the cabin is depressingly standard-issue econocar. The driving position is comfortable, although the fold-down armrest gets in the way of the tall manual gear lever, which has long throws and a numb, notchy feel. But it's hard to argue with the Kia Rio5. It's attractive, reasonably roomy, and surprisingly fun. Consider the suspicions well founded.