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2012 Kia Rio - First Drive

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author photo by David Boldt

What has been termed an affordable halo car, the Kia Soul was introduced in 2009. Its quirky character put Kia design on the map, and it seemingly hasn't stopped since. The latest iteration of that mojo is an all-new Kia Rio, a subcompact similar to cars like the Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit and Mazda2.

In its earlier iterations the Kia Rio personified the tiny little econo-box typical of Korean entries vying for American buyers. The original Rio was so far removed from the competitive (Japanese) segment it was laughable, and while the second gen - available in sedan and 5-door form - was scrappy in both its design and driving dynamic, it still competed largely on price rather than content. The third time may be the charm, as this newest Rio clothes upgraded mechanicals and an impressive level of refinement with a mature, sophisticated shape and an entire complement of upscale features.

Grown Up Rio

Designed at Kia's US design center, the new Rio is offered as both a 5-door hatchback and a 4-door sedan. While Kia gives credit to the US team, at least a small shout-out should be thrown at the Italian studios of Ital Design, responsible for Suzuki's 2005 Reno. Even though there's a hint of that car in the Rio 5-door's profile, we think the Rio's 5-door is one of the more attractive in what is known as the B-Segment. Although not as rakish as Ford's Fiesta, the Kia entry is more grown-up than both Chevy's Sonic and the Mazda2, and more visually involving than Toyota's now-dated Yaris. And with a wide track and wheels pushed to the far corners of the car, the Rio's stance looks more athletic.

That platform is a well-reinforced unibody weighing just under 2,500 pounds. Front suspension is provided by the now-ubiquitous MacPherson struts, while the rear wheels are connected to a torsion beam axle. Brakes are 4-wheel discs on all three trim levels, although the top-line SX has front discs with a diameter one inch larger (11 inches) than its lower priced LX/EX siblings.

Under the hood the Rio receives an all-new 1.6 liter DOHC four offering direct injection,138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. Both manual and automatic transmissions are all new, and both feature six speeds. And while the Kia's 138 horses are significantly healthier than the number offered by the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Mazda2 or Toyota Yaris. Still, when equipped with the 6-speed automatic transmission, most drivers will be wishing for a little more power. Unless shifted using the manual override, acceleration to sixty is more wheezy than breezy.

Improved Interior

We found the interior hospitable in both its design and execution. The dash is clean and contemporary, with easily read gauges and easy-to-understand control actuation. Front buckets are nicely shaped, and proved supportive in both aggressive cornering and long distance driving. The Rio's longish wheelbase contributes to reasonably generous legroom, while the rear seat's low hip point helps headroom. The Rio's rakish profile would suggest visibility issues, but in terms of the driver's ability to see traffic or a picturesque countryside, the view is relatively unobstructed.

On the road, the Rio's rack-and-pinion steering is neither disconnected nor reasonably lively, instead falling somewhere in the middle. The SX and its ‘sport-tuned' suspension and 17-inch rubber, got better the harder it was pressed. The road dynamics are well removed from Kias of yesteryear, but this isn't a Fit or Mazda2 in terms on-road dynamics. With Kia's recently announced entry into SCCA-backed B-Spec racing, however, there's still a chance Kia's Rio can get there.

At a base price of about $14,500, the Rio undercuts the subcompact category by as much as $1,500, although when comparably equipped it is an almost dead heat with Chevy's built-in-Michigan Sonic. Our test SX with auto had an MSRP of $18,545 with destination, and is comparable to what we've seen from others in the category.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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