The miniskirt is back.

Now, it's the minicar's turn, though, of course, for much different reasons.

While minicars represent a small portion of the market, 150,000 to 200,000 units, sales are expected to swell 25 percent by 2008 and 50 percent by 2010.

There are many reasons for this, one being that gas prices have forced some people to put mileage before style.

Another is that gas/electrics offer the mileage, but at a price.

And don't underestimate who's playing in the segment. The Chevrolet Aveo, Hyundai Accent, Scion xA and Kia Rio have been there for a while. Count Toyota, Honda and Nissan in.

But the current players aren't sitting still. Chevy, for example, has redone Aveo for 2007, and Kia has redesigned its four-door hatchback companion to the front-wheel-drive Rio sedan.

Along with a new look for Rio came a new name, the Rio5, rather than the Rio Cinco. Rio is available in base and LX models, Rio5 is the hatchback.

We tested the 2006 Rio5 hatchback in SX trim and quickly realized the difference between small cars of today versus those oddities of the past such as the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto with their squeaking and rattling and basically falling apart, when not rusting away, before your eyes.

That's not to say the Rio5 is a whisper-quiet rocket that will blow away sports cars and rival luxury sedans in soul soothing.

But you can slam the doors without the metal body panels doing a shimmy and scoot down the road without feeling as if a trailer was attached.

The 1.6-liter, 110-horsepower 4-cylinder teamed with a 4-speed automatic (5-speed manual is standard) is surprisingly limber and lively, though the small size and light weight (2,400 pounds) obviously contribute.

But you have to accept that when you press the gas pedal hard in a 4-cylinder, especially a mini, there's going to be a groan that wouldn't be as pronounced in a larger, more insulated sedan.

Of course, the 29 m.p.g. city/38 highway rating with automatic will sell this car more than any zero- to 60-m.p.h. or quarter-mile times. But if the city rating was 30 m.p.g. or higher, it would be an even easier sell. The rating with the 5-speed manual is 32/35, numbers potential hybrid buyers would have to consider.

Rio5 is shod with narrow p195/55R15 all-season radials. A wider tire would probably improve handling. As would larger stabilizer bars. Though the wheelbase was extended by 3.6 inches to improve handling, best to play with the Rio5 in a straight line.

And when looking for a high-mileage machine, don't expect the suspension to cushion every blow on the road. Rio5 tends to gyrate whenever the pavement is less than smooth.

To appreciate a minicar, you have to accept its limitations in ride and handling, while focusing on that high mileage and low price.

To keep the base price down, antilock brakes are a $400 option. A wise investment in any vehicle from big vans and sport-utilities carrying lots of kids to minis holding only two.

The seats are very comfortable and supportive. No skimping here. But what were the designers thinking? There's a gap where the seat bottom and seat back should meet, big enough that anything placed on the seat, such as a checkbook, ends up on the floor in back.

If a passenger is in the seat, of course, no problem. But if the seat is vacant . . . Well, let's just say when you arrive at the drive-up mailbox and the letters once on the seat are now on the rear floor, it becomes a problem.

Rear seats are cozy enough. And though rear legroom was increased by 1.6 inches, knee room is tight if the person upfront is a 6-footer.

The small cargo hold comes with a cover attached to the hatch lid to hide packages. The cover also serves as a parcel shelf. If you need more storage space, such as for a couple large suitcases, the rear seat backs fold fairly flat.

Windows are huge for excellent visibility front, rear or side. Thanks to a high roof line, there's no shortage of headroom front or rear.

A couple noteworthy items include a small slot in the center of the dash to slip a credit card or parking pass rather than watching it disappear from the passenger's seat; a small parcel shelf under the dash for cell phone and/or I-Pass; a plastic grocery bag hook under the headrest on the back of the front passenger seat; and a couple power outlets upfront.

Base price is $14,350 and includes the automatic ($13,500 with manual), air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, tilt steering, tinted glass, rear-window wiper/washer and side air bags and side-curtain bags. The SX adds fog lights and metal pedals for a sportier look. The only options you need are ABS at $400, and the power package at $600 that delivers power windows and mirrors, and door locks with keyless remote. In fact, other than carpeted floor mats and the automatic, those are the only options available on the Rio5.

Unfortunately, however, to keep the price down, the ABS isn't teamed with traction control. And no pricey navigation system to play with, no fancy MP3 player to tinker with and no sunroof to help circulate the air, though Kia said the latter is possible. We hope traction control comes first.

Strictly personal: Birthday greetings to the bottle blond who subtracts another year.

- - -

2006 Kia Rio5 SX

Price as tested: $15,420*

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Length: 158.1 inches

Engine: 1.6-liter, 110-h.p. 4-cylinder

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

CITY: 29 m.p.g.

HWY: 38 m.p.g.


Base price: $14,350

$400 ABS

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

$70 Floor mats

Add $540 for freight*


Redesigned and renamed.

Slightly larger hatchback companion to Rio sedan.

High mileage and low price.

Fairly sprightly for a small car with a small engine.


4-cylinder groan.

Suspension doesn't cushion bumps in the pavement.

Trap door design of front passenger seat.


Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.