Just in time to give consumers more choices of fuel-efficient cars as gasoline prices continue to spike, Kia has brought us the redesigned Rio subcompacts for 2006. There are two models offered - the Rio sedan and the Rio5 hatchback/wagon, and both are value-priced and easy on the gas.

For 2006, the Rio line received a complete redesign, so the cars are up to date and better than ever. It's the second generation of the Rio, which arrived initially for 2001 in just the sedan form; the wagon was added for 2004, and initially was called the Rio Cinco. But because most Americans had no idea that "cinco" was the word for "five" in Spanish, and therefore didn't understand the idea that the Rio Cinco was a five-door model of the car, the name this year has been simplified to Rio5.

With the redesign, the Rio models for 2006 have roomier interiors, more standard features, more power, and slightly higher base prices.

Don't panic about the price increases, though. They're really negligible.

The Rio already was among the cheapest sedans on the market, which was its claim to fame from the start. This year, the new base price is just $11,110, up just $720 from last year.

But that's really not an unfair price increase, considering the extras that have been added to the base model with the redesign. Among standard features for 2006 are six air bags, including dual front and front seat-mounted side air bags, and full-length side-curtain air bags. Most vehicles in this class either don't offer side-curtain air bags, or offer them only as an extra-cost option if they are even available.

The side-curtain bags, which are included in the base prices of all Rio sedans and the Rio5 wagon, make the Rio the lowest-priced car in the United States to have this feature as standard equipment.

At the start, when the Rio came to market in mid-2000, its customers mostly were young, first-time car buyers who could purchase a new Rio for less than they would have had to pay for a larger 2- or 3-year-old Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.

And despite some early quality problems, a combination of improvements to the vehicles and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty have boosted the vehicles' reputation in the marketplace.

The change was dramatic enough to earn the new Rio/Rio5 a tie for a prestigious first place in the subcompact class in the 2006 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. The study measures owners' experiences with new vehicles during the first 90 days after purchase. The Rio tied with the Suzuki Aerio.

That seems to suggest that the Rio might come close to the long-term reliability of a Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan or even Hyundai product.

Still, though, the Rio's popularity is mostly attributed to its low price and economy of operation, which continue to be hallmarks of the vehicle.

EPA fuel-economy estimates are 32 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg on the highway for the five-speed manual-transmission versions, and 29 city/38 highway with the four-speed automatic.

That's an impressive increase over the previous generation of the Rio, whose ratings were 26 city/33 highway for manual-gearbox models, and 25/32 for automatics.

The boost in fuel economy came with an increase in horsepower, as well. The 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine that comes in all Rio models now has 110 horsepower, up from 104 for 2005. Torque was increased slightly as well - to 107 foot-pounds from 104. Inside, passengers have more space than before, giving the Rio best-in-class roominess. The similar Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Aveo, both also products of South Korea, have 92 and 91 cubic feet of interior volume respectively, compared with 92.2 for the Rio sedan.

The Rio5 also has 92.2 cubic feet of space, which puts it ahead of the Aveo five-door, with 91 cubic feet, and the Scion xA, with 86. The interior space also is more than that of the longer and more-expensive Civic and Corolla.

The '06 Rio sedan is 1.2 inches taller and 0.6 inch wider than last year's model, with a wheelbase of 98.4 inches, up from 94.9 inches. Surprisingly, though, the overall length of the sedan remains the same: 166.9 inches.

The Rio5 is 8.7 inches shorter than the sedan and the previous Cinco model, but has more interior space than the '05 model. The difference in length between the sedan and five-door comes from squaring off the rear end of the sedan, where the trunk is, to create the wagon shape and add the fifth door. The increased height from the higher rear end of the wagon adds back the interior volume lost by shortening the vehicle.

These cars are basic econoboxes meant to be affordable transportation, not sports sedans or wagons. Yet they offer handling and performance similar to what one would find in some more-expensive basic-transportation vehicles, including the Ford Focus and now-discontinued Dodge Neon.

Helping with the fuel economy is the light weight of the Rios. They're both under 2,500 pounds, which allows the engine to seem to have more power than it does. The lighter the vehicle, the more-efficient the engine will be with the same horsepower.

Sedan models are offered in two trim levels, Base ($11,110) and LX ($12,985). Only one trim is offered in the wagon, the SX ($14,040). All three prices include $540 freight.

The cars actually look more expensive than they are. Kia said their styling was "European-inspired." The headlights are swept back, and the front includes a new black-mesh grille. Black moldings run along the doors, and there are similar black inserts on the bumpers.

These vehicles are all new, down to the chassis. Virtually nothing carried over from the previous generation.

A complaint with the previous sedan was its small trunk, but for 2006, trunk space is 11.9 cubic feet, an increase of 29 percent.

The Rio5 can be called a hatchback or a wagon (hatchback seems to resonate better with American consumers, who don't like to drive anything called a "wagon"), but the vehicle's cargo space is more wagonlike at 15.8 cubic feet. In comparison, the Aveo five-door has just 7.1 cubic feet or cargo space, and the xA just 11.7. With the rear seat folded, the Rio5 has 49.6 cubic feet of cargo room, compared with 42 in the Aveo and 33 in the xA.

Inside, the cars seem more expensive than they are, with such features as mesh fabric upholstery, an eight-way manually adjustable driver's seat, and a fold-down armrest. Other features include cubbyholes for cell phones and MP3 players; a slot in the center instrument stack for parking passes or toll tickets; two 12-volt power outlets; and a grocery-bag hook on the back of the front passenger seat.

Power front disc/rear drum brakes are standard, but four-wheel antilock disc brakes are optional on the LX sedan and the Rio5. The cars have a steel unibody - frame and body combined in one unit - that Kia says was "designed to minimize deformation of the passenger compartment in a collision."

There is room for up to five people in these cars, and even tall people can fit in the front seat. Average-size adults fit easily in the rear seat, but it's more comfortable for two than three.

Kia said the engine is all new, and features double-overhead cams and continuously variable valve timing. The improved fuel economy gives the cars a maximum range of about 450 miles, up from 370 last year, if the EPA estimates are accurate.

The five-speed manual transmission is standard on all models; an electronically controlled four-speed automatic is optional only on the LX sedan and the wagon. LX sedans come with air conditioning, AM/FM/CD audio system, power/tilt steering wheel, and a 60/40-split folding rear seat.

Wagons have all of the features of the LX model, plus 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, rear spoiler, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, metal-grain interior trim, and metal pedals.

Besides the automatic transmission and upgraded brakes, options for the LX and Rio5 include a power package that adds power windows, power door locks with keyless entry, power/heated mirrors, and tweeter speakers for the audio system.

Kia, a subsidiary of South Korea's Hyundai, offers the same warranty found on Hyundai vehicles. It includes five years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper; 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain; and five years or 60,000 miles of roadside assistance.

Quick facts: 2006 Kia Rio/Rio5

The basics: South Korean automaker Kia has completely redesigned its subcompact Rio sedan and wagon for 2006, and renamed the wagon the Rio5 (it was the Cinco before). These cars now are roomier, slightly more powerful and have better fuel economy.

The powertrain: The only engine used is a new 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder with double-overhead cam and variable valve timing, rated at 110 horsepower and 107 foot-pounds of torque. A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional.

Gas mileage: EPA ratings are 29 miles per gallon city/38 highway for the automatic models, and 32 city/35 highway for manual-gearbox versions. What they cost: Sedans begin at $11,110 and wagons at $14,040, including freight. The uplevel LX sedan is $12,985.

Accolades: The new Rio tied for first place among subcompact cars in the 2006 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, which measures problems incurred during the first 90 days of ownership.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.