Estimated to get up to 40 miles per gallon in highway driving, the 2012 Kia Rio 5- door continues Kia’s relentless march to fuel efficiency. Kia is borrowing a feature from hybrid vehicles to achieve the 40 mpg mark, and is using lots of recycled materials in the new Rio.

For the first time in a non-hybrid vehicle, Kia is integrating an engine-stopping feature to boost gas mileage. The Idle Stop and Go technology turns the engine off when the car comes to a stop, then restarts the engine when the driver releases the brake pedal.

The technology is pretty standard in hybrid vehicles, but it still amazes me. Has it been that long ago that I was afraid that the engine in my 1971 Volkswagen would stop at a red light and I’d have to push it to the side of the road? New car engines today with this technology stop and start dozens if not hundreds of times a day, seamlessly and without fail.

Powering the Rio 5-door (the sedan will be launched later this year) is a 1.6-liter, 138- horsepower engine mated to either a 6 speed manual or automatic transmission. Based on a half-day of driving at the Kia-sponsored launch in the Hill Country of Texas, the little powerplant won’t win races, but it’ll scoot the Rio around town nicely.

The redesigned Rio – longer, wider and lower than the previous model – is also made from lots of recycled products, and Kia officials say that 85 percent of the Rio’s materials will be recyclable again at the end of the car’s life.

The Rio is the 9th new vehicle from Kia since the launch of the Soul three years ago, continuing the trend of new fuel-efficient vehicles from the South Korean automaker. The Soul was introduced in early 2009, followed by the Forte, Forte Koup, Sorento, Sportage, Forte 5-door, Optima, Optima Hybrid and Rio. “We have unprecedented growth and momentum,” said Michael Sprague, Kia’s vice president of marketing and communications.

“It’s all about launching the right products in the right segments,” added Tom Loveless, vice president of sales for Kia. During that 3-year period, Kia has seen unprecedented growth, making it the fastest growing mainstream brand in the country, Loveless said. Year-todate sales are up 37 percent over 2010, with 13 consecutive monthly sales records being set, he said.

The small car world is getting a lot bigger, and Kia has emphasized the sub-compact category, said Ralph Tjoa, manager of car product planning for Kia. “It’s no longer about driving in the penalty box. It’s now about driving in a box suite,” he said.

The Rio’s base LX trim starts at $13,600, the EX line starts at $16,500 and the sporty SX begins at $17,700. The LX offers a 6-way driver’s seat with a height adjuster, a tilt steering wheel with audio controls, a trip computer and electric power steering. The EX trim adds power windows, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with Bluetooth, and leatherette door trim. The SX brings metal pedals, an upgraded gauge cluster, a leather steering wheel and shift knob, upgraded lighting and the UVO voice-activated infotainment system with a rearview camera. Satellite radio and USB jacks are standard on all trims.

Options include power, convenience and eco packages that load the Rio with most favored options, from navigation to smart keys to automatic headlamps. The eco package adds the stop-and-go fuel-saving technology.

While the Rio is all-new for 2012, Kia has also freshened up the 2012 Soul with new 6- speed transmissions that help deliver up to 35 mpg on the highway. The Soul also gets new LED lighting and a new Infinity premium audio system.

STATISTICS

ENGINE 1.6-liter GDI 4-cylinder

TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic or manual

HORSEPOWER 138

TEST MODEL BASE PRICE LX $13,600 – SX $17,700

EPA MILEAGE RATING 40 mpg highway / 30 mpg city