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Auto review: Kia Rio has come a long way

Published: Friday, June 22, 2012

Updated: Friday, June 22, 2012 11:06


If you think buying a hybrid will go a long way toward minimizing trips to the fueling station, I would offer up the redesigned Kia Rio as an alternative.

Go ahead, snicker or grimace. I understand.

After all, these six letters, K-I-A R-I-O, was once the automotive equivalent of a wearing a flour sack, an acronym for the bottom 10 percent. Kia served this segment of the market with a low price, but not much else. The first Rio I drove, about 14 years ago, was so miserable that I advised buyers to consider a used car instead.

But 14 years is an eternity in the car business. Today, Kia is no longer an independent company; it's an affiliate of Hyundai.

Kia shares its mechanical bits, but not styling studios, with its corporate sibling, and that's where Kia has become a fascinating proposition. You see, new Kias, such as the Rio, were sculpted under the supervision of design chieftain Peter Schreyer, who was lured away from Volkswagen about five years ago.

So, like finalists on American Idol, today's Kias are almost unrecognizable from their humble roots. OK, so most people consider Rios blue-light specials. But tell me: Outside of Target, when did inexpensive merchandise ever look so good?

There are little bits of intelligent design everywhere on this car. Check out the distinctive Kia grille. Now, walk around to the back of the car and check out the shape that frames the license plate and rear marker lights; it mirrors the grille shape up front. Cast your gaze on the car's side sculpting and its sloping beltline: it imparts a sense of motion.

Inside, the instrument panel has the sort of shape seen on other new Kias, and first used by designer Schreyer on various Audi models. Check out the climate controls: three simple knobs accented with chrome rings. Underneath them are four simple toggle switches _ an unexpected touch that hasn't been seen in some time. It's a small touch, perhaps. But it's a sign of the in-depth thought given to the notion that good design costs no more than bad.

Seriously, if the 2012 Kia Rio sported a tonier badge, it would be more popular than fried chicken at a picnic.

The cabin feels conspicuously roomier than its subcompact competitors. Room for four? No prob. Five? It's doable if they share DNA. Legroom and headroom are much better than expected. The seats are flat, but offer decent support.

By now, you understand that Kia has learned from Hyundai that offering more space and style at a low price attracts buyers, on a budget or otherwise.

Kia carries this thought one step further by offering the sort of toys once reserved for the top one percent: rear back-up camera, Bluetooth, GPS navigation and steering-wheel controls for audio and cruise control. Then there are the niceties everyone can appreciate: tilt/telescopic steering wheel, push-button start, heated front seats, anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, stability control and hill assist control.

Of course, how much of this your Rio has depends on trim level. The base LX doesn't get all of these features, but you may be surprised at what it does have: AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sirius satellite radio audio system, USB jacks, Steering wheel-mounted audio buttons, air conditioning, tilt wheel and six-way adjustable driver's seat.

Opting for the mid-level LX or sporty SX merely nets more gear.

The test car, a fully loaded SX, didn't feel as expensive as its sticker suggested, but lacked nothing in the way of comfort or convenience items. While it's doubtful that anyone would order a Rio this way, it's nice to know it's offered.

All models share the same engine: a 1.6-liter unit mated to a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. It produces 138 horsepower through the front wheels.

The Rio has plenty of punch for the daily drag race to work and school, although you have to have a heavy foot to tap it; this car is geared for fuel economy. Thoughtfully, the automatic can be shifted manually, a welcome relief.

Better yet, it responds more quickly than most automatics.

The car's ride is very firm, as you might expect, but it's never punishing. Cornering behavior is good, with just a hint of body roll. Stopping ability was impressive.

Cabin noise is average, with road and tire noise present, but not objectionable.

While not as much fun as the best in class, the Rio still proves to be a lively drive, with few vices of any kind.

And that, perhaps, is the Rio's biggest surprise.

This car was once a laughingstock, but now, there's little to chuckle about and much to consider.

From its world-class design and roomy interior to its peppy, frugal engine and long option list, the 2012 Kia Rio lives up to the ad slogan once used for Virginia Slims cigarettes: You've come a long way, baby.


2012 KIA RIO:

• Engine: 1.6-liter four cylinder

• Wheelbase: 101.2 inches

• Length: 171.9 inches

• Weight: 2,483 pounds

• Cargo space: 13.7 cubic feet

• EPA rating (city/highway): 30/40 mpg

• Fuel consumption: 33.6 mpg

• Fuel type: Regular

• Base price, base model: $13,600

• Base price, test model: $16,500

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