The Rio is Kia's entry-level car, but it is hardly plain or Spartan. You can choose either a five-door hatchback or a four-door sedan depending on your needs, and pick the entry LX, midrange EX or top SX level. I recently tested the SX sedan, and I drove the 2012 SX hatchback last year.
My sedan tester, in Signal Red paint, got another upgrade, with the Premium Package, which is available only on the SX. Imagine, in the smallest car in the lineup, leather seats, heated in the front row, power sunroof, push button start with a smart key, and a well-equipped navigation system. It's mind-boggling how much Kia packs into their little car.
I call it little, but driving around in the Rio is anything but confining. The 101.2-inch wheelbase helps make this smallest of Kias a compact, not a subcompact, ride. The trunk holds almost 14 cubic feet, which is plenty for groceries and bass amplifiers. The rear seats have room for real people, too. There isn't any feeling of sacrifice driving it.
The standard and only engine is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder unit that puts out 138 horsepower and 123 lb.-ft. or torque. You can order a manual six-speed in the LX level only. New for 2013, the SX offers paddle shifters on the steering column with its automatic, just like the expensive cars do, for a higher entertainment value. I only used them for a minute or two and they work fine, but it's not the same as driving a true manual. In this case, I think Kia offers the manual only on the LX, to allow them to advertise a car at a lower price point. Most American buyers certainly won't go for it (but I would).
The Rio is the first non-hybrid vehicle outside the luxury segment to offer Idle Stop and Go (ISG) technology. I recently experienced this in a $120,000 BMW, and it's normal for hybrids like the Toyota Prius. The technology automatically turns off the engine at stoplights, restarting instantly when the driver releases the brake pedal. It can be disconcerting if you don't know it's supposed to do that, but it does save gas.
The EPA awards the Rio with automatic transmission economy ratings of 28 City, 36 Highway, and 31 Combined. I averaged around 26 mpg. It was hard to run a long-term fuel economy number since the car resets the gauge with each fill-up; you need to do these often as the tank holds only 11.4 gallons. I was in the gas station every couple of days.
The car moves along fine in traffic, but if you need to accelerate on an incline, you'll hear the automatic downshift, and a lot more sound will emanate from beneath the hood. I was able to keep up with traffic under these conditions but not accelerate significantly. That's one place where the entry level role of the Rio is apparent.
The interior, however, does not give an entry level appearance. The materials are good and fit together well. There is some metallic-looking trim, and in the SX, you get metal pedals - a very sporty-looking feature. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes. In the attractive gauges, including a 140-mph speedometer, the needles do a dramatic sweep across their faces when you start up the car.
The seats are firm and flat, but I got used to them. The seat heaters work well. The only downside was a lack of height adjustment for the right seat passenger. My wife felt like she was sitting too low over there.
The Rio SX with Premium Package surprises. Sitting on a leather chair and placing your hands on a leather wheel and shift knob in this size and level of car truly upgrades the experience. When you throw in Bluetooth, Satellite Radio, power windows, locks and mirrors, and the rest, it may feel a little close, but never cheap.
The Rio is meant for folks who value economy and likely are environmentally sensitive too. They will be happy to know that 85 percent of the Rio's materials are recyclable at the end of its lifespan, and the car features seat foam material that uses 100-percent biodegradable and non-toxic castor oil. That goes hand in hand with the EPA’s SmartWay designation to appeal to green thinkers who can’t afford a hybrid.
Price? The LX with manual transmission starts at just $14,400. The SX begins at $18,500. My test car, with the Premium Package and a couple of other small items, came to $21,340. Considering the comfort, utility, perceived quality and attractive looks, it could be a deal. And don't forget about that 10-year, 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty. Kia’s 17 years of increased annual market share is no fluke.