What It Is: The 2012 Kia Rio is the Korean manufactuer's all-new, entry-level subcompact sedan and hatchback.
Best Thing: It comes loaded with unexpected features in a $15,000 car and gets 40 mpg.
Worst Thing: Wind and road noise intrude, and Kia's UVO infotainment system still needs work.
Snap Judgment: The 2012 Kia Rio shows entry-level cars don't have to be ugly or cheap feeling as the Korean automaker goes back to the drawing board, infusing its smallest car with style and substance.
Working part-time at a car rental agency in college, I remember the previous-generation Kia Rio as the vehicle that customers took home right before closing time, after all the "good" cars were already taken. It was a $25-a-day special that derived all of its merits from value.
It wasn't that bad of a car, it's just that Kia gave it all the personality of unprepared, plain tofu, and then slapped a 10-year warranty on top. Besides the warranty, its saving grace was that it had some nifty features like a satellite radio and a jack for my MP3 player at a cheap price.
But the 2012 Kia Rio car is something wholly different, throwing in a much-needed dash of style in addition to being functional and economical. Kia says its target audience for this car is a fresh-outta-college twentysomething with a need for basic transportation and a desire for unexpected value and technology.
In other words, someone like me.
Anchoring the bottom of the 2012 Kia Rio lineup is the base LX model with a six-speed manual transmission, which starts at $14,350, including $750 for destination and handling. If you want an LX with a six-speed automatic, you'll fork over $15,450. For $17,250, customers can step up to the EX model that comes with nicer interior materials, Bluetooth wireless phone connectivity, cruise control, and pillar-mounted stereo tweeters among other features. Finally, for $18,450, customers can select the top-level SX model. It comes with 17-inch aluminum wheels, the UVO infotainment system, LED tail lights, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel in its long list of features. Check every single option box and you'll top out at less than $21,000.
Compared to last year's models, the price for a Rio LX with an automatic transmission has dropped $440, but content, technology, and fuel economy have all increased. The price of the top-level Rio SX has gone up $1360 over last year's Rio5 SX, but it comes equipped features not even available in the outgoing car, such as UVO and larger wheels. The mid-level Rio EX was not available for the 2011 model year and is more comparable to the outgoing Rio5 SX.
Each 2012 Kia Rio comes with the same high-tech, 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, which puts out a substantial 28 more horsepower than the 2011 car. All 2012 Rios also come with a specific Eco mode that helps improve fuel economy above the already impressive EPA-estimated 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. If that's not good enough, the $400 Eco package on EX models adds 1 mpg in the city thanks to the 2012 Kia Rio's idle stop and go (ISG) technology. ISG shuts off the engine at stoplights, saving the fuel that's normally wasted while waiting for the light to turn green. It's the first time such technology has been implemented in the U.S. on a non-luxury vehicle.
Neither too radical nor utterly sedate, the 2012 Kia Rio's design hits somewhere in the middle: handsome and sporty. It's part what Kia calls a "design-led transformation." Several years back, Kia hired Volkswagen and Audi's chief designer, Peter Schreyer, to make Kia's cars look more European, a stark contrast in philosophy to Kia's overly conservative past.
The package comes across as more substantial than the one it replaces, both wider and lower to the ground, with fenders pulled to the corner of the car and accentuating creases found throughout the curvy bodywork. The wide, blacked-out faux air intakes in the front bumper look like an afterthought in pictures but don't look as tacked-on when seen in person. The body looks swept forward with a rising window line hitting its peak on the rear hatchback door. The rear comes off looking similar to the Volkswagen Golf's, not a bad car to copy. The visual width is accentuated by the blacked-out lower section of the rear bumper.
The 2012 Kia Rio's interior is a genuinely pleasant place to be. The front buckets are supportive and use a firmer, more European-style seat foam made of 100-percent biodegradable castor oil. Up front, the glove compartment has been tripled in size, meaning that you can store a six-pack of pop cans in it and still have plenty of room left over. The steering wheel feels comfortable in your hands--especially the SX model's leather-wrapped version -- and all the controls are at fingers' reach.
High-quality, soft-touch plastics cover the dashboard and interior in the top-level Rio SX we drove. The upgraded interior materials are an option in mid-level EX models. The package adds a touch of class to an interior that looks far more conservative than its exterior. If you don't opt for the two-tone black and beige interior, only the HVAC controls and the UVO infotainment system break up the reserved appearance.
UVO itself is a mixed bag. It can integrate with your phone's Bluetooth connectivity, play internet radio from your phone, hook into your MP3 player, and even play the car's Sirius satellite radio system via voice commands. But its operation left us a bit baffled. Sometimes, it worked. Other times, it didn't, like when switching from UVO's smartphone music player to the satellite radio using voice commands. Granted, these were very early production cars, and using UVO may not require shouting in the Rios you can find on dealership lots.
With an ample amount of rear leg space and cargo capacity for the class, the Rio can haul two people in the back seat along with enough gear for a weekend. Just make sure they aren't too long-legged. Still, the Rio's rear space deserves commendation that's rare for much of the subcompact class.
When it comes to putting cargo into the back, space is ample, but the Rio's wide tail lights intrude on its opening. Still, it's tall, and unless you're hauling a 50-inch TV, the hatchback will swallow a lot without having to fold down the rear seat. The bumper sits high above the cargo floor, ensuring the two-dozen eggs you just bought won't go tumbling to the ground when you're parked on a hill. Expanding the space requires only a quick pull of a small lever on either section of the 60/40 split-folding rear bench, but you don't get a flat load floor with the seatbacks down.
While Kia expects the majority of Rios to come optioned as midlevel EXs--and only a small handful will be the base-model manual-transmission LX--we grabbed the keys to an upper-level Rio SX with UVO and a standard automatic transmission.
The Rio's not quick, but its 138-hp engine only has to haul 2500 pounds, so it has more than enough pep in its step. The six-speed automatic was smooth when left alone or in its manual-shift mode, and overall the car feels refined. The Rio SX's leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good in the hand, and the car responds quickly when it's turned, giving the Rio a sporty feel. The 2012 Kia Rio rides on the firm side, which wasn't a problem on the smooth roads outside of Austin, Texas, but we wonder how it will fare on the potholed roads of the Northeast.
However, if you're in the market for a car of this caliber, you're probably looking more for good fuel economy instead of sporty driving. Fortunately, the Rio delivers. The EPA rates the Rio at 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway. City fuel economy increases to 31 mpg with the optional ISG technology not featured in our tester. With the car in Eco mode on the gentle hills of Texas' back country, we were able to eke out more than 37 mpg on Austin's hilly country back roads, but the Rio never had a problem keeping up with traffic. Even with a lead foot and the Eco mode turned off, we still pulled managed more than 32 mpg.
Our on-road complaints mostly come down to noise. Kia had boasted about the added levels of sound deadening the 2012 Kia Rio received around the rear fenders, but it seemed to have left some insulation from the vehicle's front. Most notably, there was pronounced wind noise around the front pillars at speeds approaching 70 mph. The engine sounded coarse at higher rpm, and plenty of road noise emanated from the car's largish 17-inch wheel and tire package. Over rougher roads, they left us wishing for a 16-inch middle ground between these and the base car's 15-inch wheels, which looked too small.
As a member of the perpetually ADHD Generation Y demographic that is the Rio's target market, I asked myself whether or not this car checked all of the right boxes: style, comfort, technology, efficiency, value, and fun. Overall, the Rio impressed. Although my particular example didn't get the checkmark for the tech factor due to a fussy UVO interface, it's now possible to call the Rio nice car without needing qualifiers. In fact, you could even say it's in contention for the top-of-its-class honors.
But we were left wondering how the 2012 Kia Rio would be like in the gridlocked Los Angeles freeway system, instead of semi-rural Texas. Will Kia's engineers get UVO to work consistently in the full-production versions? And will consumers warm up to this Kia as a serious contender for their hard-earned money for more than a few days at a time in a rental agreement? We're looking forward to putting the 2012 Kia Rio through its paces in the urban jungle to see if the car can hold onto its merits and gain some lost ground in one of the roughest driving environments in the U.S.
2012 Kia Rio LX 5-door: $14,350 (six-speed manual), $15,450 (six-speed automatic); 138-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder; 30 mpg city/40 mpg hwy
2012 Kia Rio EX 5-door: $17,250; 138-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder; 30 mpg city (31 mpg w/ ISG)/40 mpg hwy
2012 Kia Rio SX 5-door: $18,450; 138-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder; 30 mpg city/40 mpg hwy