If gas prices keep up their startling price surge, this will be the car of the future. This type of car, anyway.

Your average European driver already has settled into a teeny, economical hatchback, though that's as much a function of narrow urban streets and parking-spot rarity as fuel costs.

Like it or not, American drivers now are shedding their large SUVs and passenger cars for smaller, more efficient vehicles. But with such subcompacts as the Kia Rio5, that's not so onerous.

Rio5 and some others in the latest crop of subcompacts offer a decent measure of drivability and refinement along with their fuel economy. Rio5 is a five-door hatchback that also adds cargo-carrying versatility to the mix, along with such hatches as Honda Fit, Suzuki SX4, Chevrolet Aveo 5, Nissan Versa and Scion xD.

Rio5 is a good-looking little craft with a nicely styled interior, which serves to demonstrate how far the South Korean company has come in just a few years, under ownership by industrial giant Hyundai. Other than the original Sportage SUV, which made lots of friends due to its cheeky styling, Kia products were fairly uninspiring before the infusion of Hyundai cash for product development.

Based on the Rio sedan, Rio5 offers much of the sophistication of the Japanese subcompacts. Handling is nimble around town and gas mileage is good enough to keep you from going broke.

Still, it's a little bitty car and your backseat guests may be less than satisfied with the accommodations. For this extra-tall driver, legroom was tight though workable.

Kia Rio5 (say that three times fast) would make a good commuting car and grocery-getter for someone who wants to leave the big gas-guzzler at home, reserved for vacation trips and other special occasions.

Kia Rio5 SX

Vehicle type: Five-passenger four-door hatchback, front-wheel drive.

Engine: 1.6-liter inline 4, 110 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 107 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches.

Overall length: 158.1 inches.

Curb weight: 2,438 pounds.

EPA rating: 27 city, 32 highway.

Highs: Good drivability, nice styling, good gas mileage.

Lows: Chintzy interior parts, highway engine roar, antilock brakes cost extra.

PERFORMANCE: For a 1.6-liter engine, the four-banger provides spunky response in urban driving. But at highway speeds, the small engine sets up a subdued roar that sounds like it's working extra hard.The five-speed manual shifted smoothly, and I fear the Kia might be underpowered with an automatic.Gas mileage was better than advertised, about 30 mpg in mainly city driving.

DRIVABILITY: Surprisingly fun to drive, Rio5 felt sporty in the corners and holds the road well. The steering and brakes are responsive.Rio5 comes with a high level of safety equipment, although antilock brakes cost an extra $400. That needs to be standard. The car comes with full-length, side-impact airbags as well as seat-belt pretensioners and force limiters.

STYLING: One of the nicer-looking subcompacts, Kia5 has a sporty stance. The optional alloy wheels helped.

INTERIOR: Although Rio5's cabin is nicely designed, with a good look to the dashboard and door panels, some of the hard-plastic material seemed cheap and less-than-durable. Already, some scratches were appearing on the upper-door surfaces of this low-mileage test car.The rear seat is tight, and if you expect to get three people back there, everybody had better be small. With the back seat folded, cargo space is expansive.

BOTTOM LINE: Though pricing starts at about $13,000, such niceties as power windows and mirrors and antilock brakes cost extra.

Base price: $13,750.

Price as tested: $15,615.

OPTIONS

Power package, with power windows, mirrors, door locks and keyless remote, $600.

Antilock brakes, $400.

Alloy wheels, $200.

Floor mats, $85.

Shipping, $580.