Extended Drive: 2012 Kia Rio EX 5-DoorPosted on April 3rd, 2012
Versatile hatchback for athletes on a budget
By Nina Russin
Last fall Kia introduced the third-generation Rio subcompact sedan and hatchback. As the least expensive cars in Kia’s model lineup, the Rio offers buyers who might otherwise shop for used cars the option of owning something new. Kia’s ten year/100,000 mile factory warranty adds additional value to a package loaded with safety and convenience features.
Better yet, the new Rio sedan and hatch are more substantial cars than the models they replace, with a new direct injection engine and six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. The new cars are also larger. The five-door hatch, with a 101.2-inch wheelbase and taller cargo area, meets our bicycle-friendly standards.
There are three available grades: the base LX, upscale EX and sporty SX. Only the LX is available with the manual gearbox; both the EX and SX come with a six-speed automatic with manual gear selection.
Base price for the EX five-door tested is $16,500, excluding the $750 delivery charge. The test car comes with a convenience option package which adds alloy wheels, on-off headlamps with fog lamps, power-folding outside mirrors with turn signal indicators, UVO infotainment system, rearview backup camera leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob ($1000). Carpeted floor mats cost $95, bringing the price as tested to $18,345.
Test drive in the Superstitions
Having driven the new Rio sedan last fall in Austin, Texas, I was anxious to see how the athlete-friendly Rio hatch compared on my home turf. It’s a shame that the new Rio is only available with a manual transmission in the base grade, since it’s the best match for the engine. In order to extend gas mileage, engineers set the shift points for the six-speed automatic at very low engine speeds. As a result, the engine seems underpowered, when in fact, it is not.
Granted, 1.6 liters isn’t a lot of displacement, but a car of the Rio’s size doesn’t need a big block. Even with the heavier automatic transmission, curb weight is less than 2500 pounds.
I decided to take the hatchback out to Bush Highway at the base of the Superstitions and see how the engine would perform if I shifted into manual gear select mode and let the block wind up. The difference was night and day.
In fully-automatic mode, the engine shifts between 2000 and 3000 rpm. The exception is wide-open throttle, when the engine will rev up to 6000: 300 rpm below redline.
In order to experience any of the performance benefits of the engine’s direct injection system, the driver needs to hold onto gears longer, shifting between 4000 and 4500 rpm. Doing so drops fuel economy below the EPA estimated 33 miles-per-gallon, but it also makes the Rio a really fun car to drive.
While I use Bush Highway to test all kinds of vehicles, the two-lane winding road is best suited for small cars. Its off-camber turns and small, steep hills are perfect for evaluating a car’s suspension and steering feedback.
Keeping the engine in its sweet spot, I found the Rio to be a surprisingly spry, nimble performer. The electric power steering system has excellent feedback at all speeds, including good on-center response. The little Rio powered up some relatively steep inclines like a champ, and was pleasingly balanced through a series of wide sweeping turns on the downhill.
Engineers shaved almost thirty pounds off the engine compared to the outgoing car, by using aluminum for the block and valve cover. Since most weight on a front-wheel drive car is up front, taking mass out of the engine also gave the car a better front-to-rear weight balance.
Visibility around the perimeter is quite good. I had no problems monitoring traffic in the adjacent lanes on the freeway. Side mirrors do a good job minimizing blind spots from the rear pillars. The optional rearview mirror projects a wide angle view to the back when the driver shifts into reverse, eliminating blind spots to either side and below the rear glass.
Although engineers added additional insulators on the hood and dash to reduce noise intrusion into the passenger compartment, there’s still a fair amount of road noise at speed. Wind noise, however, is minimal.
Four-wheel disc brakes give the Rio good stopping power on wet and snowy roads.
Designers made quantum improvements in the Rio’s styling: it no longer looks like a cheap car. Wrap-around headlamps frame a chrome grille on the EX model. Kia’s signature bow tie grille sits above a wider opening, making the front end look more planted. A standard roof spoiler on the five-door model emphasizes the car’s aero profile. The optional alloy wheels are sportier than the standard steel wheels with hubcaps.
The Rio five-door’s interior can comfortably seat up to four adults. Extending the car’s wheelbase and slightly wider track increase interior space, especially leg and hip room. Although the new car sits slightly lower than the model it replaces, there’s no noticeable difference in headroom.
Manual seat adjustments are easy to use. The driver’s seat had adequate lower lumbar support for my two-hour test drive.
Redundant audio, Bluetooth interface and cruise controls on the steering wheel minimize driver distraction. Audio and climate controls on the center stack are easy to reach from either front seating position and intuitive to operate.
Kia’s UVO infotainment system, developed in conjunction with Microsoft, enables the driver to use smart phone apps such as Pandora through the car’s audio system. Sirius satellite radio with a three-month complimentary subscription is standard equipment. Standard auxiliary and USB ports make the Rio iPod and MP3 compatible.
Although the Rio five-door is actually shorter than the sedan, its cargo area is more versatile. With the rear seats folded flat, the car can easily hold a road bike with the front wheel removed. A cargo cover conceals items stored in back from prying eyes.
The Kia Rio five-door comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, traction and stability control. Hill assist control prevents the car from sliding backwards when the driver accelerates from a stop on a steep grade.
Kia’s factory ten year/100,000 mile factory warranty includes five years (up to 60,000 miles) of complimentary roadside assistance.
The athlete-friendly Rio hatchback is rolling into dealerships nationwide.
Likes: An affordable, versatile hatchback with excellent gas mileage and a high level of standard safety features.
Dislike: Manual gearbox is available only on the base LX model.
Model: Rio EX 5-Door
Base price: $16,500
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: Yes
Fuel economy: 30/40 mpg city/highway
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