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BY Andrew Stoy | autoweek.com
What is it?
Kia, along with its parent company Hyundai, spent a long time in the wilderness – they were cars people bought because they couldn’t afford anything better. But thanks to a revolutionary ten-year warranty and newfound focus on design, the once-ignored Korean upstarts have become a powerhouse in the new-car market.
The recently redesigned Kia Rio is a perfect example of the product renaissance. Rio is the smallest offering from Kia, but it follows the company’s new formula for success: offer attractive, well-equipped fun-to-drive cars at prices just under those of established competitors.
The Kia Rio competes with a new crop of well-equipped subcompacts – the cars are known in the industry as “B-segment” offerings – like the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit and even the Rio’s sister car the Hyundai Accent.
We spent two weeks with a loaded Rio SX five-door hatchback, complete with leather-wrapped steering wheel, automatic on/off headlamps, navigation and sport-tuned suspension. A sedan bodystyle and two lower trim levels are also available for buyers who don’t need the full near-luxury treatment from their daily commuter.
What’s it like to live with?
Technology is one of the Rio’s strong suits: The SX comes with an easy-to-use touch-screen display that controls the navigation and entertainment systems, and Kia has done an admirable job of placing large icons on the screen to control common functions. The screen also acts as a display for the extraordinarily crisp backup camera, activated when the Rio is placed in reverse. Speakers appear to have suffered from cost-cutting: The Rio’s stock stereo is decidedly tinny, with an almost total absence of bass response.
Fuel economy is expected to be one of the Rio’s strong points, considering its EPA rating of 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway (33 mpg combined). We say “expected to be” because our Rio is still nearly new and we don’t have enough real-world data to verify theestimates. Initial figures are just below EPA ratings, which is common for a vehicle with fewer than 5,000 miles.
We already have plenty of data on the little Kia’s utility, though: Two adults and two young children in booster seats fit comfortably in the Rio’s passenger compartment, plus a pair of small sleds, snow gear and the fruits of a family Target shopping trip in the deep, covered rear cargo area. Taller drivers will wish for more lower-thigh support from the seats, but otherwise the ergonomics are excellent.
Road and engine noise are no worse than competitive vehicles; the same can be said for acceleration: Thanks to its smooth six-speed automatic, the Rio gets around just fine, but don’t expect to win any stoplight drag races, especially when you’re fully loaded. Kia also includes an “ActiveEco” mode with the Rio that changes some of the engine and transmission programming to favor fuel economy; with just a driver on-board, ActiveEco works very well, though it makes marginal acceleration even more sluggish when the car is filled with people and gear.
Who should consider this car?
Unlike Kias past, and Rios in particular, the 2012 Kia Rio SX isn’t a car you buy and put up with until you can afford something better. Barring a dramatic family expansion, there’s no reason to think you couldn’t live comfortably with a Rio as a daily driver until the warranty expires in a decade.
That said, before purchasing a top-shelf Rio SX, its worth asking yourself which is more important: a larger vehicle or one with all the bells and whistles? If you don’t mind giving up some of the luxuries, there are a number of spacious mid-size sedans that can be had at or near the Kia’s MSRP.
What similar cars should I consider?
Similarly sized vehicles worth looking at include the Honda Fit, which has an extraordinarily flexible interior layout, and the spunky new Chevy Sonic, noted for its fun-to-drive nature.
If you’re willing to sacrifice some features, larger cars at the Rio’s price point include the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta SE, nicely equipped for around $21,000; a new Ford Focus, one of the staff’s personal favorites, is well within the Rio’s price range, as is the Chevrolet Cruze – again, a favorite driver among our testers.
Vehicle: 2012 Kia Rio SX 5DR
Base price: $18,450;
as tested: $20,745
Engine: 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder
Drivetrain: FWD, six-speed automatic
EPA mileage (city/highway/combined): 30/40/33
Curb weight: 2,483 lbs.
HP: 138 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 123 lb-ft @ 4,850 rpm
Options on test vehicle: Premium package including navigation system with Sirius traffic, power tilt/slide sunroof, push-button start with smart key, leather seat trim and heated front seats ($2,200); carpeted floor mats ($95)
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