There's no question Kia's product lineup has come a long way in a short time, due in no small part to the radical new design language applied by former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer to nearly the entire product lineup. The lone holdout to get the full Schreyer treatment, aside from a token add-on "Tiger Nose" grille update, was the Rio subcompact. Until now. The 2012 Kia Rio and Rio5 on display at the 2011 New York auto show will rejoin the subcompact fight later this year with much the same hardware, but with a style all their own.
Whereas the all-new 2012 Hyundai Accent, Korea's other subcompact on display at New York, features Hyundai's new "fluidic sculpture" corporate design language, the Rio has a more minimalist, sporty European flavor, no doubt a nod to Schreyer's former Audi experience. From the rear, the Rio five-door shows a strong Seat resemblance, coincidentally Volkswagen's Spanish division.
Probably the most noteworthy feature on the new Rio is the Idle Stop and Go system (ISG), now a fairly common feature on European models, but generally not offered in the U.S. because of concerns that American consumers will think something is wrong with their cars when the engine turns off at a stop. With the greater awareness and sales of hybrids, and their similar behavior when stopped, it seems Kia is confident enough to finally offer this feature stateside. ISG is included as part of the Eco Package available on the EX trim level.
Speaking of the engine, it's the same Gamma direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine as the new Accent rated at the same 138 horsepower. Kia is also claiming the same 30/40 mpg rating as the Accent, although the ISG may incrementally increase real-world mpg on models so equipped. Regardless, the Korean compact siblings are at the top of the compact class in standard horsepower as well as fuel economy, although Chevy's upcoming Sonic compact will come to the party with a non-direct-injection 1.8-liter engine with 135 horsepower as standard. Official fuel economy ratings for the Sonic have not yet been released.
In keeping with Kia's sportier image over its corporate Hyundai counterpart, the new Rio's standard and optional rolling stock is more aggressive than the Accent. Base tire size is 185/65R-15, with the upgrade tires a surprisingly beefy 205/45R-17 size, both a wheel size and tire width larger than the Accent's factory offerings.
In what appears to be an inter-divisional corporate rivalry, the Rio also one-ups the Accent with some optional features. The top-of-the-line SX model with the Premium package adds a navigation system, push-button start, leather seat trim, and heated front seats, none of which is available on the Accent at any trim level. The mid-level EX trim level includes Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, with Kia's Sync-equivalent UVO system, 15-inch alloy wheels, automatic light control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, heated exterior mirrors, cruise control, and rear camera display included as part of the EX's available Convenience Package. Even the entry-level LX trim level includes a standard Sirius-ready tuner, CD/MP3 player, and an auxiliary USB audio input for iPods and other portable MP3 players.
Overall chassis dimensions closely follow those of the Accent, with a shared 101.2-inch wheelbase. The Rio sedan is about an inch shorter than the Accent, while the hatch shaves a little more than two inches off the overall length of its counterpart.
In keeping with the Koreans' recently earned reputation for safety leadership, the Rio features six airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners, electronic stability control, and anti-lock brakes, all standard.
Although not quite to the level of monolithic sales numbers as Toyota, Honda, and the Detroit Three, the Koreans seem to be on a relentless quest to methodically conquer each market segment they enter, and now it looks like the dynamic duo are no longer content to be the "settle for" cars, but are going after the "want to buy" models. We can't wait to pit this pair against the latest crop of subcompacts in an all-out battle for entry-level supremacy.