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2012 Kia Rio 5-Door – Can an Entry Level Kia become Desirable?

Jim Brennan October 19, 2011 First Impressions, Kia Reviews, Reviews 31 Comments

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.

  • tonyola

    Looks like a pretty nice car for those who value economy and good transportation over sportiness. The one big elephant in the room is the crushing depreciation resulting from the brand's less-than-stellar rep. While that hurts its value as a new-car purchase, it'll be a hell of a bargain for those who wait two years before scooping a 2012 example.

    • facelvega

      I've been wondering about depreciation in the last couple of days, as a friend asked me to recommend a car basically fitting this segment's description for about ten grand. Some quick internet searches revealed to me that that money doesn't get you much car right now–you have to swallow some age and high miles- and fuel-sipper compacts are worth almost the same as their originally much-pricier siblings. Generally, I'm always in a wait-two-years camp (or twenty years), but at least this year it wouldn't have helped. Maybe in two more years, though, all these 40mpg cars that are still bakery-fresh will be common and worthless.

    • omg_grip

      I dont think that Hyundai or Kia really suffer from crushing depreciation so much these days, especially with their newer models. In our experience new car shopping over the past few weeks….they cant seem to keep new Kia Soul's on the lot for more than a few days, and the 1 certified preowned one we saw (a 2010, mid range plus model, 30k miles) was still listed on the lot at $17k+. Thats about the same price as a new one, and it doesnt have the new GDI motor or 6 speed trans. It was still sold later that day.

      Now I am not sure if this is just one dealership or all of Kia, but I was told by a sales rep they still offer the 100k powertrain warranty on CPO vehicles, (so that aforementioned 2010 gets warranty coverage till 130k), the roadside assistance plan for CPO is a few years longer than on a new Kia, and a few other perks that make it a better warranty than if you were to buy new. I have heard of other manufacturers/dealerships doing this, the local Honda dealership also had a better CPO warranty than new.

      Shit. I just made your case for waiting to buy a lightly used Kia. You win.

  • Paul_y

    It warms my heart that it's no longer embarrassing to own a Kia/Hyundai. The current Kia lineup in particular is good looking. If you told me five years ago that I'd have written those sentences, I'd have told you to shut the fuck up.

    This is a great-looking car, and it seems like it actually makes a case against buying used at that price point. 138hp and high-30s mileage are just icing on the cake (I can hypermile my 2400lb, 100hp 2004 xB to that, on a good day, to put it in perspective).

  • MrHowser

    I'd have to get a little real-world experience with it for anything other than looks/price opinions, but $13,600 for a good-looking, 138-hp 5-door with a 6-speed stick, A/C, CD with aux-in, and 4-wheel-discs? That right there is a contender.

    However, $16,450 is what it would cost to get you an auto LX with PW/PDL/Keyless Entry, which I suspect will be the bread-and-butter for Kia. That's pretty close to last-year's-closeout money on a Corolla, the traditional vehicle of the A-to-B crowd. Will a quality interior and a little extra pep be enough to boost the sales of this little Korean? I hope so.

  • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

    "Can an Entry Level Kia become Desirable?"

    Depends on the circumstances…

    If I'm being chased by zombies, and this is the only vehicle around, then yes it can be desirable.

    OTOH, several months ago, I took $13K and purchased an '05 Cadillac STS with the N*, 320 HP, and the 1SF package.

    I'm happier doing this, honestly.

    • facelvega

      Generally I agree with you, but you should factor in the cost of replacing that northstar when it inevitably dies an oil-spewing, broken-bolt death. Great until then, though. Even my mechanic, one of the best in Brooklyn, just started driving a pristine ETC with the idea he will junk the car when the engine goes as it isn't worth it to do the labor to fix it.

  • I like how it vaguely resembles a Golf.

    It seems like a great value, but I agree with Tonyola about depreciation. Wait 2 years, and it will be an even better value.

    • I see what you mean …slap a VW logo on there and it becomes a Polo which is not necessarily a bad thing

      I have never really cared for anything out of Korea but I have to admit they have been kicking ass lately
      Not just in autodom either but in many other things. I was talking with my dad the other day at our sushi bar and we realized that
      in many ways Korea has surpassed our country of Japan in imports. Samsung has become the leader in LCD technology over Sharp, and you see alot more Kia/Hyundais on the streets…They have the hunger for the market more than Japan as of late in my opinion and a little kick in the ass from our neighbors may spark some more "can do" and excitement from Japan.

      For the record the Veloster is the first Korean import I have considered for my next commuter car
      If only it had 4 doors instead of 3

      • Someone that works in the same strip-mall complex as my gym has a black Veloster. It is pretty damn trick. It does have 4 doors… If you count the hatch.

        It seems that Korea has been able to do what Japan did with the Germans in the 90's. It is an impressive feat.

    • Syrax

      I was about to say the rear reminded me of a Seat Leon. Maybe we can expand that assessment to VAG.

