Man, if you're in the market for a new small car, you're in luck, because there are a slew of good options that are priced attractively, well-equipped, and don't shortchange you on style or fuel economy. I've mentioned a few that resonated with me so far, and have since spent some meaningful time with a few more. The biggest and most pleasant surprise of the bunch is the one you see here: the 2012 Kia Rio SX. This one is fully loaded, and carried a sticker price of $20,545 including freight and handling charges. Flip through the slideshow below for a closer look and some firsthand observations.
Completely restyled for 2012, the once entirely forgettable-looking Kia Rio is now a standout. I think it's terrific-looking -- modern and tasteful. I prefer this look to that of its cousin, the Hyundai Accent, with which it shares its basic architecture and powertrains. And the Accent's a stylish car in its own right.
Perhaps the greatest compliment the Rio received the week I had it came from the owner of my local Sushi take-out restaurant. We always chat about whatever car I happen to pull up in, and when he saw the Rio, he grinned and said , "Very nice! What is this, a new Audi?"
Funny that he should say that. Peter Schreyer, Kia's Chief Design Officer, was poached from Audi in 2006. That move is now paying off big time.
The Rio is also offered as a hatchback, and usually, I prefer that bodystyle on smaller cars. Why? They're almost always better looking, as the sedan variants seem to come off like stylistic afterthoughts, with stubby trunks that wreak havoc on otherwise attractive styling. That's not the case here.
The profile view illustrates the point I made in the previous slide. Far from a tacked-on stub, the Rio's trunk is gracefully intrgrated. The sedan is every bit as attractive as the 5-door hatchback. Personally, I prefer this car's more formal appearance to the sportier-looking hatch, though depending on your needs, the latter may be a more practical solution. Bottom line, on looks, you win either way.
Also, note the little front quarter windows. They can come in handy if you need to look around/past the steeply raked A-pillars. This top-level SX model's 17-inch alloy wheels look sharp, too, and help give the car a nice stance.
Just a head-on view. The Rio's smirky, happy face gets Kia's signature "dog-bone" grille is flamked by big headlamp lenses that sweep up the fenders.
As you can see, the Rio's got a pretty big butt for a small car. The high decklid may help with style, but as is so commonly the case nowadays, it really helps kill the view directly behind you in an SUV-like manner. Fortunately, this nav-equipped car had a backup camera that helps you see what's potentially obscured by the Rio's high rump. You know, like your kids, or your dog.
This issue isn't going away, and it's why the feds want to eventually mandate reverse cameras. For a really excellent discussion on this topic, I recommend you read Jamie Kitman's March 2012 Car Talk Column, "The Lost Art of Backing Up."
The Kia Rio is powered by a 1.6-liter direct-injected four-cylinder that produces 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. The only transmission available on the SX trim level is a six-speed automatic. You can shift it manually if you desire, but there's no real reason too. The tranny does a good job picking the right gear on its own, and the four-cylinder feels pretty spunky in local driving. It's totally at home crusing at highway speeds, though you will need to stand on it to pass faster-moving traffic. The electric power steering setup is light and easy, and the SX delivers a nicely sporty yet comfortable ride overall.
You might see reviews here and there lamenting the unavailability of a stick shift on the higher trim levels, but seriously, it's irrelevant. You certainly don't need one for fuel economy. Over the week, I averaged a little under 31 mpg, and on highway runs, I observed an easy 37 to 37 mpg. This Rio SX was equipped with the "Active Eco" feature, which consists of a button on the dash that you press to go into "Eco" mode. It
The EPA rates the rio at 30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, and 33 mpg overall.
Here's why, if you put a gun to my head, I'd tell you to choose a Kia Rio over the Chevrolet Sonic, which it competes against, and is also a fine car overall: the interior is better. Where the Chevy goes with a gimmicky (albeit high-quality) layout that can come off as a forced attempt to skew "younger," Kia plays it straight inside, with terrific results.
Materials are uniformly good, and the presentation is friendly and straightforward. Clear traditional gauges, simple controls for the heater/air conditioner, and a touchscreen radio that will not put you in a straitjacket make the cockpit a friendly place for the driver to be.
There's a big tray ahead of the shifter, where you'll find power outlets, an AUX Jack, and the car's USB port. That's where my phone lived for the week, easily accessible, yet out of the way. Bluetooth is standard.
Here's one area of annoyance, but note thsat it only applies to cars that are equipped with the Premium Package ($2,200, includes nav with live traffic updates, a power sunroof, Smart Key with push-button start (you can just leave the keyfob in your pocket), and heated, leather-trimmed seats).
As you can see here, the seat heater controls are placed at the lip of the storage cubby where the power and connectivity outlets are. I inadvertently turned the heaters on several times throughout the week when I was reaching into that storage space for my phone, EZ-pass, mints, etc. That wouldn't be a big deal in the winter, but in the 70 to 80 degree weather we'd been having, having the tush-warmers fire up was, at best, sub-optimal.
Your primary instrumentation: stylish and simple. Bright, easy-to-read gauges with a legible, intuitive-to-use driver information center display in the middle. No need to get cute with this stuff when the basics work so well.
Again, simplicity wins. Straightforward touchscreen radio/infotainment interface, along with baby-simple heating/air-conditioning controls: 3 dials, plus four large, well-labled toggles.
And most of the time, I was using the redundant controls on the steering wheel for the radio, which made things easier still. Note the square cubby to the right of the radio: It's pretty deep, and I found it to be perfect for holding my sunglasses when I didn't need them.
The front seats are attractive and comfortable, finished here in leather, thanks to the Premium Package. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, and finding a good driving position was not a problem.
I'm 5' 9" and I was okay in the Rio's back seat with the front set up in my driving position. Anyone of taller stature is going to feel squeezed. Kids, however, will find the accomodations more than ample. Getting my youngest's LATCH seat installed was painless.
As detailed earlier, you'll be happy to have this rearview camera, which is standard on the SX, and made better still thanks to this particular car's optional Premium Package, which upgrades to a larger 7-inch screen that's bundled with the nav system. (The UVO voice-recognition infotainment system that's standard in the Rio SX has a 4.3-inch screen.)
I use Bluetooth to make calls whenever possible, but if you need to go manual, the interface is straightforward.
The Rio sedan's trunk holds 13.7 cubic feet worth of your stuff. You can get additional room by folding down the back seat as well.
There's no reason to settle for lame and boring in a small car when rides like the Kia Rio Sedan are out there for the taking. It's efficient, comfortable, and easy to use. Better still, its brilliant sense of style inside and out makes it feel a lot more premium than the price sticker suggests. There are a number of solid cars out there in the $20,000 range, but this fully-loaded Rio struck me as being a terrific all-around vehicle. And if you can do without all the bells and whistles, a nicely-equipped model with an automatic can still be had for under $17,000. The base car with a manual transmission starts at under $14,000.
If you're shopping in this class, the Rio needs to be on your test-drive list. What a pleasant surprise it was.