Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kia Rio - Complete Sedan on a Small Scale

Kia has had 17 straight years of annual growth--an amazing record. Coming from nowhere (well, Korea actually), the expanding range of attractive and high-quality vehicles is one of the industry's success stores of the last several years of angst.

The Rio is Kia's entry-level car, but it is hardly plain or spartan. You can choose 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, available only on the SX. Imagine, in the smallest car in the lineup, leather seats--heated in front--, power sunroof, push botton start with a smart key, and a well-equipped navigation system. It's mind-boggling how much Kia packs into the little car.

I call it little, but driving around in it 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 was 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 engine that puts out 138 horsepower. You can order a  manual six-speed in the LX level only. The SX offers paddle shifters on the steering column, just like the expensive cars, for a higher entertainment value. I only used them for a minute and they work fine, but it's not the same as driving a true manual. In this case, the manual is on the LX, I think, to allow Kia to offer a car at a lower price point. Most American buyers won't go for it.

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 cars like the Toyota Prius. The technology turns off the engine at stoplights, restarting automatically when the driver releases the brake. It can be disconcerting if you don't know it's there, but it saves gas.

The EPA gives the Rio with automatic economy ratings of 28 City, 36 Highway, 31 Combined. I averaged around 26 mpg. It was hard to run a long-term number since the car resets the fuel economy gauge with each gas fill-up, and you need to do these often as the tank is pretty small.

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 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. Placing your hands on a leather wheel and shift knob in this size and level of car truly upgrades the experience.

Price? The LX with manual transmission starts at just $14,400. The SX begins at $18,500. My test car, though, with the Premium Package and a couple of other small items, came to $21,340. Is that a lot for Kia's entry-level car? 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.


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