They used to be called "secretary cars" cheap subcompacts bought primary by women with low-paying jobs looking for basic transportation between home and work. Most were sedans, a few could also be ordered as two-doors or hatchbacks, and they were as dull as dishwasher. That was true, even though some offered decal packages meant to convey a slightly sportier look.
Such cars are almost impossible to find today. Sure, there are still plenty of low-priced subcompacts out there. But, with one or two exceptions, even the most basic ones come standard with a surprising amount of convenience, entertainment and safety features. And almost all of them are fun to drive especially when outfitted with few factory upgrades.
The 2013 Kia Rio SX is a case in point. When first released in 2000, the Rio sedan was the least-expensive car in America and drove like it. The five-door hatchback was a little more practical but still slow, boring and cheap feeling. It ferried minimum wage workers from point A to point B at not much cost, however.
But the current generation, first introduced in 2011, is an entirely different animal. It is still inexpensive, with the base LX model starting at around $14,000. But it looks sharp, has a well-designed interior, and is fun to drive, thanks to the 1.6-liter four cylinder engine that delivers 138 horsepower and 123 foot pounds of torque. If those figures don't sound all that impressive, the gas direct injection (GDI) fuel system allows the engine to rev quickly, producing both good around-town and freeway acceleration. It's a little noisy under hard acceleration, but nothing the stereo won't tame.
The next step up is the EX model, which adds cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, upgraded cloth upholstery, a sliding front armrest, Bluetooth phone connectivity and a six-speaker sound system. An available Eco package includes automatic stop/start, which shuts the engine down when stopped to save fuel.
Our fully-loaded test SX Premium sedan genuinely increased the fun with 17-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, leather seats and a quick-shifting automatic transmission with two manual shift modes on the floor and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Although the ride was a little harsh over rough pavement, there was just enough boy racer feel to compensate for it.
And all trim levels, including the SX, are available as five-door hatchbacks with increased cargo space.
It has often been said that Kia (and its sibling, Hyundai) have come a long way in a short period of time. That's true, and the results are reflected in all of their cars and crossovers. But so have their competitors, especially in the subcompact market. Cars like the Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent are all remarkably better than their predecessors.
Which means buyers should compare the various models before making a final decision. If they do, we think the Rio will still win a lot of them over. Some of the others might be a little more refined or sophisticated, but we think the Rio has a certain diamond in the rough charm about it.
Part of this is the styling, which is consistent with the rest of the Kia's line up these days. All look longer than they are, thanks to sleek lines and big wheel arches. The aggressive front grills and air dams are especially noteworthy, a marked improvement over the tiny opens that diminished the looks of the company's earlier models.
Inside, the dash is refreshing clean and simple. Three big knobs operate the climate control system and a few strategically placed buttons control stereo and surprisingly large display screen that comes with the Premium package. In addition to the other upgrades, our test vehicle had a navigation system with a rear view camera and sun roof and was still priced at less than $22,000.
Like all Korean cars these days, the mileage, though good, was a little disappointing. Our was EPA rated at 28 city and 36 highway, a little short of most competitors. But the engine pulls so strong, the trade off seemed fair.
Unlike subcompacts of the past, the 2013 Kia Rio is a commuter car that can also be driven on evenings and weekends with pride. Progress marches on.
Facts and figures (all models)
Model tested: 2013 Rio SX.
Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.
Style: Sedan or five-door hatchback.
Engine: 1.6-liter GDI inline four (138 hp, 123 ft-lbs).
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic with manual shift modes.
Fuel Economy: 29/37/32 (manual); 28 /36/31 (auto); 30/36/32 (EX Eco)
Price: Starting at around $14,000 ($21,340 as tested).