The 2012 Kia Rio EX-5 door.The 2012 Kia Rio EX-5 door.The first time we test-drove a Kia Rio, about 10 years ago, we judged it a “surprisingly competent little car.” That’s a nice way of saying the Rio was boring, though not as uncivilized as we feared. Today’s Rio, like everything else manufactured in Korea these days, is a quantum improvement over its predecessor.

To be sure, it’s more expensive. Our 2012 Rio EX 5-door hatchback came in at a princely (by Rio standards) $18,345. But those dollars buy quite a bit more car than the noisy, underpowered subcompact of days gone by. Among its standard features are air conditioning, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, Sirius satellite radio, cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering column, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, and Bluetooth wireless technology. On the safety front, anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, vehicle stability management and hill assist control all are included on all Rios.

The only option was a convenience package, comprised mainly of upgraded interior appointments, plus power folding mirrors with turn-signal indicators and a rear camera.

For those who want the low-cost reliability, durability and long warranty of a new Rio, but can do without the bells and whistles, the base Rio LX sedan can be had for $13,400. But you’ll have to do without amenities like the 6-speed automatic transmission and power windows.

Once, Korean cars fell short of the fuel-economy benchmarks set by veteran players like Toyota and Nissan. Today’s Rio is rated at 40 mpg on the highway — about as good as you can get without paying the extra thousands for a hybrid. (The best we could do was about 38 mpg.) 

The interior has an upscale feel, enhanced by the convenience package. It includes a soft-touch dash and carpeted floor mats. Controls are straightforward and logical. Front leg room, at nearly 44 inches, is more than sufficient for tall drivers. Cargo space is also impressive: 13.7 cubic feet.

The first Rio we test-drove was as boring to look at as it was to drive. But Kia and Hyundai have been busy bending sheet metal and molding plastics into shapely configurations on all their models, and the 2012 Rio got the full treatment. It’s a sharp-looking ride.

Having just turned in a comparatively sweet-handling Hyundai Veloster, we weren’t overwhelmed by the Rio’s steering response and cornering. (Kia also offers the Rio in SX trim, with a stiffer ride and sportier handling.) For drivers who care deeply about such things, the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic might be attractive. But the Rio, while seldom daring the driver to take a corner a little faster than he feels he should, imparts a mood of safety and security.

Past Rios haven’t done well in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests; this new model hasn’t been rated. Side impacts were a weak spot. The 2012 Rio has full-length side curtain airbags as well as front side-impact bags.

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.

Price: $18,345

Engine: 1.6-liter Four, 138 horsepower, 123 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Weight: 2,483 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear

Wheels: 15-inch alloy (optional)

Tires: 185/65R15 all-season 

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 15 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 49.6 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 11.4 gallons

Fuel economy: 30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway

Fuel type: Regular