I’m now thoroughly convinced that there are no “bad” small cars anymore. Case in point is the 2012 Kia Rio. As recently as a few years ago, choosing the entry-level cars from one of the Korean brands meant getting by with a barely sufficient set of wheels.
But as the bar keeps getting raised in the compact and subcompact segments, the little buggers just keep getting better as a result. If you look back twenty years ago, even small cars from top brands often left a lot to be desired.
The Rio is all new for 2012, and once again is available as a 5-door hatchback, one of my favorite body styles due the overall versatility. There is a Rio sedan, but it’s neither as stylish nor as convenient as the hatch.
While the exterior design is pretty good (initially conceived at Kia’s studio right here in Southern California), it’s what lies beneath the surface that elevates the Rio to top-tier status in the affordable car segment. Notably the engine, with its fuel-sipping abilities, and the interior, which never makes you feel as though you bought a “cheap” car.
Under the hood you’ll find Kia’s 1.6 liter GDI engine, the addendum being an acronym for gasoline direct injection. This little trick is finding widespread use from many car makers as a way to maximize the efficiency of fuel delivery to the engine for a few extra miles per gallon. In the case of the 2012 Rio, the official numbers are 30 city and 40 highway, with either the 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.
Though it makes just 138 horsepower, the little hatchback has plenty of get-up-and-go for normal driving. The engine is smooth and quiet, two attributes that formerly only came from the likes of Honda and Toyota. Further technology lets the engine shut off during certain conditions (like at stop lights) for a bit of extra fuel savings.
Moving to the interior, a nice rich combination of shapes and textures greet the driver and passengers. I tested a top-of-the-line SX model, which includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Small things, yes, but touches that help elevate this car to a level just above common compact car fare.
And then there’s the cargo hold provided by the hatch. Even with the rear seat up, there’s an impressive amount of luggage space. Fold down the seats and you’ve got room to carry a whole lot of stuff. Passenger comfort and room are also first rate, with ample headroom for taller drivers.
Kia also managed to make a hatchback car pretty handsome, which isn’t always easy to do. The proportions and body lines are just right, and at first glance you might not necessarily realize you’re looking at a hatchback. (That also may be more to the point of all cars these days seemingly having “humped” rear sections, even if they have a conventional trunk.)
You can get a base 2012 Rio LX for $13,600, or $14,700 if you want the automatic transmission. For that price you get a fair number of amenities, including side curtain airbags and electronic stability control. Stepping up to the EX grade means the automatic is standard, and you get remote locking and an extra splash of chrome at the front for $16,500. For the most loaded and handsome Rio, choose the SX trim, which starts at $17,700 and includes things like a color back-up camera and gorgeous 17” aluminum wheels.
There was a time when you’d buy an entry-level car and might have felt as though you were “roughing it” a bit. There was also a time when if you chose a Kia as your new car, you were sacrificing style and quality in order to save a few bucks. As this 2012 Rio showed me, neither of those things are true anymore.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz