That Korean automakers have a problem with brand image is clear even before we leave the airport to test the cheapest car in America. Limo driver Josh Keifer, 26, is holding a Kia Motors America sign to signal arriving executives and journalists, and he admits he's not thrilled with his task. Hipster girls with pierced navels and midriff tops pass him without a second look.

"I wish this said Mercedes or BMW instead of Kia," confides Keifer, who mangles the name of the Korean manufacturer so it sounds like "Chia pet" instead of the correct "Key-ah."

"I wouldn't buy one," he continues. "My friend's girlfriend bought a Hyundai (made by Kia's parent company). They're junk - under powered."

But after a day of testing Kia's newest offering, the 2001 Rio sedan, in the Texas hill country, we longed to bump into the chauffeur again to straighten him out. The subcompact Rio, with a base price of $8,595, is the cheapest ride in the States, but to call it junk is unfair and inaccurate. In fact, Rio, which has just begun arriving in Kia's U.S. dealerships, holds up well against its chief competitors - the Toyota Echo, the Hyundai Accent and the Daewoo Lanos.

We scrutinized our first Rio test vehicle, a $10,557 version with a five-speed manual transmission and options that included power steering and air conditioning. The car's workmanship seemed up to typical American small-car standards. Only one flaw was noted: A little piece of rubber trim poking up out of the top of the instrument panel.

A second test Rio with a four-speed automatic transmission was a bit more disappointing. The five-speed manual had responded better to our needs in merging, accelerating and dodging trouble. But the four-speed couldn't disguise the Rio's lack of power. The car's standard 1.5-liter dual-overhead-cam engine makes 96 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque - slightly more power than the Accent, but considerably less than the Lanos or the Echo.

Turning left uphill in the face of traffic, the four-speed automatic seemed to hesitate before downshifting, causing my companion's lives to flash before their eyes. I got a stern lecture on "timing," but figured I'd have done better with the manual transmission.

Lesson One: If you bypass the used-car lot for a Rio, complete with its highly competitive 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, do yourself a favor. Learn to drive a stick and get the five-speed. One other note: The automatic's shift lever and its housing worried me. It seemed slightly jiggly and apt to fall apart after months of use.

Kia executives say the Rio is targeted at single women, ages 18 to 35, who work in low-paying jobs like nursing, teaching or day care. They have a median income under $35,000 a year. Those buyers should be aware that the base Rio lacks such items as power steering, a radio and air conditioning. A Rio with air conditioning and an automatic transmission costs $10,600. Fully loaded models are $11,824.

B.M. Ahn, Kia president and chief executive officer, said the Rio is aimed at "forgotten markets," including first-time buyers, Hispanics, African Americans and the elderly. Ahn said "humility" is one of Kia's core values - something you'd never hear from most automakers.

Kia executive vice-president Dick Macedo, a former Hollywood marketing honcho with an irreverent manner, describes the Rio marketing approach this way: "We will market this to someone who is looking for a used car, but ends up buying a new car."

Macedo says the typical buyer will not be into styling. "The car is pretty much (basic) transportation," he said.

Clearly, styling isn't one of the wedge-shaped Rio's strengths. But it is inoffensive and plain. As if to compensate, Kia offers the Rio in some garish, candy-colored shades, which Ahn says tend to sell well, especially among Hispanic buyers.

Other Rio impressions: The rear seat has a lot of headroom; you can only get c nk-type windows; the ride and handling is decent for an entry-level vehicle; it tends to be noisy at highway speeds. The 13-inch tires don't inspire a lot of confidence. Kia says it expects to change to 14-inch tires at some point. Safety equipment is average. The Rio has height-adjustable shoulder belts and a height-adjustable driver's seat. But you can't get side air bags, and antilock brakes cost an extra $400.

Gas mileage is only average for the segment, at around 27 in the city and 31 on the highway. Some competitors, like the Echo, average more than 40 mpg.

After a day in the four-passenger Rio, the moral of the story was clear. The newest Kia may not get Josh picked up by a hot babe, but it will get him to work and back and won't break the bank.