Completely redesigned for 2012, the Kia Rio comes ready to pick a fight with anyone in the subcompact segment, armed not only with good numbers in terms of power, fuel economy, warranty and price, but also with a degree of style and, dare we say, refinement not often found in inexpensive cars.
The 2012 Rio four-door sedan and Rio 5-door hatchback versions 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 Rio models are wider, have a longer wheelbase, shorter overall length and lower roofline; only Nissan's Versa is considerably bigger outside.
Cabins are nicely put together, easy to live with and not overwrought with gimmicky styling. What conveniences aren't standard are usually available and anyone can quickly master the controls. Both models offer useful space. We favor the hatch merely for added load flexibility and maneuverability. Interior room stacks up well against competitors; the Rio is best in terms of front legroom but offers the least rear legroom.
The 2012 Kia Rio mechanicals go a step better than econocar basic. 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. An optional Idle Stop and Go system, 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 6-speed manual and automatic transmissions and 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.
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, UVO infotainment by Microsoft, rear camera, leather upholstery and heated front seats. Like a Mini you can get big-car features in a small car; unlike a Mini you don't pay through the nose for it.
The 2012 Kia Rio is classed as a subcompact and competes against the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris. Kia says they used the European Ford Fiesta and Peugeot 207 as comparative targets, a good neighborhood to aim for and one our initial impressions say they are competitive with.
Kia spoiled Americans with the Optima's restyling, going from dowdy to dressed-to-kill in one fell swoop. So the Kia Rio, which is as contemporary as anything in the class, doesn't come across as ground-breaking and send us searching for superlatives. Any relation to the Optima is intentional, and a good thing.
Although the Rio sedan and hatchback models share front doors and basic structures, 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 roof line 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.
We found nothing ground-breaking about the Kia Rio cabin but don't consider this a fault. First, it's hard to do really-new in a budget price segment, and second, some companies try too hard with interiors and the end result doesn't always work well. The Rio's cabin works.
Cloth upholstery feels smooth and breathable to the touch, but we never submarined (sliding forward under your seatbelt) on it, got stuck to it in muggy weather, nor found the faint geometric pattern like tour bus or cheap hotel upholstery.
The 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.
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 buckets have enough lateral retention for spirited driving and support sufficient for one-hour drives. Some long-legged types noted short seat cushions with the backhanded compliment, “not as bad as I was expecting.”
Rear-seat space is small yet comparable to others. Duck your head for entry if you're more than 5-foot, 9-inches and skip the back entirely if you're more than 6 feet. We did stuff most of a 6-foot, 3-inch tester in, but his knees weren't happy and bringing the second size-12 in was mildly problematic. Riders have bottle holders in the doors, assist handles, the only coat hook (behind the driver) but no center headrest. Any group of four should manage for short trips, and the rear seat is fine for kids or petite co-workers.
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.
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, including a well that drops approximately nine inches from the opening to the floor. Cargo space can be expanded by folding the split rear seats but 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. 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 the willing, youthful energy most of its buyers will share.
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 lb-ft at a fairly high 4850 rpm, but again this has most of the class covered, except for the Sonic's optional turbocharged 1.4 at 148 lb-ft.
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. A couple of them can match the Rio automatic EPA Combined rating of 33 mpg, however. Even the fuel-economy specials that account for a small fraction of Fiesta sales (and Chevrolet's Cruze with the 1.4 turbo available in Sonic) don't rate 30 mpg City with an automatic. (Remember 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.
Rio EX automatics offer an option no one in this class does: Idle Stop and Go (ISG). Much like a hybrid, this system automatically switches the engine off at stops and restarts it when time to go, saving gas in urban situations and adding one mpg 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 drives off as normal.
We found the Idle Stop and Go system works just as it should, limited by circumstances including engine temperature, battery state, air conditioning demand, and so on, and it won't reset to activate again until the car has passed 5 kph. If you get stuck in a lot of stop and go traffic, as we did in Seoul, the system helps, and it can be switched off if you wish. My co-driver was so engrossed in the entertainment system he never noticed it shut off the first time it happened, but you should feel a slight change and hear the starter on restart. 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 like the Rio 5 hatchback for its convenience.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Kia Rio in South Korea.