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RUMBLE SEAT DAN NEIL

Kia, you light up my life

The Rio5 nails the European subcompact experience, from axle to ashtray.

October 19, 2005|DAN NEIL

THIS is the kind of car I'd drive if my life had taken a different turn. I can imagine living in a flat on the outskirts of Prague -- apartments in the city being too expensive -- and commuting to the National Museum, where I'd be an exhibit technician. Not a great paleontologist, just a smock-wearing functionary, left in peace to dust the dinosaurs and plan my conquest of literature. At lunch I'd work on my novel, about an exhibit technician who, discovering a secret hidden among the dodos and giant sloths, is soon pursued by the Stazi. I'd wear a very long scarf and a short double-breasted overcoat like the man in Robert Doisneau's photograph "Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville." I'd live with a sloe-eyed and surrendering Czech girl with her own secrets.

And I'd smoke! Oh, cigarettes, forbidden bliss! Gitane, Gauloise, Marlboro. I'd smoke during dinner, in the bathtub, and, of course, in my car: a Kia Rio5 SX four-door hatchback, which has not one but two ashtrays and a nice cigarette lighter.

Back in reality, I am an ex-smoker of many years, and smoking -- which, for the purposes of defusing nagging e-mails, I hereby denounce as a filthy and dangerous vice -- is marginalized in the American car market. Ashtrays, which in the 1960s were indispensable and were as big as salad bowls, have shrunk to the size of demitasse cups or disappeared altogether. All cars have power outlets but not all cars come with the cigarette lighter.

In its nonjudgmental accommodation of smokers and a lot of other ways, the Kia Rio5 feels like a European car. Europeans pay a variety of taxes and penalties based on the size of their cars, not to mention $6 to $7 per gallon of gas. And just by virtue of the tighter streets in centuries-old cities, smaller cars are far more practical. Four-door hatchbacks, which offer the maximum utility over the smallest shadow, make perfect sense, whereas in the United States they have always seemed like the car to drive if you lost a bet.

The American car market stands to become a lot more European. Honda and Nissan are both bringing new subcompact cars to the U.S. next year, encouraged by the tectonic shift of gasoline prices. Toyota is replacing the Echo with the Yaris; GM's Daewoo-built Aveo and the Hyundai Accent are both well-established. Suzuki has the Aerio and the Reno five-door. Toyota's Scion xA provides the benchmark in this segment for charm and overachieving value. Perhaps the larger point is that these cars suggest a subtle change in American car culture, which has taken as an article of faith that we should consume as much as we can afford. What if, like Europeans, we were to buy less car than we could afford? Would that be so bad?

Not really, and the Kia is proof. Redesigned for 2006 and now sharing a platform with the Hyundai Accent, the Kia Rio family starts with a stripper version of the sedan for $11,110 that, while lacking air-conditioning and power anything, does have two sets of side air bags. The LX package kicks in air-conditioning and a few other niceties for under $13,000. I haven't driven these cars but I expect they share our test car's competent temperament and refinement. Don't get me wrong: This is still a buzzy little car when you thrash it, and full acceleration passing can sound like two DustBusters taped to your head. Yet it's surprisingly tight and well-screwed together and always feels game in the city.

The top-shelf Rio5 SX, starting at $14,000 and replacing the Rio Cinco, has a nice, friendly face and bowed-up window line like that of the Focus hatch. It has a thick black gusset wrapped around the body to protect the car from the predations of swinging doors, and there's a little aero foil at the top of the hatch. It's no great beauty, but it does have a fetching joie de vivre. The car has loads of usable space, and when you flip down the rear seats the cargo hold expands to small-wagon proportions (yes, you can even stuff a full-size mountain bike in the back). Returning 32 miles per gallon city and 35 highway, the Rio5 SX makes a good case for itself as a car for a one-car family.

The interior is spare but not spartan, with little grace notes such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel, alloy pedals and faux-aluminum surfacing on the dashboard. The instrument panel is simplicity itself. The seats are pretty comfortable front and back, though the rear seat backs are pretty bolt upright. Power windows and doors are optional. Ashtrays are standard.

You would not put this car in any urban derbies against subcompact tuners, but its torque-y, 110-hp inline four, matched with the five-speed manual, does move the car briskly around town. At freeway speeds, the car is a little more agitated as it tries to keep up with traffic.

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