Since the Kia Rio's current generation debuted for the 2012 model year, it has gone from the butt of automotive jokes to one of the most stylish and feature-laden offerings for under $20,000. A great deal of credit for the subcompact's radical transformation goes to Kia's design chief, Peter Schreyer (previously with Audi), who bestowed the littlest Kia with the clean lines and fetching styling that permeate the brand and help this subcompact differentiate itself from the rest of the segment.
For 2013, roughly 500 Rio buyers will have a chance to stand out even further: Kia is producing a limited run of fully loaded, manual-transmission-equipped Rio SX hatchbacks. This special edition is the only Rio in which you can row your own gears other than a base-spec LX, with which you'd have to forego any of the desirable options that the SX offers.
How does it look?
It's not hard to see the Audi influence in the 2013 Rio, which was redesigned from tip to tail last year. The top-level Rio SX includes upmarket touches like LED headlight trim, LED taillights, and stylish 17-inch wheels. The overall design is attractive -- though perhaps a little bubble-shaped -- but it is less wedge-like than most of its competitors. The Rio carries Kia's attractive "tiger mouth" grille treatment, however, the thin upper grille creates a gaping lower opening and a protruding chin. In addition, the front LEDs are not running lights -- they only come on with the headlights. That's a bit of a letdown, but it's still nice to see such a premium touch in this class.
Inside, material quality is impressive, especially given that this car has a price of less than 19 grand. Seat fabric is on par with what you would find in a Volkswagen Golf; all touch points are covered in either soft plastic or fabric; and none of the dash plastics are shiny or cheap-looking. Other Kias are equipped with a legible red information screen with the odometer and trip computer set within clear dials, and that is the case here, too.
The front cabin is airy, thanks to a large glass area and long windshield (a benefit of the car's spherical shape), but a rising beltline can make rear-seat passengers feel a bit claustrophobic. The almost-all-black interior doesn't help, but the design is modern and the silver-painted plastic accents keep the space from feeling monochromatic. The center stack is dominated by a touchscreen navigation system and a large start/stop button, and a handsome array of knobs and toggles sit below the screen for the climate control.
What do you get?
Navigation, satellite radio, Bluetooth, push-button start with passive entry, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, automatic headlights, foglights, and heated power-folding mirrors all come standard in the SX. Also included here -- and the car's raison d'etre -- is a six-speed manual transmission, which is mated to a 1.6-liter I-4 rated at 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque. Only two things from the regular car's laundry list of available creature comforts are missing here: heated leather seats and a moonroof.
Since there is only one way to get the Rio SX manual, there is also only one price: a quite reasonable $18,650. The rest of the Rio hatchback lineup starts at just $13,550, while a fully loaded SX with the six-speed automatic transmission will set buyers back $21,000. (All prices include a $750 destination charge.)
How does it drive?
Kia is supposed to be the sportier of the two Korean brands, but Hyundai has had the edge lately. Thanks to the sport-tuned suspension that comes with the SX, however, this Rio has a more refined chassis than most other Korean cars. On the highway, the ride is soft without being floaty; although, like many small hatchbacks, the small Kia is susceptible to crosswinds and buffeting. The Rio doesn't crash over road imperfections, but there is a fair bit of head toss and it exhibits a surprising amount of body roll in hard cornering.
Despite this Rio being aimed at enthusiast buyers, we doubt that there will be much spirited driving done here. Steering feel is numb -- bordering on video-game-like. The Rio's engine also takes a while to wind up: while its 138-hp rating is on par with the rest of the class, peak horsepower is at a sky-high 6300 rpm (just 200 rpm shy of redline), and power is essentially non-existent below 2500 rpm. The Rio's closest competitor, the Chevrolet Sonic, has the same amount of horsepower but doesn't need to be wound up as much to find it. In the Kia, you need to row the shifter a fair bit to keep the 1.6-liter on the boil, which makes the six-speed's long throws and vague clutch that much more noticeable.
Another consequence of needing higher rpms is a hit in fuel economy. The 2013 Rio's mpg rating was recently adjusted down to 29/37 mpg city/highway. Don't expect to meet those numbers, however, unless you pay close attention to the ultra-conservative shift indicator on the instrument panel.
Form versus function.
The Kia Rio gets our vote as the best-looking car in the subcompact segment, but even in flashy SX guise, it's not the best-driving -- that award goes to the Chevy Sonic. Similarly equipped, a 2013 Sonic LTZ comes standard with almost all of the same goodies as the Rio (minus passive entry and start) and costs either $10 less or $690 more, depending on engine choice. Fuel economy ratings are almost identical as well, with the Chevrolet returning 3 more mpg on the highway than the Kia. Horsepower numbers are the same, too, although the Sonic has more torque -- 125 lb-ft for the 1.8-liter normally aspirated four and 148 lb-ft for the 1.4-liter turbocharged four. However, the Sonic (with the base 1.8-liter engine) has one fewer cog in its manual transmission (five versus six), requiring six-speed stick shift fans to go for the more-expensive 1.4-liter turbo model.
If you're looking for the sportiest Kia money can buy, you'd do better buying a Rio and equipping it with the B-spec kit. Other offerings in the subcompact class may be more fun to drive than the Rio SX, but the Kia has a high-style flair that its competitors lack. If you want that extra bit of panache in your everyday driver, the 2013 Rio SX could be the car for you.
On Sale: Now
Base Price (with destination): $18,650
As-Tested Price: $18,650
Engine: 1.6-liter I-4
Horsepower: 138 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 123 lb-ft @ 4850 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Wheels and Tires:
17-inch aluminum wheels
205/45R17 Hankook Optimo H426 all-season tires
Curb Weight: 2410 lbs
Cargo (rear seats up/folded): 15.0/49.8 cu ft
Legroom (front/rear): 43.8/31.1 in
Headroom (front/rear): 40.0/37.6 in