Automobile Magazine has long defined itself by cars like the Kia Rio. As in, we don't care about them. Rudimentary, slow, dourly pragmatic -- the Rio and its ilk are a perfect bogey for writers and readers who proudly chant, "no boring cars." Progress has chipped away at this simplistic worldview with cool subcompacts and stylish new Kias. But at least we had the old Rio to kick around. Until now. With the new-for-2012 Rio, Kia aims to send us into a full-on identity crisis. We flew all the way to Seoul, Korea, to find out if this archetypical boring car has truly become interesting.
Kia's most European design yet
Kia has long since left behind amateurish, imitative designs like the old Amanti (still a common sight on the streets of Seoul), and yet the Rio surprises us once again with its handsome, understated looks. Although Kia's Irvine, California, studio led the design effort, the car unmistakably aspires toward -- and achieves -- a premium European aesthetic. Clean lines, an upright and aggressive front fascia, and standard fifteen-inch wheels dispel the sense of awkwardness and cheapness that commonly afflict subcompact cars. The top-of-the-line SX model goes even further, with seventeen-inch aluminum wheels and LED accents for the taillights and the daytime running lamps. That's flashy hardware for a subcompact, but the Rio pulls it all together subtly in a fashion not unlike the Volkswagen GTI. The new Hyundai Accent, its under-the-skin twin, is probably more distinct, but the Rio is without a doubt more expensive looking. We wouldn't be surprised if the window sticker winds up reflecting that impression. Kia hasn't yet announced pricing, but it's hard to imagine it undercutting the Accent, which ranges from $13,205 to $17,555, has smaller fourteen- to sixteen-inch wheels, and offers fewer options.
There's more understated Euro-style goodness inside. The dash, with its simple round gauges and a combination of large dials and toggle-style switches, looks a bit like what's in the new Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The materials quality is quintessential Volkswagen -- soft-touch everywhere it should be and soft on the eyes everywhere else. The Rio's interior may have slightly fewer squishy bits than the segment-leading Ford Fiesta, but it looks more expensive thanks to its more natural graining. There's plenty of function to follow the good form. Bluetooth, cruise control, and a tilting-and-telescoping steering column are standard on all but the price-leading LX model. An optional seven-inch LCD navigation screen reads crisply and works intuitively. Nicely bolstered front seats upholstered with cloth nicer than the econocar norm provided daylong comfort for this jetlagged driver. The rear seats will suit small- to medium-size adults, and a low center hump eases slide-over. They fold almost completely flat on our hatchback (we have yet to sample a sedan), creating one of the larger rear holds in the segment. However, the relatively small hatch opening and high bottom ledge will limit its ability to swallow bulky items.
Cruising (and stopping) through Korea
Mechanically, the Rio predictably shares much with the Accent, from its 101.2-inch wheelbase to its direct-injected, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Paired with either a six-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic, the hatchback should achieve 29 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway. Kia estimates that the sedan will do 30 mpg in the city along with the now-prerequisite 40 mpg on the highway. One feature unique to the Rio is an optional start/stop system, which will be available shortly after launch and should net one more mile per gallon in the EPA's urban cycle. Kia believes (as do other automakers we've spoken with about such systems) that the real-world benefits for those who drive in the city will be greater.
Over a 250-mile round trip from Seoul to the Seorak Pine Resort near Korea's eastern coast, our midlevel EX hatchback equipped with fifteen-inch aluminum wheels (steel wheels are standard) proved a competent companion. The 138-hp, 1.6-liter four accelerates smoothly and quietly. Shifts from the six-speed automatic are smooth and predictable, and even when we turn on the now-ubiquitous eco mode, upshifting is less fuel-economy oriented than what we've experienced in some 40-mpg specials. An even more efficient seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission currently under development at Hyundai and Kia's Namyang research and development center may not be far away.
We'll need to experience the Rio on roads more varied than Korea's scenic but unchallenging highways before issuing a final verdict on its driving dynamics. For now, it seems free of any real bad habits, even if it's not as playful as, say, a Mazda 2. The electric power steering feels exactly like that in most modern cars -- quick and precise but mostly devoid of feedback. The extremely light low-speed steering -- again very common in the segment -- will please Olive Oil, your ninety-one-year-old aunt, and anyone else who has trouble maneuvering a 2500-pound car in a parking lot. For the rest of us, it's unnecessary and saps some of the intrinsic fun of flicking about a small car at low speeds. Thankfully, it gets firmer at higher speeds and gains better on-center feel. A few short bursts above 80 mph -- about as fast as we dare due to Korea's omnipresent speed cameras -- finds impressive directional stability accompanied by a bit more wind and road noise than we'd like, at least on this preproduction model. As in other new Kias, the Rio's ride is firm bordering on harsh, with a tendency to pogo over wavy sections of pavement.
There will also be a sporty SX model with seventeen-inch wheels, larger front disc brakes, a thicker front antiroll bar, and, inexplicably, only the automatic transmission. In any event, Kia was keener to have us sample the aforementioned start/stop system, which will come as an option only on automatic-equipped EX models. Our impression? It starts. And stops. Perhaps a bit less smoothly than the best versions we've experienced but easy enough to get used to. The real questions will be how much it will add to the window sticker and what other options are bundled with it. Kia Motors America did not share how it will price the option, but Korean officials let on that it costs about $400 by itself.
Conclusion: No boring car?
Not long ago, the Rio was a cheap, forgettable car produced by a cheap, forgettable carmaker to compete in a cheap, forgettable segment. We're not yet ready to say where the Rio falls relative to the current leaders like the Ford Fiesta (rest assured: we will bring them together to find out), and we'll need to drive the sporty SX on more varied roads before we can offer a driving enthusiast's endorsement. But it's safe to say the circle is complete: the Rio is now one of the more refined, better-looking offerings in a segment brimming with good cars.
The Rio hatchback ("Rio 5-door," as Kia is calling it) goes on sale in September and will start at less than $14,000; our test car was spec'd to about $15,000. The sedan will reach dealerships later in 2011 and will cost less than the 5-door. Vehicles with start/stop technology are set to arrive in America by early 2012.