My first experience with the current-generation Kia Rio was behind the wheel of the 2011 Rio B-Spec race car. This red-and-white pocket rocket differed from the Rio at your dealership in its fully stripped interior, full roll cage, racing bucket seat with six-point harness, quick-release steering wheel, and digital racing instrumentation. Underpinning the car was a lower, stiffer suspension and lightweight wheels shod in the sticky Continental slicks dictated by the series' spec. However, aside from a louder exhaust, the four-cylinder engine was essentially stock, with similar levels of power and torque to what it rolled off of the assembly line with, and the same six-speed manual gearbox putting that power to the front wheels.
The surprising bit was that this low-powered hatch that handled like it was on rails was easily my favorite car to drive as part of a day that included the Fiat 500 Abarth, the Subaru BRZ, and the Jaguar XKR-S. That experience left me with a great deal of fondness for the littlest Kia, so I was excited when the 2012 Rio SX sedan pulled into the Car Tech garage.
Of course, the road-going, mass-produced version was a much, much more watered-down experience that was nowhere near as exciting as the race car, but that doesn't mean that the Rio was by any means a disappointment. On the contrary, it proved to be quite the fun little compact, offering good technology, reasonable value, and performance reminiscent of the glory days of the Honda Civic.
Big cutesy headlights with halogen bulbs dominate the Rio's front end, flanking the automaker's tiger nose. The light they cast seemed a bit on the dim side. LED daytime running lights make the lamps look even dimmer by comparison when approaching the vehicle at night. Unfortunately, HID xenon lights are not available.
The four-door body features a windswept look and a roofline that flows seamlessly from the hood to the trunk lid, making it difficult to tell the difference between the sedan and hatchback from the front quarter view. Personally, I prefer the utility and aesthetic of the five-door when viewed from the side and rear angles.
Inside, the Rio's interior feels inexpensive to the touch, but doesn't look it to the eye -- at least, not really. You'll never feel like you're sitting in a car that costs more than the Rio SX's $17,500 sticker price, but to its credit, you'll never feel like you're driving one cheaper -- particularly if you spec the Premium package that includes leather seats. Nice touches like chrome trim around the glossy, optional push-button starter and the climate control knobs visually punch up the interior aesthetic.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel in our SX felt good in the hand, but the tallish seating position (while great for around-town visibility) isn't ideal for sporty driving.
Mechanically, the 2012 Kia Rio is mostly identical to the current generations of Hyundai's Accent and Veloster compacts. The similarities start in the engine bay where a direct-injected 1.6-liter gasoline four-banger generates 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual is available at the Rio's lowest LX trim level, but our SX is only available with a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
The EPA estimates the Rio will get 30 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway, and 33 mpg combined average. An Eco package is available on EX models that adds auto start-stop and 1 mpg to the city estimate, but the SX model lacks this option. During our testing, we nearly matched the EPA's combined average with a trip-computer-reported 33.4 mpg over a test cycle with a driving mix that was heavy on highway driving, with a few aggressive stints on b-roads.
The Rio is suspended with a MacPherson strut setup on the front axle and a torsion beam rear suspension. All Rios feature four-wheel disc brakes, with 10.1-inch rotors up front and 10.3-inchers in the rear. (It seems odd that the brakes would be smaller than the rears, so I'm questioning the accuracy of Kia's online spec sheet.) The SX model features larger front 11-inch rotors with single-piston floating calipers.
On the road, the Rio SX felt more responsive than the 2012 Accent SE that shares its drivetrain. Why? My guess is that the edge comes from the Kia being lighter than the Accent SE by about the weight of an adult passenger (approximately 175 pounds). Larger 17-inch wheels with wider 205-width tires help with more grip and stiffer sidewalls for better turn-in responsiveness. Additionally, the Kia's automatic gearbox feels more responsive, giving up quicker shifts when requested with the manual mode.
While the bone stock Rio SX wouldn't be my first choice for a modern sport compact, it's far from disappointing and shows a lot of potential. At many times during our testing, I found myself remarking on just how much the Rio SX reminded me of the small Honda Civics of a decade ago, which are still my benchmark for good, cheap fun.
Unfortunately, while the Rio SX features good initial turn-in, the little sedan feels vague near its meager handling limits and doesn't really settle into a long sweeper or quick switchbacks. I found that the steering required more small corrections when cornering to keep it in line. Similar attention needs to be paid to keep the Rio on course at highway speed thanks to its tendency to follow grooves on some of San Francisco's most poorly maintained roads and to be tossed around by crosswinds. Mind you, the Rio never feels scary, but this is not the car to be distracted in.
The Rio is available with the Uvo voice-commanded infotainment system by Microsoft or Kia's own navigation system, but can't be had with both. Stick with the stock Uvo option and you'll have voice command of phone and audio sources, including the ability to request music and playlists, and a rearview camera.
Our tester was equipped with the navigation system as part of its Premium package. Like most Hyundai/Kia navigation systems, this is a very basic setup that uses 2D maps with SiriusXM NavTraffic over its satellite link for as long as you keep the subscription current. Turn-by-turn directions feature spoken street names and the system supports voice input of addresses with separate prompts for city, street, and house number.
The standard four-speaker audio system is fairly disappointing. The SX trim level features a brighter top end and slightly better staging thanks to its addition of A-pillar tweeters. Even with the upgrade it still doesn't sound great, but what'd you expect?
The presence of a full array of audio sources makes me very happy. The Rio boasts AM/FM radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth telephony, and audio streaming. USB connectivity also standard, as is an analog auxiliary input. Interestingly, Kia's USB port can connect to an iPod or iPhone without Hyundai's $35 iPod cable.
For active safety features there's a rearview camera with non-dynamic distance lines, but that's about it. Fortunately, the Rio sedan has good 360-degree visibility, so features like blind-spot monitoring are not necessities.
The 2012 Kia Rio SX sedan comes nicely equipped with its standard Uvo voice command system, but our tester's $2,200 Premium package forgoes that in favor of the aforementioned navigation system, push-button starter with keyless entry, and leather seats with heated front buckets. A power sliding and tilting moonroof is also part of this package. Floor mats add $95 to the tester's base price of $17,500. Add a $750 destination charge to reach the as-tested price of $20,545.
|Model||2012 Kia Rio|
|Power train||1.6-liter, FWD, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||30 city, 40 highway, 33 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||33.4 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional with SiriusXM NavTraffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Yes with voice command|
|Disc player||Single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM Satellite Radio|
|Audio system||Six-speaker SX system|
|Driver aids||Rear camera|
|Price as tested||$20,545|