First Drive: 2012 Kia Rio sedan

2012-kia-rio-sedan

The new Kia Rio sedan drives absolutely nothing like its hatchback counterpart. Well, at least not the hatchback we drove back-to-back with the sedan in Florida this week.

You see, we drove a hatchback that had been stripped of most of its interior components, fitted with a roll cage and a racing seat, and equipped with upgraded suspension and brake parts in order to compete in the upcoming B-Spec racing series for minimally modified small production cars.

Please B mine

The B-Spec car was ridiculously fun to toss around the tight road course at the European Rally School & Motorsport Park northeast of Gainesville. The race car is only marginally quicker than the production car -- primarily because it's about 160 pounds lighter -- but it has very good steering and sticks to the road incredibly well, especially on its BFGoodrich racing slicks (we initially had to drive the B-Spec car on Kumho all-season rubber, until the track dried). The team from Kinetic Motorsports, which modified the Rio for racing, had a tough time getting me out of the car -- and not because the roll cage was in the way.

Back to Reality

The Rio sedan is far less inspiring. To its credit, however, the Rio (in either body style) is one of the better-driving compact cars on the market. As with the hatchback, the sedan's steering is pretty firm and direct (at least at higher speeds) and handling is sporty and crisp. The ride quality is firm and can be somewhat harsh, at least with the attractive seventeen-inch wheels on our test car. Road noise is noticeable, too, but the sedan is slightly quieter than the hatchback, particularly for rear-seat passengers. The six-speed automatic transmission does its job unobtrusively, and straight-line performance is merely adequate, but at higher revs, the 138-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine sounds as coarse as a boisterous karaoke performer who probably should've remained a spectator.

The Rio's interior is quite nice, and lots of fancy features are available, such as nicely supportive heated leather seats, touch-screen navigation, a backup camera, a sunroof, and keyless push-button starting. Our test car was a fully loaded SX with a sticker price of $20,545; that kind of cash that can buy a variety of nice cars from the larger, compact segment. The base Rio sedan, the LX, costs $14,150, but that's a stick-shift model that isn't available with any notable options. (Regrettably, a manual transmission is available only on that most basic model, on which you can't even get power windows.) The more versatile -- and, to our eyes, more attractive -- hatchback costs only $200 more than the sedan.

What's the difference?

Unlike many sedans with a hatchback sibling, the Rio's front clip doesn't completely match that of the 5-door. The sedan has a larger, more prominent grille, and its lower front fascia has a very horizontal secondary grille opening and almost-trapezoidal foglamps instead of the hatchback's round units sandwiching an actual trapezoid-shaped lower grille. The headlamps also differ between the two cars.

The tacked-on trunk (which actually doesn't look tacked on) means that the sedan is 12.6 inches longer than the Rio hatchback, which might be an issue for those who do a lot of on-street parking. The trunk has a volume of 13.7 cubic feet, which is only 1.3 cubic feet less than that of the hatchback with the rear seats in the upright position. There's also quite a bit of storage space beneath the trunk floor, since there's no spare tire under there (a tire-sealant kit and a mini air compressor take its place, for better or worse).

Fuel economy is identical to that of the 5-door; the EPA rating for all Rio trim levels, body styles, and powertrains is 30/40 mpg city/highway. According to Kia, the sedan weighs three pounds less than the hatchback (2480 pounds for a sedan with an automatic) so that difference is negligible.

Want one?

The hatchback is traditionally the more popular Rio body style, hence that car's half-year head start in the marketplace, although Kia marketing VP Michael Sprague expects the sedan/hatch split to settle near fifty-fifty. The Rio sedan officially goes on sale in March. If you do a lot of city driving, you might want to hold out for the 2013 Rios, which will arrive in the second quarter of 2012, because they will offer the auto stop/start that is already available on the Soul.

2012 Kia Rio Sedan

On sale: Now
Base price: $14,150
Engine: 1.6L I-4, 138 hp, 123 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front -wheel
Fuel economy: 30/40/33 city/highway/combined

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