It was almost eighteen years ago that Kia Motors started selling their own brand here in the United States with the Kia Sephia. From those humble beginnings, a full lineup of cars and trucks were later exported into the States and Canada with mixed results. The Sephia was a logical start that was loosely based on the Mazda Familia, and packaged with all the features of a contemporary Toyota Corolla, with none of the reliability or desirability for that matter. Then the Sportage mini SUV followed with a chassis based on the Mazda Bongo, a model that never quite made its way to North America. During this time period Kia was producing the Ford Festiva (based on a Mazda designed Ford and produced under license), and the Ford Aspire (a joint venture between Ford and Kia using the Festiva underpinnings), which Kia stopped producing in 2000.
So what was Kia to do with what they learned by building the Festiva and the Aspire? Well, these industrious Koreans used the existing chassis structure, the same Mazda designed B5 1.5L engine, the same transmissions, only wrapped in distinctive clothing, and when released it was the least-expensive mass-produced car to be sold in the United States. It was sold on price alone, and came in a 4-door Sedan, and 5-door Wagon versions. They sold well enough to warrant a face-lift during the 2003 model year, with the installation of the Mazda designed B6 1.6L engine, enhanced brakes, and a re-tuned suspension. The second generation Kia Rio was a completely new design that shared the platform and powerplants with the Hyundai Accent which was a cost saving measure now that Kia was under the Hyundai umbrella. There was a 4-door Sedan, but the Wagon morphed into a 5-door Hatchback.
The problem for Kia was the fact that these cars were marketed to the credit challenged car buyer that wanted a new car rather that settling for a used car. Now comes the all new 2012 Kia Rio, which I got a chance to try out in various guises while in Austin Texas. Will the new Rio 5-door follow in the footsteps of the Soul, the Optima, and the Sorrento and help thrust Kia into the realm of desirability?
[Disclosure: Kia offered up the keys to the new Rio (as well as another Kia Model to be named later), but they had to fly me to a resort on the outskirts of Austin so I could grab them. Then they plied me with copious amounts of food and drink, arranged for a tour of the Circuit of The Americas™, and let me loose with a couple of different cars to try in the Texas hill country. Yeehaw!]
The “B” class of sub-compact cars is one of the fastest growing segments here in the States, with more entries showing up everyday. Just this year the Chevrolet Sonic, the updated Nissan Versa, the new Toyota Yaris, and the Hyundai Accent were introduced along with some current competitors like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2, and the Honda Fit, all vying for your hard earned dollar. They are all very good in their own way, and none of them can be compared to the penalty boxes their predecessors once were. Since Kia is on a roll with the rest of its lineup, and the aforementioned B-segment competition, the new Rio has a hefty challenge ahead of it.
Upon first glance, the lines of the Rio 5-door were quite pleasing. Starting with what is becoming a Kia styling hallmark – the Tiger nose grill – the face is then flanked by a set of stretched headlamps that seem to go on forever. Step up to the EX trim, and the grill is framed in chrome accents, while the sportier SX adds fog lamps in the lower fascia, LED-accent lights, and projector headlamps making this car one of the few to offer this feature in this price class.
The side profile shows a nicely sculptured “cove” that breaks up what could have been a pretty bland exterior (minus the face), and it shows off this accent well in all of the colors offered. At the rear, all Rios come standard with a roof spoiler to improve aerodynamics, with styling that is reminiscent of contemporary European Seats. The tail-lamps get upgraded to LED units if the SX trim level is specified. There’s also a cleverly disguised backup camera within the latching mechanism.
Rio shoppers get a choice of three different wheels depending upon the trim level you choose, with the LX receiving the 15″ steel-and-plastic wheel-cover poverty look, while the EX has the option of a nicer looking spoked 15″ aluminum rim. The SX is probably the most disappointing with a 17″ five-spoke alloys and 205/45R17 performance tires, but they seem a tad cheap with only four wheel studs. Otherwise, the overall look is very taut, very sporty, and very up-to-date.
With such an athletic look, the car is surprisingly easy to get into and out of, something I had to do on a number of occasions while taking pictures of the cars in the natural environment of the Austin Metro region (as opposed to the British Austin Metro). The wheelbase has been extended to 101 inches, which gives the cabin a spacious and open feel. I was lucky to have a Rio EX with the new two-tone interior of a light sand and black, which opened up the cabin more. The wheel offered tilt and telescoping movement, multiple buttons to control most features within the car, power windows, keyless entry, cruise control, a drivers seat height control with six-way adjustments, and Bluetooth connectivity with steering wheel voice activation controls.