  • Devin

    I think, if I was getting a Korean subcompact*, I'd have to take the Accent, even if I prefer the Rio's interior. Why? Manual transmission on every trim level.

    *And I might, I love this class for a daily driver.

    • facelvega

      Out of curiosity, which options would be the dealbreaker on the base trim for you?

      • MrHowser

        With short arms, I love me some power windows/locks/keyless. Do I need them? No. Could I live without them? Probably. Would I pay $1000 for the package if Kia offered it with the stick? I'd have to sit in it, and see how hard the reach would be. I've got short arms.

      • Devin

        Cruise is necessary for my main car, I do too many long, dull, straight line drives to live without it – yay, Saskatchewan.

        From Kia's handy dandy option list on their site, cruise isn't an option on the bottom end.

        • facelvega

          I was thinking the same thing about the cruise.

          • Devin

            One thing that is encouraging for me is Kia Canada does seem more open to a good manual. From poking around both sites, the American Forte 5 is auto only, but the Canadian one is able to be purchased with a manual.

  • Van Sarockin

    Nice writeup. However, you want to use 'marquee' instead of 'marquis' – unless you really wanted to compare the Kia's headline features to an outdated European nobleman.

    • or an outdated FoMoCo product either way I agree with you

      • or the poor sap who fronted for my favorite twentieth century free verse poet cockroach

    • UDman

      Fixed…. at least you read the article…

      • Van Sarockin

        You're making me reconsider Kia, based on this article. An older one I rented for half a day in Ireland was the single worst vehicle I've ever sat in.

        Now, how about some details of the junket and Kia's approach to media events? I think our industry insight could shed some interesting light on all this. Plus, I've heard so many good things about Austin and the Hill Country.

  • James

    I really like it. I actually kinda liked the last Rio too. Being a minimalist, I really liked the basemodel Rio with no radio and no AC, windup windows, naked steel wheels. and dressed in the most appropriate Frigidaire white. I just wished they'd make a Rio5 with the same formula…

    When the previous generation Civic came out, I was sad that Honda was doing away with the hatchback model in the US. The Fit is nice, but it's just not the same as a Civic (although it is very much like a 1990 Civic Wagon).

    Then the current Kia Forte came out which looks to my eyes very much like a Civic. I laughed at it for just being a Civic ripoff… And then they came out with a 5 door and blew my mind. This is what Honda should be selling here. Kia can do it. Why won't Honda? Probably because it would make the Fit obsolete and Honda needs the Fit to pad it's CAFE.

    Anyway. Now seeing this new Rio5, I'm beginning to think that the Japanese are making the same mistakes that the big three made in the 1970s. Seeing a wave of cheaper imports steeling their thunder. Yet not taking steps to keep up. Poopooing their "lesser" rivals when they should be stepping up their game to compete.

    6 speed only with the basemodel you say? Does it come with windup windows and a storage slot where the radio would be? I might be in love…

  • jarque

    Is there are rule on the internet that requires that when you pose a question in the title of the post the answer must be no? In the best of situations the Rio might be considered a good compromise. Desire precludes compromise.

  • FuzzyPlushroom

    I'm surprised at how much I like its appearance. I see the Polo/Golf resemblance, but it also reminds me somewhat of an Opel/Vauxhall from the front and a Ford product from the rear – overall a nice European-style pastiche.

    I'd just get a stick-shift LX, buy some tasteful aftermarket wheels, and use the steel wheels for snow tires.

  • Mike

    One thing not mentioned is the design was penned by Peter Schreyer (formerly of the VW/Audi Group). That is why it looks so much like a last gen golf/polo from the rear. You’re welcome. 😛

  • mnm4ever

    This finally explains the logic of thier bone-headed decision to not offer a stick!! Thier last car was a price-leader penalty box that was only purchased by the intensely cheap or supremely credit challenged. Those people only drive a stick when they cant possible afford an auto. So of course the last generation didnt sell any stick shifts, people who like to drive wouldnt have been caught dead in one!

    Now Kia finally offers an otherwise nice car that looks awesome and has some sportiness to it, decent power, etc. Car enthusiasts will love it, it has the right stuff at the right price. But by not offering a stick shift they will lose the enthusiast market!! This car is so much nicer looking than the Hyundai, the engineering is already done, they have the stick, they just need to offer it, at least on the top-line SX model. And while they are at it, how dumb is it to not even let the guy buying the base model stick not get power windows or locks either??? Its like they are trying purposely to doom the stick shift sales!!

  • craigsu

    OK, I'll bite. What makes it a tiger nose grill?

    • Van Sarockin

      To fully understand, first you have to get reallly close to the tiger.

  • Devin

    If you want a Canadian Rio you might be interested to know that manual transmissions are available on all but the highest trim level. That highest trim level has some ridiculous equipment – a heated steering wheel! Oh how I want a heated steering wheel on -30 days – but not so ridiculous I'd be tempted away from a manual.

    So Canada is better, in other words.