Pros: Impressive standard and optional equipment; 40 mpg; reasonable sticker price; advanced engine technology
Cons: Only base model can have manual transmission; not very quick; resale value getting better, but still not Honda level
Small, inexpensive cars are supposed to be boring, uncomfortable and barren when it comes to options and accessories, right? Well, apparently nobody bothered to explain this fact to Kia. Its small car is stylish, sporty, affordable and, best of all, can be loaded with features everyone on a budget wants but rarely can afford. The Rio comes as a practical four-door sedan or as a sporty five-door that is cleverly dubbed the Rio5. Even in its most basic LX version, the Rio is loaded with features, including a four-speaker stereo with USB/iPod port, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, air conditioning and a six-way adjustable driver’s seat. EX and SX trims bring even more to the table, all for a price starting at around $16,500.
Yes, there are many cool features to admire in the Rio and Rio5, and there’s none more impressive than the engineering marvels residing under the hood. There, you’ll find a small 4-cylinder engine that uses gasoline direct injection technology and an available advanced six-speed automatic transmission. The result is a stunning 40-mpg highway fuel economy figure. This makes our jaw drop like Jacob Marley, since GDI technology is very expensive to produce and install and is usually only found on expensive luxury brands. To offer such technology, along with an advanced transmission design, all for $15,000 is not only incredible, it must have Kia’s competitors shaking in their boots. The Rio and Rio5’s advanced design, impressive fuel economy and low price haven’t only attracted our attention, however. The resale-value guidebooks have also taken notice, elevating the Rio’s once anemic resale value to fairly respectable levels, although still not as good as those for the Honda Fit or the Ford Fiesta.
Comfort & Utility
Although small on the outside, the 2012 Kia Rio and Rio5 are anything but cramped on the inside. You won’t need to use terms like "cavernous" to describe the Rio’s rear-seat accommodations, but the amount of headroom and legroom are suitable for most adults, assuming the front seats are not in their rearmost positions. You’ll find more rear-seat space in a Honda Fit or a Nissan Versa, but you won’t find the same cool features and low price. The Rio’s 13.7-cubic-foot trunk is also on the smaller side, but the 60/40 split folding rear seats can be dropped down to provide more space.
You could also opt for the Rio5 with its big hatchback opening. Up front, legroom for tall drivers is pretty good, and the height-adjustable driver’s seat and tilting wheel make it easy for drivers of all shapes and sizes to find a comfortable position.
As we mentioned earlier, the Rio and Rio5 come nicely equipped as is, but move up to the EX trim, and you’ll get power locks, windows and mirrors plus cruise control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, upgraded audio with Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth and premium fabric on the seats and doors. The range-topping SX adds 17-inch alloy wheels, power folding outside mirrors, UVO voice-activated information and entertainment system (which allows voice control of Bluetooth and iPod music and playlist selection), a backup camera, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a soft-touch dash. Options for the SX include leather seating, heated front seats, push-button start, a power sunroof and navigation. Many of the SX’s features can be added to the EX through the EX Convenience package, including the power-folding side mirrors, UVO information and entertainment and rear camera display.
It is unreal that an entry-level car with a price topping out at around $20,000 can carry so many upscale features, some of which-power folding side mirrors, for example-are not even offered on many $40,000 luxury cars. The standout technology for the Rio and Rio5 can be found on the SX model, which offers Kia’s Smart Key technology as part of the SX Premium package. With Smart Key, the driver need only have the key fob to unlock the doors and use the push-button starter to bring the engine to life. The UVO information and entertainment system lets you use voice commands to call friends, listen to voice mail and call up music from an iPod, your cell phone or through the stereo’s own Jukebox hard drive. Other features of note include a backup monitor and a large LCD view screen for the audio system.
One last perk worth mentioning is the Rio’s 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty, still one of the best in the business.
Performance & Fuel Economy
Both the Kia Rio and Rio5 derive their power from a 1.6-liter gasoline direct injection 4-cylinder engine that makes 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. That may not sound like much, but in a car as small as the Rio, teamed with a modern six-speed automatic transmission (the six-speed manual is available only on the base LX), it’s enough to deliver a performance that is peppy, if not fast. The 1.6-liter is very willing, but it’s also a bit loud at full throttle. Still, on the open highway the Rio’s 36-mpg fuel economy will make that loudness music to your ears. Expect around-town figures to be slightly lower at around 28 mpg.
Every Rio and Rio5 comes standard with front, front side impact and front and rear side curtain airbags. Also standard are four-wheel ABS, electronic traction control and electronic vehicle stability control. The federal government rates both the Rio and Rio 5 with four out of five stars for safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not rated the 2012 Rio.
Remembering that this is a small commuter car, we are pretty impressed by the way it rides and handles. The LX and EX versions have smaller 15-inch wheel and tire packages that help keep the cabin a bit quieter and certainly deliver a softer ride than the SX trim’s 17-inch wheels. But, the smaller wheel/tire combo also delivers only average cornering ability, with lots of squealing from the tires when pushed hard and an almost constant need for the stability control. The SX does a bit better, delivering more grip and a more stable driving experience. No Rio is particularly quick, but we do like the LX’s six-speed manual and wish it were available on the sporty SX. Since it is not, most will find the six-speed automatic with manual shift control almost as fun-and certainly as efficient, since both manual and automatic achieve identical fuel economy ratings.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Fit – The Fit offers more interior room, but its styling isn’t as handsome as the Rio’s, and its warranty isn’t as long. Although the Fit’s resale values is superior to the Rio’s, the Rio gets better fuel economy and has a more powerful engine than the Fit.
Chevrolet Sonic – The Sonic is about the same size as the Rio and Rio5, but it can be equipped with a turbocharged engine that makes it much more fun to drive. The Rio, on the other hand, has a better warranty, better fuel economy, and offers more in the way of advanced technology and audio options.
Nissan Versa – The Versa may not win any beauty contests, but it will walk away with best in class for interior room and comfort honors as well as lowest base price. The Rio may not have as big a back seat, but it does have more features, gets better fuel economy and has a longer standard warranty.
The choice between sedan and hatchback is strictly up to you. From a strictly visual standpoint, we like the sedan’s proportions, but functionally the five-door hatchback is a more logical choice. Whichever model you pick, we’d opt for the EX, which has all the features you’ll need. With the $1,000 Convenience package, which adds in the SX’s UVO information and entertainment system, power folding mirrors and a backup camera , the price is well under $20,000.
In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.