The Kia Rio is a fuel-efficient subcompact with a roomy cabin and agile handling. The Rio comes in a four-door sedan and a Rio5 five-door hatchback. The Rio and Rio5 are roomy cars, particularly when you consider their tidy exteriors. The hatchback offers lots of cargo space. The Rio offers agile handling, particularly the top models with their upgraded wheels and tires.
For 2010, Rio and Rio5 receive extensive exterior appearance changes, including full body-color bumpers, a redesign of the grille, black bezel headlamps, body-color side moldings, and an exposed exhaust tip. These changes give the Rio line a more upscale look. The sportier SX models get fog lamps and a body-color rear spoiler.
Inside, 2010 Kia Rio models with automatic transmissions are equipped with a an EcoMinder indicator light, which illuminates when the vehicle is operating at optimum fuel efficiency, thus helping drivers save on gas. 2010 Rio LX and SX trims levels offer the availability of Bluetooth, automatic cruise control, and side mirrors with integrated turn signals. Anti-lock brakes (ABS), with four-wheel discs, are standard on all 2010 Kia Rio LX and SX models.
The Rio comes standard with six airbags, a safety feature normally associated with expensive luxury cars, not subcompacts.
The Kia Rio gets an EPA-rated City/Highway 28/34 miles per gallon with the five-speed manual transmission and 27/36 mpg with the four-speed automatic. All models are powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, a sophisticated, modern engine, with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing; it's rated at 110 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque.
The Rio competes against the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Chevrolet Aveo, and Hyundai Accent. These smaller, efficient subcompacts offer terrific fuel economy with little loss of interior space when compared to the larger compact cars such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.
With the new exterior changes for 2010, the Rio has a solidly handsome front end with a strong nose and big headlights that give the car a purposeful appearance. The subtle bevel below the big side windows wraps neatly around the trunk, giving the Rio more the look of a European sports sedan than a Korean econobox.
All models come with body-color side moldings that offer protection in parking lots while integrating nicely into the exterior appearance. The fender flares might seem just slightly oversize on the base and LX models, which have smaller tires, but those flares fill out very well on the SX trim level with its larger-diameter, lower-profile tires and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Despite significantly more carrying capacity (and identical passenger room), the Rio5 hatchback is 8.8 inches shorter than the sedan; we think it 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 also lower in height than the Scion xD, Honda Fit, and 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.
All in all, even though it's a very compact vehicle, it doesn't look tiny or cramped, and carries itself very well in the appearance department.
The Kia Rio is a roomy car. At 92.2 cubic feet, the subcompact Rio's total passenger volume is comparable to that of the two most popular compacts, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
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 audio, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 system with SIRIUS Satellite Radio with three months of complimentary service, 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.
For 2010 a USB port is standard on all models, as are auxiliary input jacks.
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 with a 60/40 split for added versatility. The Rio5 has a total cargo carrying 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've driven most versions of the Kia Rio and have been impressed with all of them.
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 higher fuel efficiency on the highway, according to the EPA, with 36 mpg compared with the manual's 34 mpg. EPA estimates for city driving are 27 mpg for the automatic and 28 mpg for the manual. Remember, these numbers for the Rio or Rio5 equipped with either the manual or automatic transmission are very close, and individual driving habits could easily have either a negative or positive effect.
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 smaller tires, did not feel quite as secure or responsive, though most drivers will likely 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, on the base model, are 10.1-inch vented discs up front and 8.0-inch drums in the rear. But the ABS, which is standard on all LX and SX trim-level models, includes an upgrade of the rear brakes to 10.3-inch solid discs.
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 and luxury touches. All Rios come with a comprehensive set of passive safety features; even the base model boasts six airbags, and anti-lock brakes are standard on all but the base model. All models get Kia's generous five-year/60,000-mile warranty coupled with a 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty. The Rio or Rio5 represent a lot of automotive value for the money.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara.