The answer to an important question.
by John Matras
Base Price (MSRP) $8,595
As Tested (MSRP) $11,485
It has been a while since we've seen fractured English from Japanese manufacturers, who've learned to hire native English speakers to prepare their English-language press materials. Yet when the 2001 Kia Rio was introduced to the world press in Korea, they were provided with literature which said, "When we state subcompact car, people ask, 'What's the real of it?'" Chuckles from this and other strained construction aside, we should remember that jangled translations never stopped Americans from buying Japanese cars, nor will it deter Americans from buying Kias from Korea if the product is good. So, what is the real of it?
The 2001 Rio is a four-door subcompact sedan that's conventional in most regards, though it has a tall roofline for adequate headroom for front and rear seat passengers. North American imports will be powered by a spunky 1.5-liter double-overhead-cam four.
The real of it, however, is the Rio's retail price, which starts at $8,595. That, combined with the Kia's confident five year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty, will make the Rio a tempting alternative to a used car.
The Rio is the low price anchor of a rapidly growing Kia lineup that includes the Sephia compact sedan, the Sportage mini-ute, the new Spectra 5-door hatchback and a V6-powered sedan called the Optima coming during 2001 plus a full-size minivan that will join the lineup during the 2002 model year. As such, the Rio will be offered as one model only but with an upgrade package and several standalone options. The Rio costs less than Hyundai's subcompact, the Accent, which for 2000 had a base price of $8,999.
The Rio's $380 upgrade package includes power steering, tilt wheel, full wheel covers, dual covered vanity mirrors and body-color side moldings. Options include an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission ($875), four-wheel anti-lock brakes ($400), a rear spoiler ($85), air conditioning ($750), and a choice of an AM/FM/cassette ($320) or AM/FM/CD audio systems ($395). Options are limited, as Kia wants to keep the Rio as strictly an entry-level car and keep it priced that way.
A uniquely styled hatchback, with a roofline that somewhat resembles a mini Saab wagon, is available in other markets, but not immediately in the North America. Kia Motors America may and, in our opinion, should import it, as it's the better looking of the two models and has its own funky charm.
With what Kia stylists call "Power Round Design," the Rio is cute enough to be a Pokemon character. Perhaps it's the large headlights paired with the diminutive grille that triggers a subconscious psychological response and, like a kitten or a puppy, makes you want to hug this little car.
That said, it's a very clean design. The hood is smooth and wraps down to meet the front fenders and the large one-piece plastic bumper cover that sweeps back to the front wheel openings, sculpted to include a lower radiator opening and a pair of "brake cooling scoops." The sides are simple as well, curving out at the shoulder line and adorned only by a beltline molding that connects the front and rear bumper lines. The roofline is arched from A-pillar to C-pillar, the highest point at the B-pillar, accentuated by the black-out trim around the side windows. The door handles are bodycolor, but the black outside rear-view mirrors are a jarring note. The rear has a one-piece bumper cap that, like the front, reaches to the wheel opening. Taillights are large and wrap around to match the contour of the rear decklid. The trunklid is high, but is cut down to the rear bumper for an easy liftover into the trunk. All in all, it's an admirably restrained design that fits the 94.9-inch wheelbase very well.
Our test Rio had the optional 5.5-inch wide 14-inch diameter alloy wheels, and these come wrapped in P175/65R14 tires. Standard equipment is a 13-inch steel rim that is a half-inch narrower and fitted with 70-series tire. We recommend the optional alloys and for more than the aesthetic appeal of fancy wheels. Our experience--though we didn't drive with the base wheel and tire combo--suggests that the wider wheels and lower profile tires will provide better handling and braking stability. Our test car did not have the 4-sensor/4-channel anti-lock braking, an option desirable not only for the obvious additional braking control but also for the large rear discs which replace the standard rear drum brakes.
Under the hood is a nifty little four-cylinder engine, called MI-Tech by Kia. With four valves per cylinder, dual overhead cams and tuned intake and exhaust manifolds, the 1493 cc powerplant cranks out an impressive 96 hp at 6000 rpm with a muscular 98 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. With less than 2300 lbs of Rio to haul about, that promises lively performance.
