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car review

2013 Kia Rio five-door

Idleness may not be the root of all automotive evil, but an idling engine definitely becomes one of the Devil's nastier playthings when it comes to pointlessly consuming our planet's vital bodily fluid and befouling its atmosphere.

Which is why I like the fact the Kia's Rio Five-door ECO doesn't – idle that is, at least when stopped at a red light.

Admittedly, the contribution the little subcompact Rio ECO makes, even though Kia is selling them as hard as it can, is a drop in the big dipper of fuel used by Canadians each year, but it's a positive step that addresses sheer waste.

The ECO-equipped six-speed automatic transmission has a Natural Resources Canada city fuel rating of 6.4 litres/100 km, which compares to 6.8 litres/100 km for the normal automatic-equipped version and 6.6 litres/100 km for the six-speed manual (you can't get the system with the manual).

You can virtually be guaranteed you'll never see any of those "city" numbers in real-world driving, but if the 0.4-litre difference holds true and you spend a lot of time downtown, opting for the ECO might make some sense.

All three variants are rated at 4.9 litres/100 km highway, which you'll also never get, at least at four-lane highway cruising speeds. On a 600-km round trip, I averaged what I thought was a very good 6.6 litres/100 km.

The price of adding Idle Stop and Go (ISG), as Kia calls it, at least isn't out of line. They will sell you a base five-door LX for $14,195, but most will likely choose the $15,695 next step up that adds air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise, keyless entry, fog lamps and Bluetooth. Opting for an automatic transmission and Kia's Active ECO System – a button-activated system that plays with the engine and transmission to optimize fuel economy – takes you to $16,995. Adding ISG will cost an extra $800, although Kia also tosses in 15-inch alloy wheels.

And when you're driving with the ISG, you'll have to put up with an admittedly minor drivability issue. After stopping at a traffic light, it re-fires the engine when you release the brake pedal, but it does so with a somewhat unrefined lurch. It's not awful, but it's noticeable. It may mostly disappear from your ken with time.

The system only shuts off the engine when its computer brain says various requirements are met. It would keep it running if the air conditioner is in use, for instance.

ISG really can save fuel under the right circumstances. Although if you don't use your car at least 50 per cent of the time in the city, there's likely no point. However, it's not priced to rip you off for making a planet-saving gesture.

As for the rest of the Kia Rio five-door, it's a pleasant little vehicle with enough poke to perform well, drives competently and comfortably, offers plenty of amenities and considerable practicality.

Its 1.6-litre, direct-injection four smoothly and willingly generates 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque, while making appropriate four-cylinder sounds – which is more than enough to make this 1,126-kg hatch lively, even with the automatic, which shifts efficiently by itself, and lets you select gears if you feel the need. There's enough urge to making passing or getting up to highway merging speed safe, and the suspension and steering (which feels odd at low speeds) make carving through a curve or on-ramp fun.

The interior doesn't feel subcompact-cramped, with enough room in the rear seat for two to be comfortable, and practicality is addressed by having 425 litres of room available behind the rear seat, and with its back folded, 1,410 litres under the hatch.

There's nothing much wrong with the way it looks inside, with a neat instrument array, a centre stack with audio system up top and climate controls below, set in silvery trim with some touches of chrome. Seats are fine, sound levels quite low and it's a not unpleasant place to spend a few hours of highway driving time. The Rio five-door is easy to like.

Economically, it might not make sense to opt for the ISG system and there's a minor drive-ability downside, but it feels so right to have this system in place. It simply makes sense not to waste fuel while you're sitting waiting for a light to change.

And stop/start systems do promise to have a real impact. It's been estimated 70 per cent of vehicles produced in Europe by 2016 will have them.

Tech specs

2013 Kia Rio LX AT ECO

Type: Subcompact hatchback

Base price: $17,795; as tested, $19,550

Engine: 1.6-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/123 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.4 city/4.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Sonic, Mazda2, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa