Road Test: The refined Rio [Fleet Management May 2012 Print Edition]

Kia's entry-level car shows its class

June 13, 2012
by Tony Whitney

From the Fleet Management May 2012 Print Edition

When it comes to evaluating new automobiles, there are times when it’s not the high-sticker upscale products that impress the most, but small, well-designed, economy models with basic price tags inside $15,000.

Such was the case with the 2013 Kia Rio, a new version of the Korean automaker’s entry-level vehicle that’s been available for several years both in Canada and around the world.

Of course, Kia has made amazing progress over the last few years and is no longer considered second-rate and a little obscure. Quite recently, Kia took two “Best New” titles in the annual Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) awards contest for versions of its Optima sedan. The Rio was only just edged out for best in its AJAC class by the Hyundai Accent, which is based on a similar platform.

BODY STYLE: 4-door sedan or 5-door hatchback
ENGINE: 1.6-litre 4-cylinder
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual or
6-speed automatic
PERFORMANCE: Zero to 100 km/h
in approx 9 seconds
FUEL ECONOMY: 6.6-litres/100 km city;
4.9-litres/100 km hwy.
PRICE RANGE: $13,795 (base LX sedan); $21,695 (base EX Luxury)

Like so many auto manufacturers, Kia has an interesting history, but it doesn’t go back that far. It was founded in 1944 to manufacture steel tubing and bicycle parts. It was several years before Kia started manufacturing complete bicycles and in 1947, it entered the motorcycle field—a logical step and one followed by numerous automakers around the world. Trucks followed in 1962 and it was as recently as 1974 that Kia built its first car.

In the years that followed, Kia produced some interesting vehicles, often as joint efforts with Ford and Mazda, but when hampered by a financial crisis in Asia, the company declared bankruptcy in 1997. The following year, Hyundai acquired 51 percent of Kia and the company was saved and its future was assured.

Kia is a popular brand in many parts of the world, especially in Europe. Sales in North America climbed so rapidly, a US plant was built in West Point, Georgia, and today, Kia is a respected nameplate, despite its relative youth, with vehicles admired for their combination of high quality, durability and crisp styling. Our visits to Kia plants in Korea have revealed impressive state-of-the-art manufacturing technology and a sprawling research and development facility in a park-like setting that’s shared with partner Hyundai.

Kia’s reputation has reached a stage where the automaker plans to introduce a large luxury sedan to the North American market in the near future—a sure sign that things are going well for the once humble bicycle builder. Today, Kia employs 42,000-plus people in operations worldwide and produces around 1.5 million vehicles a year.

Although the subcompact Rio is the least expensive product in the Kia lineup, you wouldn’t know it by climbing into one and taking it for a drive. Despite its modest $13,895 base price, the Rio is a surprisingly pleasing little car in all kinds of ways.

For starters, the styling is very easy on the eye and combines compact lines with a hint of sleekness. It’s not easy to design a subcompact without making it look “awkward” in both stance and appearance. Modern styling trends seem to favour larger and mid-sized vehicles, so much subcompact styling has suffered as a result. Somehow, Kia has made this product look like a larger car and although it does have very trim dimensions, it doesn’t look stubby or have that unbalanced look of some cars in this class.

The Kia look

Kia’s chief design officer Peter Schreyer describes the car as “sporty and elegant” and few could argue with that. Schreyer was persuaded to leave his job as chief designer at Audi and switch to Kia. He was also design boss at Volkswagen and is highly regarded in auto design circles. He has been responsible for improving Kia’s design language and his work has paid off, contributing enormously to the current success of this automaker. Kias now have a definite “look” about them, while a few years back its automobile designs were very discordant and rather dreary, with no overall theme. The Rio comes in both five-door hatchback and four-door sedan versions and both look very appealing, though the hatch is a little more practical.

Fuel prices and economic issues have given the Canadian subcompact market a serious boost. A few years ago, the pickings were thin, but right now there are lots of choices out there and probably a few more on the way. Thus the Rio battles with lots of opposition, including the Chevrolet Sonic and Spark, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Mazda2, Nissan Versa, Scion iQ, Toyota Yaris plus a few more if you add (usually more expensive) EVs and hybrids to the mix.

Even though the Rio is fairly tiny, Kia says that this generation is “longer, lower and wider,” which sounds like one of those domestic automobile ads from the 1950s and 60s. Let’s just say that it’s still commendably trim and very easy to park and maneuver in tight spaces.

The Rio is offered in five trim levels: LX, LX+, LX ECO, EX and EX Luxury. In the usual way, equipment level and convenience add-ons multiply when you move up the range from the entry-level LX, which is probably just a “price leader” that few buyers will order unless they really want a ‘stripper’. All versions have the same engine, a 1.6-litre four-cylinder of advanced design, developing 138-horsepower, which is high for this class.

When pushed, the Rio is very quick off the mark.

Quiet and smooth

Despite the unusually generous number of horses under the hood, the car has impressive fuel economy, partly aided by a system that shuts off the engine at a stop light or in a traffic holdup. We’ve never quite got used to engines that shut off like this and there’s always a moment of panic before you remember what’s happening. Of course, the Rio starts up unfailingly when you’re ready to go and release the brake pedal. According to Kia, no other subcompact offers this feature. Rio buyers can opt for either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic.

The 1.6-litre engine is surprisingly quiet and smooth for a car in this class and whatever the engineers at Kia did to achieve this certainly worked. Power units in this segment are always expected to be a little noisy and unrefined, so the one in the Rio was an unexpected blessing. Possibly Kia included more than the usual amount of sound-deadening material around the engine compartment and it certainly gets the job done, though engine design must be part of the story. The car feels more like something from a class above and, as a bonus, it’s very quick off the mark when it’s pushed. Even at full throttle, there isn’t the usual amount of noise.

The basic LX model may be a little “plain Jane” but there are some surprises on the spec sheet—including power windows, a height-adjustable driver’s seat and even a rear spoiler which is said to aid aerodynamics (and thus fuel economy). Rear seats split 60/40 right through the range and the front seats are comfortable and reasonably grippy.

Go to the top of the range and there are even leather seats, a heated steering wheel and a touch-screen navigation system, transforming the Rio into something of a mini-luxury car. The instrument panel is simple and straightforward, as well as being good to look at. The interior ambiance of this Kia is as good as anything in the subcompact class and better than most. Throughout the range, the detailing and fit is tough to find fault with, underlining that the “learning curve” for this relatively new automaker has been steep indeed.

The Rio has a touch-screen nav system

Even models in this class boast impressive rosters of safety equipment and the Rio doesn’t disappoint. Apart from ruggedly engineered “safety cage” bodywork with built-in rollover protection, the car has six air bags and pre-tensioners for the seatbelts. Despite the Rio’s status as an economy model in the automotive scheme of things, there are four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and the bonus of electronic stability control even on the humble LX.

The car is great fun to drive and as mentioned, refined for its class. Like all cars with a very short wheelbase, the Rio will pitch a little on poor road surfaces, but it’s not too bad. In fact, the basic design does lean towards the “wheel at each corner” philosophy so the overall ride experience is very creditable.

The Rio is a fine example of how good subcompact cars have become in recent years, spurred by increasing demand. As a fleet vehicle, this little car should be on every shopping list if only for its unexpected refinement, thrifty fuel consumption and good looks.                 b2b