The low end of the new-car market has come a long way in the past few decades, and nothing testifies to that better than the 2006 Kia Rio.

Built in South Korea and sold through Kia's 640 U.S. dealers, the new Rio sedan (and Rio5 hatchback wagon) arrived in August. It became, with a sticker price on the base model of $10,570, the cheapest car offering six air bags -- two in front, two on the side and two side-curtain bags.

And it's the second-cheapest car on the U.S. market, after the $9,455 2006 Chevy Aveo, according to

With a better-than-anticipated ride and surprising roominess, it's a solid choice for first-time or cash-strapped buyers.

When I think about my first car, a 1981 Chevy Chevette, and remember its features (hardly any, and none good), this Rio feels luxurious.

As an aside, here's what Eric Peters wrote in ``Automotive Atrocities! The Cars We Love to Hate'' (Motorbooks International, $19.95, 2004): ``If you drove a Chevette when it was new, you were poor; if you got stuck with a used one as your high school ride, your parents were.''

And I should note that aside from its impressive tally of air bags, the base-model Rio is still a pretty skimpy choice. That means no air conditioning, no stereo, no tilt steering and no split/folding rear seat.

But the Rio LX, the one that I drove, includes all that and more as standard, and it felt like a real bargain at its $13,295 base price (automatic transmission). Our tester, with an automatic transmission, options and freight, had a $14,905 sticker price. The new Rio is longer and wider than the previous model, and its longer wheelbase makes for a better ride. It offers the most passenger room (92.2 cubic feet) in the subcompact class, Kia says.

The trunk, at 11.9 cubic feet, is 29 percent larger than the one on the 2005 Rio, too.

The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine found on all Rio models produces 110 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. The previous Rio arrived as a 2001 model with a 96-horsepower motor.

Kia points out that the Rio has more oomph than rivals such as the Chevy Aveo, Scion xA and Toyota Echo. That's true, but I should share with you that an all-new Aveo arrives in the summer and Toyota soon will replace the Echo with the Yaris. And, personally, I'd pick the xA over the Rio.

On the road, I found the Rio's engine to be quite satisfactory. A bit loud perhaps, but it supplied ready and more-than-adequate power. The ride was acceptable, although the steering was a bit loose for my taste.

The best news might be the Rio's improved fuel economy. It rates 32 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway with the standard five-speed manual and 29/38 with the optional four-speed automatic. That puts it right near the top of gasoline-powered small cars (along with the Toyota Corolla, Scion xA, Hyundai Accent and Honda Civic), according to the Web site.

The design of the car is conservative, but rather stylish. There's a cuteness about it that will appeal to some buyers. The body-color door handles are an upscale notion, and I even found the wide strip of black molding that flows from the doors to the rear of the car a nice touch.

The car's interior features a simple, easy-to-use layout. The cup holders and various storage bins held what I carried in a proper way. And my ever-growing kids didn't complain about the back-seat accommodations.

But our test model's light tan interior already was looking a bit dingy after just 4,000 miles. Both of the front seats, covered with a perforated cloth, were slightly stained.

U.S. buyers have been responding to the value and increasing quality offered by Kia. 2004 marked its 11th year of sales increases here.

For the record, Kia finished dead last (37th out of 37 automakers) in the J.D. Power's 2005 Vehicle Dependability Study that measures the quality of 3-year-old cars and trucks. But it did better in the 2005 Initial Quality Study that measures the quality of this year's cars and trucks, and its then-newest model, the Spectra, finished just behind the Toyota Prius as the highest-quality compact car.

- - -

Contact Matt Nauman at or (408) 920-5701.