Driven: 2012 Kia Rio

#Kia, #Rio

Let's face it, the Kia Rio pretty much defines the term "econobox." But if the latest version does nothing else, it shows the extent to which the current generation of entry-level, B-segment cars has progressed. Consider the econobox redefined.

Outside, we find a smoothly rounded exterior (designed in California). The styling is inoffensive, although there is a large scallop-shaped crease in the bodyside -- sort of a reverse-Bugatti. It's somewhat obscured by my test example's black livery, and that may be for the best. Otherwise, though, it's pretty inoffense.

Inside, there's precious little to complain about in my mid-level EX. The dash is attractive, with huge, clear gauges, and a classy-looking row of buttons beneath the high-mounted radio. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good and comes with audio controls. My test example also was equipped with a touch-screen radio w/UVO (Microsoft) voice controls and a back-up camera. The cloth upholstery is nothing special and the armrests are thinly padded -- but at least they are padded. The two-tone cream-and-black color scheme looks good, and fits and graining are well done. Don't expect a lot of rear-seat space, though; this is a very small car.

With the help of direct injection, Kia is able to wring an impressive 138 hp out of the diminutive, 1.6-liter engine. Wisely, the Koreans provide six forward gears in both the standard manual and the optional automatic transmissions -- that's increasing common, but not universal. With either transmission, the Rio hits that all-important 40-mpg number on the highway, and 30 in the city. Like nearly all subcompacts, the Rio uses electrically assisted power steering, and as in nearly all subcompacts, the steering is lacking in both feel and linearity. Damping and body control aren't great but the small, fifteen-inch wheels and resultant 65-series tires do take the edge off of sharp bumps -- much more effectively than many flashier cars with high-style big wheels.

As surprisingly pleasant as the Rio and its ilk are today, there's a less happy truth about today's new crop of subcompacts: Their prices have crept up. Yes, you can get a base Rio LX for $14,350, but it has crank windows and manual door locks, and is missing many of the niceties here, such as the soft-touch dash and door armrests, the center armrest, Bluetooth, et cetera. The mid-level EX model I had starts at $17,250; and the top-spec SX is just under $18,000 before options.

There are subcompacts that are more spacious (Honda Fit), better to drive (Ford Fiesta), and more interesting to look at (Chevy Sonic). But the Rio, while not excelling in any one area, is nonetheless quite competent all around, and is really emblematic of the success automakers have had in building a better econobox.

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