The '06 Rio that earned all that acclaim was offered as a practical sedan or as a more deluxe and sporty five-door hatchback called Rio5 SX. For '07, Kia has added an SX-trimmed sedan featuring all of the hatchback's sporty equipment: front fog lights, 15-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, metal-finish interior trim, metal pedals, black mesh sport fabric seat inserts and door panels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and red stitching and highlights throughout.
All '07 Rios come with new shift knobs (manual and automatic), a chrome Kia logo on the steering wheel pad, and an illuminated ignition-switch surround. The SX models' 15-inch alloy wheels have been redesigned, and 16-inch rims are now available. SX models also feature new chrome accents on their instrument panel air vents.
Rio competes against a wave of new subcompacts that includes the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, and Chevrolet Aveo, along with Rio's corporate cousin, the Hyundai Accent. All of these cars are smaller than market-dominating compacts like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, but many offer better fuel economy with little loss of interior space. Rio rates as high as 38 mpg on the highway, while delivering agile handling. And Rio comes standard with six airbags, a safety feature normally associated with expensive luxury cars, not subcompacts.
Mechanically, there isn't much to distinguish a Rio from a Hyundai Accent. That's no bad thing, as both are state-of-the-art small cars. Rio is a bit more boldly styled than Accent, and the five-door variation is a Rio exclusive. Chassis tuning is a little different as well, with Accent biased toward ride comfort and Rio toward handling.
The stigma attached to owning a small car in America is becoming a thing of the past and the latest iteration of the Kia Rio is among the reasons why that's happening.
Kia Rio sedan ($10,770); sedan LX ($12,695); sedan SX ($13,495); Rio5 SX ($13,750);
All models come with hefty body-color side moldings that do not detract too badly as they align nicely with the wraparound edges of the front and rear bumpers. The fender flares actually look a shade too big on the base and LX models, which have skinnier tires. The fender flares fill out much better on the SX with its lower-profile tires and 15-inch wheels.
Despite significantly more carrying capacity (and identical passenger room), the Rio5 hatchback is 8.8 inches shorter than the sedan; for the record, it's an inch and a quarter shorter than even the Hyundai Accent Coupe. We think that gives the Rio hatch a trim and sporty look. Rio5 looks taller than the Rio sedan but it is actually the same overall height. It's a couple of inches lower in height than the Scion xA, and a bit lower than the Chevrolet Aveo, its closest rivals. The rear of the Rio5 is distinctive with backup lights that wrap around the taillights and almost look like part of the body. The C-pillar curves down to the taillights and the tailgate has full width glass, making the rear view more attractive than on many hatchbacks.
The seats are on the soft side and don't offer the lateral support we'd expect on a sports sedan. Those of us with larger frames, however, will not fault Kia for that. Rear seat legroom is better than the numbers suggest, because passengers can place their feet under the front seats thanks to the generous open space below them.
Big storage pockets in all four doors, along with a reasonable size glovebox, provide places to stash stuff. A slot in the center stack can hold parking passes or toll tickets. The rear seatback folds down in a 60/40 split for added versatility in all but the base model. At 92.2 cubic feet, subcompact Rio's total passenger volume edges past the popular compact Honda Civic (90.9) and Toyota Corolla (90.3). In practical terms, they are all pretty close.
The Rio5 has a total cargo carrying a capacity of almost 50 cubic feet with the seats folded down, which is substantially more than in other hatchbacks of this size. Even with the rear seat open for passenger's the remaining 15.8 cubic feet of trunk space seems to belong to a much bigger car. The sedan's trunk measures 11.9 cubic feet, still not bad for the class.
Minor touches make the SX models a bit nicer. Metal pedals and a leather wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob carry over from last year. New for '07 is red stitching in the leather, chrome accents on the HVAC vents, and new fabrics on the seats and doors. Both SX models will appeal to driving enthusiasts.
We spent time in an LX automatic and a Rio5 SX manual. We enjoyed shifting the manual as it definitely makes for a more sporty experience. However, the LX with the automatic transmission was no slouch. Cars in this class traditionally suffer a big performance and fuel economy hit with an automatic, but the new Rio confirms that modern transmissions have largely addressed these deficiencies. In fact, the automatic Rio rates slightly better EPA mileage on the highway, with 38mpg against the manual's 35. EPA estimates for city driving are more what you might expect, at 29 mpg for the automatic and 32 for the manual.
Kia claims it is making its cars more sporty and athletic than the Hyundai Accent, the Rio's sibling. There's nothing exceptional about Rio's MacPherson strut front suspension or twist-beam rear axle, but Kia says they both designed for long wheel travel, a characteristic long favored by European automakers for combining a comfortable ride with responsive handling. The Rio is far from being a sporty car, but the SX handled nimbly without too much body lean or sloppy motion. The LX, with its skinner 14-inch tires, was not quite as secure, although most drivers would not complain.
The power steering, which stiffens up as the engine speed increases, felt taught with just the right amount of feel dialed in. We did not try a base model, which comes without power steering.
Standard-issue brakes are 10.1-inch discs up front and 8.0-inch drums in the rear. Order the optional ABS and, in addition to the four-channel anti-lock system, rear brakes upgrade to 10.3-inch solid discs.
Unlike subcompacts of the past, the 2007 Kia Rio is a car you can be happy living with. We found the Rio5 SX the most enjoyable with its combination of hatchback versatility and sporty/luxury touches. All Rios come with a comprehensive set of passive safety features. Even the base model includes six airbags. It also includes a generous five-year/60,000 mile warranty coupled with a 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara.