Rio exemplifies bang for the buck
Among many other things, the 2012 Kia Rio is a bit of rolling proof that owning a small car doesn't have to be a great big buzz-kill.
Small cars are big business in Canada, and shoppers are more educated and passionate than ever. Owning a fuel-efficient compact no longer means settling for a four-wheeled appliance that surrounds occupants with nasty grey plastic. Drivers want small cars they can show off - even if they're practical and don't have enough horsepower to vaporize a set of tires.
Kia's designers and product planners are aware of this.
First impressions? There are more aggressive and meaner looking rides in the price range, but the tested 2012 Kia Rio Sedan checked all the right boxes as a slightly sporty and upscale looking little machine. It's got big wheels, LED headlight accents, dual exhaust outlets and fog lamps, all adding a bit of flair.
It's inside where potential shoppers are likely to fall in love. Breaking from the norm with cheap vehicles, the tester featured such things as contrasting colours, different textures and soft-touch surfaces.
There's also contrasting stitching on the heated leather seats, sport pedals, and a modern, depthy and three-dimensional look. Rio is cheap but well-dressed with a cabin that hits above its weight and could teach many an affordable car a lesson.
Drivers also get adult-friendly rear seats that fold as needed, proper cupholders, and an above-average level of at-hand storage for their wallet, change, cell phone and Tic Tacs. Also fitted were plugs to connect and recharge multimedia goodies or phones, and steering-wheel-mounted controls to work them.
There's room enough for four adults on a road trip, and a deep, large trunk rounds out the package.
Loaded for less than $22,000
The loaded tester also got a full driver computer with fuel economy readouts, automatic lights, automatic climate control and keyless, push-button start.
A backup camera helps prevent running stuff over, satellite navigation keeps things on course, and Bluetooth streaming audio and a heated steering wheel dial up convenience and comfort.
The last car I drove with the latter few features together was an Audi that cost as much as my house. But opt for the fully loaded Rio SX at about $21,700 including the navigation package, and these advanced features are all tossed in.
And the good stuff isn't all in the cabin, either. Rio's 1.6L four-cylinder engine uses Gasoline Direct Injection technology for maximum energy extraction from every molecule of fuel it burns. Automakers around the world have been using this technology for a while, but Kia's one of the first to make it available on the cheap.
There's even a driver selectable 'Active Eco' system that numbs the throttle and lowers the transmission shift points to help save fuel at the expense of a little responsiveness.
Jam on it, and performance is modest but adequate. The Rio's new powerplant reserves plenty of pull for higher revs where the engine can sound harsh and strained, but overall performance is decent.
My 3,500-km test included lots of zippy highway driving and pegged observed mileage at 7.4L/100km. That's respectable in the hands of my lead foot.
This won't shock anyone, but Rio isn't a machine engineered to set the driving enthusiast's soul on fire. It drives as well as it needs to, but dynamics aren't the priority. The 6-speed automatic is gentle and shifts cleanly, the brakes bite well, and steering is light and slightly sporty, albeit a little vague thanks to the electric assist.
Wind and road noise were kept down fairly well, adding to an upscale driving experience. The suspension is softly sporty, not too mushy and not too harsh. The tester's big wheels didn't do the ride quality any favours on rougher surfaces, though.
A value leader
Functionality, value and upscale styling are likely the biggest draws here. The Rio boasts one of the best cabins in its price range, blended with one of the most comprehensive features lists in its price range. And it's got more fuel-saving technology under the hood than virtually anything on this side of 30 grand.
I'm cheap. I wear clothes two days in a row, shop at Wal-Mart and use a ruler to squeeze every drop of toothpaste out of the tube. My favorite restaurant has a $1.99 menu.
So, that makes me value-conscious, I think. And that's probably why I related so well to the little Rio.
I guessed the price of my assigned tester a few thousand more than it actually was. And I'm usually pretty good at guessing a car's price. All said, when it comes to getting a lot for not that much, Rio makes a lot of sense.
Check it out alongside the Ford Fiesta, the Chevrolet Sonic and the Nissan Versa Sedan.
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