Rio comes in a four-door sedan and Rio5 five-door hatchback versions. Last redesigned for the 2006 model year, the Rio lineup has been expanded over the past two years and now includes three trim levels for the two body styles. The Rio sedan is available as a very basic base model, as the more mainstream LX, or as the sporty SX. The Rio5 five-door hatchback comes in LX and SX trim.
These are roomy cars. The hatchback offers lots of cargo space. Rio comes standard with six airbags, a safety feature normally associated with expensive luxury cars, not subcompacts. The Rio offers agile handling, particularly the top models with their upgraded wheels and tires.
The Rio gets an EPA-rated City/Highway 27/32 miles per gallon. All models are powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, a sophisticated, modern engine, with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing rated at 110 horsepower.
Kia Rio sedan ($10,890); sedan LX ($12,815); sedan SX ($13,615); Rio5 LX ($12,915); Rio5 SX ($13,870)
All models come with hefty black bodyside 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 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 Rio5 a trim and sporty look. The 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 xD or Honda Fit, and a bit lower than the Chevrolet Aveo.
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 Kia Rio is based on the same platform as the Hyundai Accent.
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, as we can use the extra width.
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.
The interior of the Kia Rio features a nicely contoured dashboard with a generous binnacle over the instrument panel, which includes a tachometer even on the base model.
The radio is well positioned in the center stack with large buttons and knobs for changing stations or volume. Below the radio, three big knobs for the climate controls are mounted on a bulge in the center stack that brings them closer to the driver's hands. A chrome Kia logo brightens the center of the steering wheel hub.
Sporty trim makes the SX models nicer and more appealing to driving enthusiasts. Metal pedals and a leather wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob add tactile as well as visual excitement, while matching red stitching on the steering wheel, shift boot, and seat bolsters helps tie the whole interior together as a cohesive whole. Fabrics are good-looking, on the door panels as well as the seats.
Cubby storage is in the form of a reasonable size glovebox and big storage pockets in all four doors. A slot in the center stack holds parking passes or toll tickets.
Cargo capacity is increased via a folding rear seatback split 60/40 split for added versatility. The Rio5 has a total cargo carrying a capacity of almost 50 cubic feet with the back seats folded down, substantially more than in other hatchbacks in this class. Even with the rear seats up for passengers, the Rio5 has an impressive 15.8 cubic feet of cargo space. The sedan's trunk measures 11.9 cubic feet, which is not bad for the class.
We spent time in an LX automatic sedan 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 Rio confirms that modern transmissions have largely addressed these deficiencies.
The automatic rates slightly on the highway, according to the EPA, with 35 mpg compared with the manual's 32 mpg. EPA estimates for city driving are more what you might expect, at 25 mpg for the automatic and 27 mpg for the manual.
The Rio is more sporty and athletic than the Hyundai Accent, which uses the same basic structure. There's nothing exceptional about Rio's MacPherson strut front suspension or twist-beam rear axle, but Kia designed them 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, though most drivers will 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. That's a good upgrade and we strongly recommend it. Maximizing your chances of avoiding a crash in a subcompact is a good thing.
The Kia Rio is an enjoyable car that's easy to live 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 boasts six airbags. All models get Kia's 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.