The Kia's interior is straightforward, with no surprises or fancy features. Instrumentation is limited to a speedometer, fuel and temperature gauge set into a panel that elbows down into a center console with the audio and ventilation controls. The audio controls are large and easy to use, and the ventilation controls are the don't-read-the-manual-type rotary dials with a fresh air-recirc lever. It's all very Japanese looking, actually.
But forget power windows, locks and mirrors. In keeping with its low-price mission, the Rio doesn't even get these as options. The mirrors don't even have remote adjustment. The seats, however, are full cloth and there are matching cloth inserts in the door panels. The handbrake is located on the console between the seats. There are dual airbags and the Rio's body was designed for-and passed-the demanding European offset crash standards as well as, of course, all U.S. frontal and side impact tests.
Although there are five seatbelts, no more than four standard size adults will fit reasonably in the Rio, and knee room will be at a premium for grownups in the back as well (though headroom is sufficient for anyone whose legs will fit). Young families, however, will be able to fit three young 'uns, booster seats and all, in the back. Three-point belts are provided for outboard passengers only, however, with a lap belt in the center. There are dual depowered airbags up front and the front shoulder belts are height adjustable.
We thought, with the generous power-to-weight ratio of the Rio, that it should be a performer and at least by economy car standards it is. On Kia's Hwasung test track we were able to hit 100 mph with four aboard, and by jettisoning a couple we were even able to get there surprisingly quickly. Even at that speed engine and wind noise didn't prevent conversation and the Rio felt stable and secure, despite its shortish wheelbase. Naturally, most drivers won't go that fast, but it shows what the 1.5-liter four can do and that it's more than capable of handling your around town and Interstate driving. At 75, there's a steady muted thrum from the four-cylinder engine, but no more wind noise than cars costing much more. The engine only gets loud when pushed to higher revs and even then it's more earnest than strained. It's apparent that Kia has put effort into reducing the vibration that even a small four can make and send to the passenger compartment.
We drove both manual and automatic transmission-equipped cars. The manual was somewhat notchy but sufficiently precise in operation, the clutch light. The automatic's shifts were smooth enough and it doesn't seem to sap much power. There is a slight fuel economy penalty, with the manual transmission model EPA rated at 31/40 mpg city/highway versus 28/39 for the automatic; it's not enough to fret about.
As light and tall as it is, the Rio might seem susceptible to side winds. Unfortunately, it was calm when we drove the Rio, so we weren't able to test that hypothesis. Response to steering input was quick, but lane change maneuvers didn't upset the Rio and cornering, as one would expect for this class of car, was a safe and predictable understeer. The Rio listed to the outside but not severely. The suspension seemed tuned more for comfort than sport but that's what buyers in this class want. It's not a Miata or even a Hyundai Tiburon and isn't trying to be. The power assisted rack-and-pinion steering wasn't overboosted, however, providing plenty of feedback so the driver knows how hard the front tires are working.
The Rio's turning circle is a mere 30.8 feet and that's tight, folks, making the Rio, with its spunky engine and short overall length, it will squirt in and out of places bigger cars can only wistfully gaze upon. As an urban warrior, where agility ranks higher than overall might, the Rio should reign supreme.
The Kia Rio is neither sports car nor luxury ride, but then it isn't intended to be. It's supposed to be an efficient and reliable car for not a lot of money. Which brings up another issue: Kia was rated lowest of all makes in the most recent J.D. Power Initial Quality survey. That's no secret from Kia, and no less than President of Kia Motors, Soo Joong Kim, has established improved quality as Kia's number one priority. Should the worst happen, however, Kia offers free roadside service for the 3-years/36,000 miles of its bumper-to-bumper warranty. Then there's the five-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. Kia also looks like it will be around for a while, having recently been bought by Hyundai.
What the Rio offers in driving, however, is a fuel-sipping set of wheels that, with its low price of entry, someone else hasn't already owned. It's a great first car, great transportation to the station and a great fuel economy car. And that, folks, is the real of it.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.