None of these accouterments would mean anything if the cabin materials were akin to a last generation Chrysler Sebring, and thankfully Kia has learned that painful lesson with soft touch door panels, rich looking seat fabrics, and a well engineered dash panel and center stack. Room is ample for someone built like me (6 Ft, 155 Pounds), but other journalists who were on this trip that were both taller and heavier than I found no problems getting comfortable behind the wheel, or when trying out the back seat. Trunk room is simply spectacular with 15 cubic feet, which is 1.3 up from the soon to be introduced Sedan version.
Saddle up to the SX trim level, and the features list continues to grow. Your feet will rest on metal trimmed pedals, a Supervision™ meter cluster (which incorporates readings such as average fuel mileage, outside temperature, trip odometer readings, and transmission gear selection into the center of the speedometer), a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and the
marquis marquee item with this model, the UVO powered by Microsoft voice-activated infotainment system with rear camera display.
So, how does the UVO system work? Haven’t got a clue… I know many of you are all into the infotainment arena, but when I was driving three different cars, the system was turned off. Yes, that’s a shame, especially since the Rio comes with a standard AM/FM/CD/MP3/Satellite system with SiriusXM™ capability, and the units have an auxiliary and USB audio input jacks. Once connected, any iPod or MP3 player can be controlled via the audio head unit and the steering wheel mounted controls. Which brings me to the reason why I didn’t try out any of these settings… I’m not an early adopter, and I don’t even own an MP3 Player, or even a Smartphone. (Get off my Lawn!)
The Rio is only one of two vehicles within this segment that offer a Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) engine, with the other being its Hyundai Accent sibling. This engine displaces 1.6L, and achieves a class leading 138HP while delivering impressive fuel mileage. In my travels with a mid-level EX, equipped with the new 6-speed automatic, I was able to return almost 39 MPG, and that figure wasn’t achieved on the freeway, but in the back country on two-lane blacktop and more than my fair share of stop and go driving.
Giddy-up was more than adequate, but there were a few nail-biting moments because the driveway to and from the resort dumped onto a two-lane with a 60 MPH speed limit. (Yikes!) The Rio will also be the first non-hybrid or non-luxury vehicle to offer ISG technology later this year. This feature turns off the engine when the vehicle is not in motion, and automatically restarts the engine when the driver releases the brake pedal. I tried this feature on the updated Kia ToBeNamedLaterThisWeek, and it worked flawlessly.
Many of you are not going to like what I am about to tell you next.
The new 6-speed manual will only be available with the base LX version of the Rio. The 6-speed automatic will be the only transmission available in the EX and the top spec SX. Many of the journalist who attended the product launch questioned the representatives of Kia as to why they would not offer a manual in their top spec model, and the answer inevitably came back to sales of the previous generation in which there were very few takers of the manual, and only then in the base car. We were promised that this would be looked into, and could be a running change with the Rio lineup. Most of the cars were Automatics, so I never really got the chance to try the stick.
Transmission quibbles aside, the handling of the car is rather well balanced once you get used to the standard Electric Power Steering. This was the only aspect of this car that was rather annoying, as I never felt entirely connected to the front end. I can only imagine what it will be like in the winter here in New England. However, in town the steering was 1960’s one finger light. Perfect for getting into and out of tight parking spots. The automatic shifted on command, except if you were in “ECO” mode, then downshifts didn’t happen unless you put your boot in it. The ride was compliant yet controlled, similar to a contemporary Volkswagen, which is high praise indeed.
With a brand new engine, two brand new transmissions, a shared chassis, and some interesting features, you would expect that this Rio would cost more than the previous version, but you would be wrong. The base LX with the 6-speed manual has an MSRP of $13,600. Move up to the 6-speed automatic, and the price jumps $1,100. Continue up to the EX, and the price is still a friendly $16,500, while the top spec SX comes in at $17,700. The option levels are fairly affordable as well, with the LX Power Package (only available with the Automatic) priced at $1,000, and featuring power windows, locks, and keyless entry. The EX convenience Package consists of 15″ Alloy Wheels, the UVO Infotainment Package, a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, power folding mirrors with turn signal illumination, front fog lamps, and other sundry items for a mere $1,000, which I think is a good value. Cliimb all the way up to the SX, and you can opt for the Premium Package, which includes Navigation with SiriusXM Traffic (this replaces the UVO System), Push Button Start/Stop with Smart Key, Leather Seat Trim, Heated Front Seats, and a Power Sunroof with tilt, all for $2,200. That gives you a loaded SX with a retail price under $20,000.
Kia doesn’t like hearing about where it came from, because the company has come a long way since the days of uber-cheap rattle cans on wheels. Journalists continue to spill ink on the companies “amazing climb from the automotive basement”. The brass at Kia shakes their head at stories like that, while attempting to wave their hands and point to their current lineup, which is filled with excellent machines at even better prices from top to bottom.
The 2012 Kia Rio is further proof of this ideal, and should serve as the final nail in the coffin of old Kia.