First Drive: 2012 Kia Rio 5-Door

#Kia, #Rio

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.

PhilG
Update-our Kia is only getting 32 miles per gallon hwy and around 28 to 26 city.The motor still has a wild alternator whine to it.We will be taking Kia up on it's 100,000 mile warranty soon to see if something can be done with both issues.Other then that,this car is built like a tough swiss watch.Drives great and is a great looking car.Just has a motor that sounds like hell when you start it up and is way less economical then advertised.Wish we'd have bought either a Toyota Yaris,Honda Civic or a Toyota Corolla.Maybe even a Ford Focus,Fiesta or non turbo Chevy Cruz too.But that's money over the toilet now.I'll keep you posted if Jesus works at Kia and can miracle our Kia to 40 miles per gallon.I'm kind of doubting that.
PhilG
Update-Part One-well,we are hating the little Kia less now.The gas mileage is starting to improve.I am no longer thinking of getting rid of it as soon as possible primarily because my wife likes the car and it is an extremely well built and good looking car.The motor noise just drives me nuts.The high pitched whine has not gone away-it's just part of the way the car runs I guess.The transmission still impresses me with just how smooth it works.Wished that whine was'nt there and that it truly got 40 mpg but my wife likes it and she deserves whatever good stuff she can.So we will see.Our Kia is a very well designed and put together car. Now if I can get past the quirks of the car I'll be happy too.I guess 200,000 miles later we will see.
PhilG
Update-Part Two-Our KIA 5 door is only getting 31 miles per gallon max highway driving and much worse cirty driving.I see where this car could be bought with a idle engine stop feature at red lights and I'd bet that KIA used that car to get the fourty mile per gallon designation.This car looks like it will never get anywhere near 35 miles per gallon much less 40 miles per gallon.That's very unacceptable to me.Every Japanese car I ever bought,beat the gas mileage ratings it had.And the noise under the hood,that whine, has'nt decreased either.A month ago,if I knew this KIA would be performing like this-I'd have bought a Toyota Yaris,Honda Civic or a five speed Nissan Versa.My wife,who has'nt had a great ten years health wise,was hoping big things out of this car.Frankly,if we can get rid of it and not get financially destroyed-we probably will.Drives really great though,runs great but cold,the engine sounds like hell and it eats gas like it's 1959.Wish we'd have bought that Yaris.
PhilG
Update-Part One-I just changed the oil in it at 895 miles.I could'nt get anyone to say yes or no at the KIA dealership about break-in oil so as I usually do with a brand new motor,I changed it out for 3.5 qts of Castrol GTX premium standard oil and used a new Kia stock oil filter and drain plug bolt washer-blot torqued to 32 ft lbs.I expected the oil to be dirty and filled with aluminum slivers and I was'nt wrong.This is normal for any new motor but it's also why ,in my opinion,you should change the oil before a thousand miles to get that junk out of the oil pan.Like I said,other then just driving the car easy-there is no information from KIA about changing the oil before 3750 miles.I used standard oil to continue the break in period to 4000 miles where I will start using Castrol Syntec 5w20.I have had four decades of great use with Castrol oils. Unfortunately,things are not all happiness in KIA Rio 5 door land.
PhilG
Part Six-we originally wanted other cars but found through the internet as well as talking to their owners that some makes known for their reliabilty have begun to 'build as cheap' as they can and others with new models that were known for electrical problemns have'nt flushed those demons yet either.Kia,like Hyundai,has been busting their butts trying to better their cars and this Rio would'nt be in my driveway if I did'nt think they were building a world class product.We'll see.For now we're pretty happy and looking to the future with our well built Kia Rio 5 door.
PhilG
Part Five-rides a little stiff but that's o.k.,it should mellow out as the car ages.Our Rio gets looks all the time going down the road-it's a great looking car.The back 'trunk' area where the five door opens is not very large but big enough for about six grocery bags stuffed side by side (2 rows)and the latch is pretty cool-electric button operated.I would say that being in the car,if you like tall windows and a panoramic view to the outside world,this ain't the car for you.I liken being in it to being in a submarine going down the road but you know,I don't mind that-it's like being in a sports touring car really.We really like our Kia Rio 5 door and we hope as time passes she earns our respect as a long term part of out family.We drive all of our cars 200,000 miles plus and I don't see why we would'nt do the same to this great little Kia.I hope I've given you some insight so you might go check out this car and see if it's right for you.
PhilG
Part Four-Our Rios motor has a tick sound like an air pump working that's been in it since we bought it.I just figured this is a new latest technology motor,the things got a great warranty and there were other Rio's on the lot with the same tick that was actually louder then on our car so I've given the car some slack.The noise does'nt work or affect anything else in the way the car runs so we'll see what happens there.And when I drive the car I prop my elbow on the top of the left inside door panel which is'nt thick enough to support my elbows weight.When I remove my elbow there is a multistage creak from the plastic.Kia could fix this easily while the car is being built by simply adding a piece of single glue faced rubber tape to support the top of the side panel where anyone would put their elbow while driving the car.But neither of these things is a deal breaker for us.The car drives great-straight down the road-is pretty much uneffected by even strong cross winds-had great brakes-
PhilG
Part Three-I do recommend that you spend the time to set up the radio presets and then use your steering wheel mounted search button to change radio channels.It's just much safer the searching the 'dial' while you are driving.The three month sirius subscription is great fun to listen too and I think we might not be able to let it lapse when it expires.Love the comedy channel and the country channels too.One of the main reasons we bought this car too is that the Rio dealer was willing to work with us to get the car sold to us.We were encountering alot of take it or leave it attitudes from other dealers when we tried to deal with them.End of the year-the whole Kia line has vastly improved over the last just five years and I figured they would want to sell cars before the end of the year-I was right.Two things that do concern me about the car other then the less than advertised mileage.
PhilG
Part Two-Our Rio 5-Door does'nt get near the forty miles per galloon it was advertised to get.I hope that too changes as the car ages.Right now with mostly highway driving we are getting no better then 31 miles per gallon.The car has great horsepower for such a small car and we have done alot of tourist driving with it just to break her in quick.A fun car to drive in all day really.But the seats and the inside of the car is not ideal for anyone over say 270 pounds.You'd be better getting a Nissan Versa or other small car with wider seats and an easier entering and exiting set up.We have the UVO radio setup that's an all multimedia radio in out Rio.It's a nice radio full of features but really needs a small subwoofer in the car stock to make it a great sounding radio.Kind of weak on bass right now versus most other stock-non subwoofer radios I've ever heard.But sounds very clear and pretty easy to use.
PhilG
Part One-We own one of these now,bought it new in Dec 2011.The Red Rio 5 door EX model with the 15 inch alloy rims.Stunning build quality all around as far as fit.Drives great-the front end feels very solid and it drives like a much larger car.Comfort is good,the ride is sporty-not plush so on the back roads,you will feel more bumps then some people more concerned with comfort would like-but we drive our cars and like the taut suspension.Glad we did'nt get the larger rims with less tire sidewall though-I think that would be punishing.Ours has a six speed tranmission and that's one of the main reasons we bought it.We cannot stand cvt transmissions in small cars.However,in cruise mode the transmission will shift down two gears in just sightly hilly terrain.It's a trait that's kind of necessary with a small motor with peaky horsepower but you'll need to see if you like that.I hope as the car ages and the motor and trans loosens up it gets less noticeable.

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