By Steven Cole Smith
Special to Tribune Newspapers
March 27, 2012
Kia's entry-level Rio was, not that long ago, a settle-for car that was an alternative to a new car, but not exactly the ride of anyone's dreams. Plucky but anonymous-looking, the Rio served as an adequate placeholder until its owners could afford something more substantial.
That changed with the 2012 model, when the Rio grew, got pretty and became a car most of us could live with for quite a while. The Rio is five inches longer than it was in 2011, with 28 more horsepower. I spent about 600 miles with the Rio on several hundred-mile trips, and while I never felt I was basking in luxury, the Rio was very good company.
While the Rio starts at under $15,000, this particular Rio was a well-equipped SX model with a level of equipment that the smallest car in the lineup might never have previouslyenjoyed. There was leather upholstery — OK, not Jaguar-like leather, but leather nonetheless — a sliding glass sunroof, heated front seats and mirrors, cruise control, push-button start, a navigation system, Sirius satellite radio, fog lights, and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel. Safety features included a color rear-view camera, electronic stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control and side- and side-curtain airbags.
The inside looked upscale and felt comfortable, though the front bucket seats needed a little more support. Two adults fit in the rear seat if they aren't too long-legged, but three is a stretch. Trunk space is generous, with 13.7 cubic feet of room. The sound system was a good one, and the satellite radio was easy to access and tune.
Outside, the designers really outdid themselves on our "signal red" SX. The car had LED positioning lights and taillights, 205/45R-17-inch tires with very pretty alloy wheels and the general profile of a more expensive car — a Volkswagen Jetta came to mind.
On the road, the little direct-injected four-cylinder worked well with the six-speed automatic transmission — another rarity at this price range — as they tried hard to maximize acceleration when needed, but use as little gas as possible in the process. That caused the transmission to shift up a little quickly to lower revs, but it was only annoying, not a deal breaker. That said, the EPA-rated 40 mpg on the highway was simply not attainable in our test car, even driven very gently, but it did manage a 35.7-mpg average on regular gas. A six-speed manual transmission is also offered, and is EPA-rated at the same 30/40 mpg.
The sport-tuned suspension and fat, low-profile tires made the ride on rough roads a little jittery, but above-average cornering ability more than made up for it. The Rio's ride was never uncomfortable, and on par with anything else in the class. I was not a fan of the feel of the electric-boosted power steering — sure, it saves gas over hydraulic units, but other companies, like Honda, have done a better job in tuning out the video-game feel.
The Rio was new for 2012, and there are no substantial changes for 2013.
Our SX was the top-of-the-line Rio, but if you don't need a color back-up camera or leather seats, you can save quite a bit of money by opting for the LX or EX models. You can also save $1,100 by foregoing the automatic transmission.
Kia has done an amazingly good job of upping the little Rio's game, moving the entry-level model into a class of car that stands on its own. Honest consumers will have to decide if they really need something larger and more expensive, like the Kia Forte or even an Optima — one reason why Kia may be the hottest car company in the business right now.