2019 Kia Rio EX vs. 2019 Hyundai Accent Limited: We’re out of money after our holiday spending, so let’s compare some budget-minded boxes.

This week: Kia Rio.

Price: $19,725 as tested.

Marketer’s pitch: “Small can do big things.”

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “mature design, pleasant cabin, composed ride,” but not that’s there’s “not much space inside, manual transmission available only on base model.”

Reality: More fun and more room.

What’s new: After many years wearing the same look, this baby Kia received a redesign for 2018 (the model year Mr. Driver’s Seat tested). It’s not bad, but it will quickly harken owners back to Kia’s not-so-good old days.

Up to speed: The 130-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine doesn’t impress too much, but it’s not terribly underpowered. It’s just not up to the standards of most cars today. Sixty mph comes in 8.5 seconds, says Car and Driver.

But switch into sport mode, and the Rio gets a whole lot more interesting. Getting onto highways becomes a bit more fun, and highway speeds are achieved quickly, with no evident harm to fuel economy.

Shifty: The six-speed automatic transmission isn’t as horrible as I expected in automatic mode. I’d really rather a shift, but I found this worked just fine on hills and at highway speeds without big jerky downshifts.

Unless, that is, I had sport mode engaged. Then the car stayed in lower gears far too long.

Sport mode always was a bit of an issue in stop-and-go traffic. Again, the Rio did a fairly commendable job, but most other cars are a lot smoother.

One real downside to sport mode, though, that seems unique to this model is a surge when letting off the gas. Several times I could feel the Rio want to keep going for a second or two after I started preparing to slow down, so I had to brake sooner than I expected.

Manually operated cloth seats in the Kia Rio tested were not uncomfortable. Driving position felt good, and the gauges were easy to read.
Manually operated cloth seats in the Kia Rio tested were not uncomfortable. Driving position felt good, and the gauges were easy to read.

On the road: Handling will not excite drivers too much. The car goes where it’s pointed, and the small wheels feel small, but that’s about it.

Sport mode didn’t really improve this part that much. The little car still felt like a light brick tossing from side to side.

Play some tunes: The one feature that didn’t depend on sport mode was the stereo — it rocked no matter which setting I engaged. I thought our Kia Soul radio sounded pretty good, but this Infinity system plays rings around it. Grade: A, something I haven’t given to cars with far more exotic-sounding stereo names.

Bonus: The first notes of songs aren’t cut off anymore, a long-standing Kia glitch.

And operation of the stereo is simple, with knobs for volume and tuning and buttons for source changes — drivers are able to save Sirius XM stations easily and save music from their favorite stations for the duration of the ride.

Friends and stuff: We had the opportunity to take a trip across Pennsylvania in the Rio. I decided to spare Sturgis Kid 4.0’s legs — and the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat’s chilly derriere — and pass. I haven’t done that in forever.

The hatch window closes in on the rear seat pretty severely, and cargo space is 13.7 with the rear seat up.

Driver’s Seat: But the manually operated cloth seats were not uncomfortable. Driving position felt good and the gauges were easy to read.

Leg position for accelerator pedal is awkward. The gas sits up high and so do my legs. A short seat bottom doesn’t help.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 35 mpg in the usual Mr. Driver’s Seat round of testing. This is some pretty fine mileage for a non-hybrid vehicle and almost 10 percent higher than the Accent.

Where it’s built: Pesqueria, Mexico

How it’s built: Consumer Reports expects its reliability will be a 3 out of 5, with no reporting from previous years.

In the end: I still say a hatchback is a must at this size, so the Rio wins the competition, but it also wins for performance with an automatic.

In this price range, a Mazda2 is a whole lot more fun (though no hatchback there either). If you can part with a few more pennies, though, an Elantra GT or even a Corolla IM would be far better choices for longer trips.