The Kia Rio delivers excellent fuel economy, perky performance and a strong warranty for an attractive price with a degree of style. Rio also offers refinement not often found in a subcompact, and it's roomy and comfortable. Completely redesigned for the 2012 model year, Rio is available in two body styles: the four-door Rio sedan and Rio 5-door hatchback.
For 2013, changes to the Kia Rio are minimal. The 2013 Kia Rio sedan and hatchback get a revised badge on the hood, trunk lid and steering wheel. Steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters now come on the SX model; hatchback EX and SX trims get a standard cargo floor tray and net. Also, an automatic stop/start feature is included with the optional Eco package.
The Rio four-door sedan and Rio 5-door hatchback share styling influences but not all details; with different grilles, tails and side scallops they look more like siblings than twins. Compared with other subcompacts, the Kia Rio models are wider, have a longer wheelbase, shorter overall length and lower roofline; only Nissan's Versa is considerably bigger outside.
Kia Rio mechanicals go a step better than basic econo-car. Its 1.6-liter engine uses direct injection to aid power and fuel economy, resulting in the best horsepower in the segment and fuel economy highway ratings in the 40-mpg range. The optional Idle Stop and Go system found on the Eco package, typically reserved for more expensive cars, automatically turns the engine off and on at long stops, saving more fuel for urban drivers and reducing emissions.
Rio's all-disc brakes are uncommon in this bracket, as are its available 17-inch wheels. Suspension is conventional in design, delivering a ride suitable for long commutes and behavior suitable for the class.
Cabins are nicely put together. They're easy to live with and not overwrought with gimmicky styling. Everything is easy to operate and anyone can quickly master the controls. Kia's reputation for value is carried on by standard features such as air conditioning and power-heated mirrors. Mid-line Rio models have Bluetooth as standard. Upgrades include navigation, Kia's UVO infotainment system by Microsoft, rear camera, leather upholstery and heated front seats.
Both sedan and hatchback models offer useful space; we favor the hatch for its added load flexibility and maneuverability. Rio seats are comfortable. And there's good cubby storage in the center console and side door pockets. Interior room stacks up well against competitors, but while Rio is best in terms of front legroom, it suffers from cramped legroom in the rear.
On the road, the Rio is smooth and feels refined for the class. The ride is taut without being firm, the feeling one of stability and not punishment.
The 2013 Kia Rio is a considered a subcompact car and competes against the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris.
Kia Rio LX 4-door ($13,600); Rio EX 4-door ($16,500); Rio SX 4-door ($17,700); Rio 5-door LX ($13,800); Rio 5-door EX ($16,700); Rio 5-door SX ($17,900)
Family resemblances are apparent with the Kia Rio. Certain styling cues are shared with the current-generation Optima midsize sedan, which underwent an extreme makeover from dowdy to dapper in its last redesign. Rio's looks aren't groundbreaking, but they are as contemporary as anything in the class.
Rio sedan and hatchback models share front doors and basic structures but surface cosmetics keep them separate. The sedan mirrors the Optima more, with the pinched center top grille and full-width lower air intake. The hatchback has a much smaller upper grille, almost like an engine air intake rather than cooling, and a deeper lower grille segmented in three sections where the angled side sections meet the flat center. Sedan and hatch models use different headlamp housings, and the SX version of each also gets unique lights, including LED daytime running lights. On both body styles the front wheels are well outboard of the headlights, adding a lower, more aggressive look; it's not mean, nor as comic-like as some small cars.
A pronounced wedge profile in side view shares a deep front door window, and ahead of the mirror, a small triangular piece of fixed glass that's quite useful for driver vision. The top crease of the scallop in the door panels echoes the windshield pillar line and fairs rearward, on the sedan leading directly to the top of the taillight. Combined with the slender roof pillar and minimal painted surfaces above the lamps, the sedan has an elegant, light, tailored look, disguising the substantial trunk height.
On the hatch the roofline tapers down, pinching the rear windows, one reason the Rio hatch does not have more rear-seat headroom than the sedan. The short rear panels wrap around into the hatch, the lights protruding slightly (but still well inside the bumper) for better all-around viewing and staying cleaner in bad weather. On SX models, the taillights have LED elements.
The hatchback's rear window is close to horizontal at the top edge, fitted with a small spoiler, and close to a semicircular arc along the bottom edge, reminiscent of the grinning grille on some Mazdas. A dark close-out panel sweeps up from behind the rear wheels serves to visually lower and widen both models. And on both cars the license plate is in this recess, not the hatch or trunk lid, so you never hear it rattle. With trunk or hatch open some portion of the taillights and low-mount reflectors remain visible to improve night-loading safety.
Compared with the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris, the Rio has a longer wheelbase but shorter overall length, and it's wider and lower than most. Extra wheelbase helps ride quality and stability, but a longer wheelbase with a shorter overall length also means shorter overhangs front and rear. All these dimension play into how the Rio comes across a bit sportier than most other subcompacts. The other aspect is that few competitors offer big 17-inch wheels.
The Kia Rio EX interior has a pleasant appearance with soft-touch dash and door panels you don't get on some cars a class higher, matte-silver trim, a lacquer-black finish to the ventilation control panel, and with substantial push switches along the lower edge. While it doesn't scream luxury, it doesn't scream economy car, either.
Cloth upholstery feels smooth and breathable to the touch; we never slid around or got stuck to it in muggy weather. The driver's seat offers height adjustment and all but the base model have a tilt and telescoping steering column to find a proper driving position. The front bucket seats have enough lateral retention for spirited driving and support sufficient for one-hour drives. Some long-legged types noted short seat cushions but found the cabin roomier than expected.
