2003 Kia Rio RX-V

When you think about it logically, economy cars aren't expected to do a lot. If they start, stop, heat in winter and cool in summer, that's really covering the basics.

But just as life is improved by art and music, strong styling can make a difference. I love curves and swoopy designs, and that's why I found the Kia Rio RX-V so attractive.

This is one seriously styled little machine, with lines I'd expect to see in a more expensive car. For 2003, Kia's station wagon – I know, they call it a five-door hatchback – has bigger headlights and taillights, and smoother bumpers than its predecessor.

Korea's Kia has only been in Canada five years, but they've managed to make inroads with six lines, including a minivan and small SUV. Rio is the entry level, with the four-door Rio S starting at $12,350.

No doubt warranty is part of the popularity. Kia is currently the industry leader, offering five years or 100,000 km on almost everything, including roadside assistance.

I found the interior nice, as well. The industry has traditionally paid attention to the sound the door makes as it closes – customers tend to associate a "heavier" sound with higher quality – and the Rio's do sound surprisingly better than I expected. The car only weighs 1135 kg, but feels like a much heavier automobile, even on the highway.

There are traditional lock buttons mounted on the top of the door, and they operate the central power-lock system.

They're awkward to use, since it means reaching over your shoulder to access them, and there are no rolling locks.

Ironically (but cleverly), the keyless entry fob is part of the key. The power windows have one-touch down for the driver, and a lockout switch.

I found the seating position very comfortable. Armrests on the door and seat are at the right height, and there's a footrest; this would work equally for short hops or long drives.

The tilt wheel frames a simple gauge cluster. Both driver and passenger have airbags.

The stereo is well-placed, with simple buttons, and the heater dials are big enough to work with gloves. The cupholders pop out for easy cleaning – why don't more carmakers think of this? – and even the keg-o-coffee size (I'm not good with mornings) doesn't obstruct the controls. Front storage is adequate, with deep map pockets, a large glovebox, overhead sunglasses holder and a small, open console.

Fit and finish are generally good, although my tester had an intermittent rattle in the rear quarter, and a rear door that didn't always close properly.

Rear storage is the big story here. The 60/40 rear seats fold forward to provide a cargo area that's 152 cm (60 inches) deep, with a rear opening that's 93 cm (37 inches) wide and 73 cm (29 inches) high. Never mind regular grocery shopping. This is the car you want when you're stocking up on the 48-roll cases of toilet paper. Or visiting Ikea.

But cars are more than interior layout, and what's under the hood will make or break this one for some buyers. You'll have to assess your needs and driving habits, and spend some time behind the wheel before you buy.

The Rio is not a powerhouse. It has a 1.6-litre four-cylinder that hits its 104 peak horsepower at 5800 rpm, and doesn't make its 104 lb-ft of torque until 4700 rpm. The engine has a rumble at idle that can become annoyingly loud when it's cold.

Mine was hooked up to the optional four-speed automatic transmission. It'll keep up once it gets going, but unless you put your foot right into it, acceleration is sluggish.

It's fine if you just want an inexpensive car to drive around town; those who prefer a bit more performance should try the standard five-speed manual.

The listless acceleration's saving grace is at the gas pumps. In combined city and highway driving, I got 8.5 L/100 km (33 mpg). With gas prices skyrocketing, I'll take thrifty over swifty.

Even so, be warned. The tank only holds 45 litres, which means frequent fill-ups if you commute any distance. I absolutely hate stopping for gas; an extra day or two between refuellings would have been appreciated.

You do get a lot of extras for the money. For $17,150, my RX-V with its convenience package had A/C, power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry, power heated mirrors, intermittent wipers, alloy wheels, fog lights, AM/FM/CD, roof rack, cargo net, cargo cover, tilting head-restraints, rear wiper and tilt wheel. Oh, and that warranty.

All in all, it does its job for a decent price, and with considerable interior comfort. Just be sure to drive it thoroughly first. Then decide if your preference fits a car that, performance-wise, could use a tad more chili in its kimchee.

In my review last week of the Hyundai Accent, the total price of $17,980 provided by Hyundai was incorrect. The Accent as tested was $15,635, plus $125 for metallic paint and $380 for freight, for a total of $16,140.

Highs 5-year/100,000 km warranty Interior features Storage capacity Lows Underpowered engine Sluggish acceleration Small gas tank Jil McIntosh can be reached at rabbit @

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