It can now be carved in stone with absolute certainty that the dumbed-down, stripped-bare small-car era is officially over. And we have cars such as the 2012 Kia Rio to thank for pushing high-tech and comfort features down to the lowest limb on the automotive tree.

The all-new Rio sedan and Rio 5-Door hatchback bear little resemblance to their predecessors that took a minimalist approach and backed it up with styling and features that defined utilitarian.

But, hey, that worked for the Rio and its Hyundai Accent relation (Hyundai owns Kia), as well as for just about every other entry-level car on the planet.

It’s amazing what a little bar-raising competition has done for what was once the low-rent category. Nowadays, the market is teeming with really decent base rides, including the Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris, Mazda2, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and the upcoming Chevrolet Sonic, to name some of the class leaders.

 

At a base price of $15,650 for the hatchback (pricing for the sedan hasn’t been set yet), the Rio models appear to have established category benchmarks for fashion and substance that will be hard to top, but easy for small-car shoppers to swallow.

Longer and wider

Kia’s California-based stylists really sharpened their pencils (or computer programs) in designing the new Rio duo and devised a larger canvas on which to do it.

Both the sedan and hatchback 5-Door are a bit longer and wider than their predecessors and the distance between their front and rear wheels has grown by a leg-stretching three inches.

The sheetmetal is now much more pleasing, especially on the slinkier hatch that has its own grille, bumper and, of course, rear door.

Idle Stop and Go

The powerplant’s claim to fame is the adoption of what Kia calls Idle Stop and Go (ISG). This feature, available only in combination with the automatic transmission, shuts down the engine when the Rio comes to a complete stop, then instantly fires it up again when the brake pedal is released.

ISG is part of an optional Eco Dynamics Package that includes a special alternator that disengages under high engine load (such as when heading up a hill) to reduce power-sapping drag and improve fuel economy.

Engine

The Rio’s power output has been significantly increased. The 1.6-litre four-cylinder produces 138 horses and 123 pound-feet of torque. That’s a gain of 28 horses and 16 pound-feet of torque compared to the outgoing 1.6, which is significant on a 1,135-kilogram vehicle.

The lighter-by-13 kilograms engine is connected to a six-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed automatic.

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