AUSTIN, Texas – For years, the Kia Rio had the small, inexpensive subcompact market pretty much all to itself. But with escalating gasoline prices comes the expected growth of the subcompact car segment, and competitors have caught up with the old Kia Rio; and in some cases passed it.
To rectify matters, Kia has introduced an all new Rio. Like the model it replaces, the 2012 Rio comes in four door sedan or five-door hatchback versions. The sedan will debut later.
The 2012 Rio has a new direct gasoline injection engine, getting 30/40 mpg in city and highway driving and it is almost totally (85 percent) recyclable. Heck, even the seat foam is made from a derivative of castor oil and the car offers idle start and stop.
Power was bumped up with a 1.6-liter four cylinder engine that made 138 horsepower and 123 foot-pounds of torque at 4,850 rpm. The engine can be mated to a six speed automatic or a six speed manual transmission. We had the automatic.
Driving through Texas hill country on Ranch Road, Ranch Road 1376, Ranch Road 1888 and the like, acceleration was not startlingly quick. But I found the Rio’s oomph steady and assuring. Our test car tracked well and it was really quiet. There was a bit of wind noise, but none of it entered the passenger cabin.
The back seats were surprisingly roomy. Leg room was a bit snug for me, an almost six-footer, but I had plenty of head room. I think the 2012 Rio can carry two adults in the rear seats; they’d be close but comfortable. That’s an achievement for a subcompact car.
The front cabin space featured a flat dash and instrument panel that made the Rio look and feel wider. That spacious feeling was aided by a horizontal control cluster that lacked the feel and the vertical length of a center stack. The switches simulated the kind you’d find in an airplane cockpit. The fit was great and there were soft touch points on the dash and on the doors.
The 2012 Rio comes in three trim lines: LX, EX and SX. The LX starts at $13,600 with the manual transmission; the automatic will cost you $14,700. The EX starts at $16,500 and the SX starts at $17,700.
Kia said its signature grille had been slimmed down for the Rio and acted as a connector for the cat’s eye headlights on the five door hatch. The car had a trio of bigger air intakes on the front fascia and sculpted lines that rose from the hood and ended at the rear hatch. Tail lights were at the end of the shoulder line and reflectors were at each edge of the rear fascia.
That leads me to my only quibble about the Rio on this short test drive. When folded, the rear seats created an uneven cargo floor. The cargo floor created by the folding seats was a bit lower, perhaps an inch, than the permanent cargo floor.
I don’t know that Kia gets enough, if any, credit for what it has done for all consumers. The Korean manufacturer was one of the first to start putting upscale creature comforts in small cars aimed at the U.S market. Small cars used to be a euphemism for cheap; poorly built and poorly equipped. I think Kia has helped to change that perception.
The 2012 Rio can be equipped with Bluetooth, satellite radio, LED accented headlights and taillights, a sport-tuned suspension, twin chrome exhaust tips, fog lamps, a voice-activated infotainment system and a 4.3-inch color touch screen and rear camera display. What’s more, a navigation system, push-button start with smart key, leather seat trim, heated front seats and a moonroof can be added.
But what really caught my attention was the power folding side view mirrors. I dropped an $117,000 vehicle at the airport to come to Texas to test drive the Kia Rio, and it didn’t have that feature. Our test vehicle cost almost $100,000 less. That’s called raising the bar and in my view, the 2012 Kia Rio has done it again.
Frank S. Washington is editor of AboutThatCar.com.