2012 Kia Rio SX SedanPosted on June 4th, 2012
Sporty subcompact priced under $20,000
By Nina Russin
In 2000, at the height of the sport-utility boom, Kia rolled out a subcompact sedan called the Rio. Surrounded by full-sized trucks, the Rio looked like a Lilliputian who’d mistakenly landed in Brobdingnag.
Kia product planners weren’t concerned. The Korean automaker which had started life as a bicycle manufacturer made its first inroads to the US market with two compact cars: the Sephia and the Sportage.
Using a value pricing strategy, Kia created a new consumer base of former used car shoppers who discovered they could afford something new. The subcompact Rio became the least expensive model in Kia’s lineup, attracting first-time buyers on a budget into the family.
The sub-$10,000 Rio was enough of a success to justify introducing a second-generation car five years later. The more substantial 2005 model targeted the same group of consumers, so the number of Rio devotees continued to grow.
Unfortunately, the second Rio lacked finesse as compared to the Spectra5 and Optima, which Kia introduced at the same time. When product planners developed the third-generation Rio, they were determined to make Kia’s least expensive car a no-compromise package, with aggressive styling and an all-new two-liter gasoline direct injection engine that could keep up with the big boys.
As with former models, the 2012 Kia Rio comes in both four-door and five-door configurations. There are three grades: the base LX, volume-leading EX and upscale SX. All three come with the 138-horsepower two-liter engine. The base model is available with a six-speed manual transmission, while EX and SX grades come exclusively with a six-speed automatic.
Larger wheels and dual exhausts give the SX, priced from $17,500, a sporty appearance. The suspension is also tuned for more aggressive driving.
Standard convenience features include remote keyless entry, air conditioning, Bluetooth, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Sirius satellite radio and Kia’s UVO infotainment system. The new Rio also maintains the automaker’s focus on safety, with six standard airbags, a rearview camera, antilock brakes, traction and stability control. Hill start assist prevents the vehicle from rolling backwards when the driver accelerates from a stop on a steep grade.
Carpeted floor mats are the only option on the test car. A $750 charge brings the price as tested to $18,345.
Test drive in Arizona
This week, I drove the Kia Rio SX on surface streets and highways in Phoenix and Scottsdale Arizona, as well as a stretch of highway through the Gila River reservation south of town. An unusually fierce wind storm and seasonal traffic were good tests for the newest Rio’s mettle.
The car’s sub-$20,000 price tag makes it an obvious choice for first-time car buyers. This means that many of the buyers will be relatively young and therefore less experienced drivers. While I did not feel comfortable recommending the former model to parents shopping with their college-aged kids, the new Rio is a solid, well-built car which can safely share the roads with bigger vehicles.
The new powertrain can handle eighty mile-per-hour traffic with relative ease. Driving on high-speed highways dropped my average fuel economy to 31 miles-per-gallon as compared to the 33 mpg EPA average, but the engine remained comfortably within its power band.
The seventeen-inch rims make the car more stable at speed, though they also increase the road noise. A manual gear-select option adds some fun when driving on twisting rural roads. The dual exhaust tips are cosmetic: they have no effect on horsepower or torque.
Because the Rio is a light car, I had to fight the wheel against 40 mile-per-hour winds in the dust storm. But to be honest, drivers behind the wheels of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles didn’t seem to be having a picnic either.
The electric power steering system provides ample assist for low speed maneuvering with a pleasantly heavy feel on the highway. The 34.5 foot turning circle makes U-turns a non-issue.
A MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear axle is compliant enough for city potholes. Gas shock absorbers provide crisper rebound for a sportier feel.
The Rio’s short wheelbase is well-suited for small parking spots on the street. The rearview camera monitors cross traffic which is a huge safety benefit in parking lots with vertical slots.
Even low profile cars have blind spots in the back. I was reminded of this when a couple of neighborhood kids on bikes crossed the Rio’s path when I was backing out of the driveway. I would not have seen the smaller of the children through the back window, but the rearview camera made both visible, giving me plenty of time to apply the brakes. Eleven-inch ventilated disc brakes in front and ten-inch discs in the rear stopped the car quickly.
Its high level of standard convenience features is most evident inside the Rio, where drivers can enjoy satellite and internet radio, or plug a media device into the standard USB port. A tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel has redundant audio and Bluetooth controls to minimize driver distraction.
A digital display in the gauge cluster gives the driver real-time and average fuel economy, driving range, odometer and trip meter readings. I found both the gauge cluster and center stack displays easy to read in bright sunlight.
The driver’s seat has adequate lower lumbar support for trips several hours in duration. Rear seats in the outboard positions have enough head and legroom for small-to-average sized adults. The location of the center console essentially eliminates any legroom in the center position.
Bottle holders in the doors are large enough for 20-ounce containers. Cupholders in the center console will hold soda cans or small cups. A center console bin is deep enough for compact disks, while a glovebox holds maps and car documents.
Overhead lamps over both rows of seating illuminate the interior at night.
The rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 pattern to extend the cargo floor. Doing so makes the trunk capable of accommodating some moderate-sized gear.
The Kia Rio comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control and hill assist control. Kia’s factory warranty covers repairs stemming from a defect in the manufacturing up to ten years or 100,000 miles. The warranty includes up to five years or 60,000 miles of 24-hour roadside assistance.
Likes: An affordable subcompact sedan with a stylish exterior, and unusually high levels of standard convenience and safety featues.
Dislikes: Glovebox does not lock. Road noise is noticeable at higher speeds.
Model: Rio SX Sedan
Base price: $17,500
As tested: $18,345
Horsepower: 138 Hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 123 lbs.-ft. @ 4850 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 30/40 mpg city/highway
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