Rear-seat space is small, yet comparable to others in the class and is fine for kids or petite adults. Duck your head for entry if you're more than 5-foot, 9-inches and skip the back seats entirely if you're more than 6 feet tall. We did stuff most of a 6-foot, 3-inch tester in, but getting his second size-12 foot inside was mildly problematic.
A 13-button steering wheel (on the Rio EX) groups controls for audio, cruise, trip computer, and phone on four spokes, with standard stalk controls on both sides. The three-cylinder instrument panel provides the usual info, including an engine temperature gauge many manufacturers have relegated to warning lights. Crisp white-on-black lighting with red needles and central display ensures readability day or night. The traditional key was welcome, though at least once we had trouble pulling it back out of the ignition.
Audio inputs and power points are ahead of the shifter, the control panel top center. Our co-pilot had some issues requesting tracks by name through Bluetooth, but noted this problem has occurred before with the device out of its home continent. All the hard- and soft-key controls functioned as we hoped, as did the ventilation system. The automatic shifter has manual up/down on the driver's side where it belongs.
Cubby storage up front is good, with a variety of sizes and shapes; the glovebox is big and the box next to the radio will not hold many smartphones. Amenities include exterior temperature indication, map lights, and covered (but not lighted) visor vanity mirrors on both sides.
Cargo space is reasonably good at 15 cubic feet with all seats in place, and a roomy 49.8 cubes with the split rear seats folded flat. But to do the latter, you might need to temporarily move the front seats forward so the rear headrests can drop clear. The cars we drove had no spare tire, but there appears to be room for one if you don't want run-flat tires.
Relative to others in the class, the Rio has competitive seating dimensions and cargo capacity, trading the most generous front legroom for tightest rear legroom. It's important to note that standardized measures of trunk space vary by sedans and hatchbacks, so comparing sedans and hatchbacks using the cargo numbers can be misleading.
The Kia Rio is fun to drive, with a willing engine, 6-speed transmissions, and capable if unsophisticated suspension. It conveys willing, youthful energy.
A 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is the only one offered. It employs direct fuel injection, first used on a street car more than 50 years ago and still reserved primarily for more expensive cars. This yields good power and fuel economy. The Rio's 138 horsepower is better than anything in the class except the Chevrolet Sonic with the same rating. Peak torque is 123 pound-feet at a fairly high 4850 rpm, but again this has most of the class covered, except for the Sonic's optional turbocharged 1.4-liter at 148 pound-feet.
The Rio needs to be revved for maximum power, but so do most gasoline engines. This one is smooth so it doesn't really matter if you want to push hard because it adds only a bit of busy noise, absent the vibration or harshness. And with the most power and among the lightest weight in the segment, the Rio accelerates comparably well.
Fuel economy is another good story for the Rio. EPA numbers are 30/40 mpg City/Highway, which are unmatched by the Fiat 500, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa, or Chevrolet Sonic, though a couple of them can match the Rio automatic's EPA Combined rating of 33 mpg. Even the special fuel-economy models that account for a small fraction of sales don't rate 30 mpg City with an automatic. (Keep in mind these are EPA estimates and driving style makes far greater differences.)
While Rio's direct injection helps fuel economy, so do 6-speed transmissions where competitors often use 4- or 5-speeds. More gears allows better acceleration, lower highway engine speed, or both, hence better performance and fuel economy in the same car.
An optional Eco Package on the Rio EX features an automatic stop/start feature, dubbed Idle Stop and Go (ISG). Often found only on more expensive cars, this system switches the engine off at stops and restarts it when time to go, saving gas in urban situations and adding one mile per gallon to the city rating. ISG requires nothing of the driver: No switches to activate, no shifting into neutral, no special pedal techniques. As the car stops with the brake pedal depressed the car disengages transmission from engine and switches it off. As you lift your foot off the brake pedal the car restarts and you drive off as normal.
The automatic stop/start system on the Eco package works just as it should, and helps save fuel if your daily commute involves lots of stop-and-go traffic. On a hot, humid day with AC on, we averaged near 35 mpg, not bad in light of the circumstances.
Both transmissions are easy to operate. The automatic has been programmed for economy so you have to be forceful with the gas pedal to effect a downshift when speed is needed, or you can shift manually; it will hold the gear selected even if you mat the accelerator in sixth gear. The manual offers light throws and clutch action, not as precise as a Fit perhaps but we never got the wrong gear. Throttle activation has been tamed relative most recent Kia models, so it doesn't jump forward with just a minor touch on the pedal. Rio now has hill start assist to keep it from rolling backward on uphill starts.
On the road, the Rio feels quite comfortable, though the road surface determines how much noise seeps in from the rear tires. The ride is taut without being firm, the feeling one of stability and not punishment. Wind noise is not an issue, at least up to Interstate speeds, and the 6-speeds allow relatively low engine speeds for most highways so there's no mechanical noise.
Economy cars aren't designed for top handling marks but frequently make plausibly entertaining drives because they weigh less. With just 2500 pounds to control, the Rio has low mass on its side; it changes direction with minimal effort and no drama. The electric-assist steering is vague on center (many are) but does offer up some feel at speed.
The Rio SX, top of the line in luxury and sportiness, adds bigger front brakes, slightly firmer suspension settings and 17-inch wheels for a minor improvement in responsiveness at a minor cost in ride quality. We imagine the majority of SX buyers go there for the features but some will find the ride/handling balance skewed more to their liking and pay the features-heavy price premium to get it.
The Kia Rio is a good choice among subcompacts because it does everything well. It gets excellent fuel economy, it's enjoyable to drive, it's roomy and comfortable. We especially like the Rio 5 hatchback for its convenience.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale reported from Seoul, South Korea; Laura Burstein reported from Los Angeles.