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Comparison Test: Hatchback Hypermilers in the Desert Sun

2012 Toyota Prius C vs. 2012 Honda Insight vs. 2012 Kia Rio 5-door

By Jacob Brown | Photos By Jason Davis | September 18, 2012

The Old Woman Who Took Our Water

I've had very limited experience with the desert since moving to California a year ago, having driven through it a handful of times for one reason or another. To someone like me, rationalizing what a desert is like is nearly impossible without spending some time there. A desert, at least the sort with large rock formations and cacti, is hot. When you check your car's digital thermometer and see 107 degrees Fahrenheit, you often think of it being unbearable. But it isn't. Without any humidity, much less any wind, it simply feels like just another summer day. What you don't realize is that you're constantly sweating and those beads of perspiration are percolating on your skin almost as quickly as they come out. Without the pools of sweat, it's hard to realize you're dehydrating. We were now on our last leg in Lucerne Valley, a town that borders the Mojave Desert. It's the sort of place that if automotive engineers hadn't already staked their claims into Death Valley, they'd probably use it for evaluating prototype cars. In some places, it's barren, carrying just enough life support in the vicinity to host a few meth labs. And, of course, it has hills -- many, many hills. Switching cars once again, I had the Honda Insight at my disposal now. Buglewicz finished with the Kia Rio, and Arellano drove the Toyota Prius C. With the windows shut in the desert, the heat amplifies. The humidity doesn't escape the car. Instead, it sticks to your body. Air conditioning is the only real relief. "The air conditioning in the Insight sucks," I bemoaned. "That's funny, because the Rio's doing just fine," Keith replied, smugly. "Same here," said Joel. For the sake of parity, all three cars had been kept in their economy modes all day, sacrificing some performance for the sake of efficiency. In the Honda, the climate control goes into an economy mode, too. The Rio and Prius C weren't pushed too hard and therefore could cool down their interiors without struggling. The Insight had to be overridden, placed into its coolest setting to even have a fighting chance against the mighty Mojave. We drove uphill on Old Woman Springs Road, perhaps the most apt name ever given to a throughway, our cars' engines struggling to keep pace with driver demands and the climate control burdens being placed on their engines. Already somewhat compromised against two newer designs, the Insight came in with the fewest features. Its engine roared past 4,000 rpm uphill, its continuously variable transmission forcing a wailing drone and a noticeable vibration throughout its interior. Its steering was too numb. Its suspension felt unsorted compared to the Kia's and Toyota's. Mind you, none of the three cars compared are particularly sporty, but even in the mundane task of going straight down a desert two-lane, the Insight's road manners trailed the other two vehicles in the test. While the Rio and even the Prius C managed to shake off some of the bargain-basement subcompact stigma of yore, the Insight reminded us too much of the bad old days, where fuel efficiency took precedence over everything else, including power, interior noise, and basic drivability. The other two literally and figuratively began pulling away from it. Driving more than 40 miles, we stopped at a rock formation to take pictures, resting some as we got ready for our last checkpoint. And then, Buglewicz asked about the water. "We're out," came the reply. We had a thirsty few hours ahead of us. We only had a few dry lake beds left to go before heading to dinner, having put some 220 miles on each of the cars already. But stopping for occasional photography is a priority, too. As we went on, I realized how I couldn't fathom owning a Honda Insight. By the numbers it's a perfectly fine car. It has a well-built, well laid-out interior, a decently sized back seat, and it has the most usable cargo space, too. Yet it lacked featues the other cars had at the same price, but even with them at this price, it still wouldn't have a chance of winning simply because it was such a drag to drive. With the sun starting its descent and the cars cleverly arranged on a dry lake bed for photography, we knew our three-car comparison had become a surprisingly close two-dog race between the newcomer from Aichi, Japan, and the overachieving hatchback from Seoul. But we had to pick a winner.

The Watering Hole of Victorville

By the time we had reached our final destination of our 270-mile trip, we were starving, dehydrated, and exhausted. The little Mexican cantina we found in Victorville would assuredly provide the pick-me-up we all needed. And it would give us some time to figure out how the cars stacked up against one another. With the Honda out of contention, we had to decide whether we'd give our nod to the Kia Rio or Toyota Prius C. We took "hero" photos of both cars, which means somewhere down in our vault of photos there's a "Dewey Defeats Truman" opp for our second-placer. Because we still hadn't figured out which was the better car come sunset. So we went back to basics. If this were a comparison simply based out of fuel economy, the Kia wouldn't have stood a chance. Through our driving, the Rio's onboard computer said it achieved 35.5 mpg over 270 miles. In reality, it was 32.6, rounding up to its EPA mixed fuel economy rating on the dot. The Toyota Prius C indicated 50.5 mpg over the course of our route and actually hit 50.3 mpg. That's nearly spot-in with its EPA mixed estimate, too. For what it's worth, the Insight split the difference with 44.6 mpg, relegating the Rio to a distant third. But it was never just about fuel economy. This comparison's intent was to combine cost of ownership with joy of ownership; the experience of the vehicle, and whether or not it's something you can come back to day after day and still feel just as happy with it as you did when you drove it off the dealership lot. "Rio. End of discussion," said photographer Jason Davis in our first unofficial tally. Hands down, it was the looker of the three, its sharp lines and slick curves glistening in the desert sun. Indeed, it also had the nicest interior amenities and best materials -- the only one to have soft-touch materials in fact, or a backup camera. Or power-folding mirrors. Or a touchscreen infotainment system. You get the point. But its seats were uncomfortable, and its steering lacked the spot-on feel of the Prius'. In fact, when on-center, the Rio's steering showed an artificial heft to it that counter-intuitively progressed to light and sensitive mid-turn. Engine noise was relatively quiet, due in part because the Rio's more powerful engine didn't have to struggle to pull its weight as much, and it was oftentimes quieter on highway than the Prius or Insight. On highway stretches, however, its lack of sound deadening up front led to noticeably higher levels of wind noise. In addition to all of that, we figured out the Rio's cost of ownership wasn't quite as cheap as it looked on paper. Still, as we quibbled back and forth over burritos, the Kia Rio showed just how far the Korean automaker has come. It's a testament that the Korean automakers really don't build junk anymore. It's a car that, if it had a few minor improvements, I would seriously consider buying with my own money. But it doesn't. And it really only lost this comparison by the narrowest of margins.
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