Americans have never embraced small cars. We equate them to penalty boxes- small, spartan, and uncomfortable. Small cars work in Europe and Asia. They have astronomical fuel prices, narrow roads and cities with high density. Our gas costs less than bottled water, we drive on freeways, and suburban homes have lawns as large as parks.

However, with the economy and gas prices so fickle these days, consumers are downsizing to less expensive fuel-efficient subcompacts. Two things make that easier to do. Fierce competition has improved quality and manufacturers are adding appealing luxury touches.

The 2012 Kia Rio is a perfect example. It s come a long way from the outgoing model. It can be ordered up with heated leather seats and keyless ignition plus it benefits from Kia s design renaissance. Remember, three years ago this brand s cars were as bland as dry toast on a paper plate. Then Peter Schreyer and Co. dropped the edgy Soul. After that, every vehicle they ve launched has visual punch. Optima and Sportage can be confused with cars costing twice the price.

I am attending the press launch outside of Austin, Texas. While I did not spend my usual week in this car, a full day gives a pretty good idea of what it s like.

Conceived in Cali

The only thing that remains from the old model is the name and even then the font style is changed. Rio gets its family resemblance from Kia s California design studio where it was given clean and simple lines with a hunkered down attitude. It s especially sharp in SX trim with low profile tires. I am driving an EX model.

This car is based on the same architecture as the Hyundai Accent but the two look nothing alike inside or out. The upscale appearance is important because Kia feels that the subcompact market will double by 2015. The age-old thinking is getting a customer into an appealing car makes them brand loyal for life. This plan worked well for Honda and Toyota.


Power comes from a 1.6-liter direct-injected 4-cylinder making 138 horsepower @ 6,300 RPM and 123 lb-ft of torque @ 4,850 RPM. Both manual and automatic transmissions have six gears I m driving an automatic that offers manual shift mode on the console. What? You were expecting paddle shifters? For max fuel economy the automatic s transmission shift points can be changed by pushing the Active Eco button.

Power is decent, 0-60 takes around 8.5 seconds (Prius does 9.5). Fuel economy is good too with an EPA rating of 30 city, 40 highway. The event held a contest on who could get the best mileage throughout the day, the winning number was 42 MPG. It certainly wasn t me.

Road Trip!

Rio addresses most American s preconceptions about small cars. It would be okay on a day-long road trip. Kia could have sent us puttering around housing developments and shopping centers since Rio is an excellent urban runabout. Instead they sent us out for hours of highway and country road cruising, conditions that subcompacts don t always excel at. It s stable at very high speeds, relatively quiet and has a solid on-center feel. My driving partner Ryan Douthwit and I didn t have to raise our voices to hear each other so at the end of the day our vocal chords and bodies weren t beat up by the end of the day.

Rio isn t a sports car but the cornering and response is crisp in it s class. Not a lot of road feel though, which is very common with electric power steering. Disc brakes all around have good modulation. Of course electronic stability control is standard on all cars these days. Uncle Sam demands it.

Stop! In the Name Of Fuel Economy

Available early after the launch is an optional system called Idle Stop and Go. Basically, it shuts the engine down when you re completely stopped at an intersection, then automatically restarts when your foot lifts off the brake. To avoid being annoying in parking lots and traffic jams, the system won t activate when crawling around under 5 miles an hour.

Kia outfits an ISG equipped car with a much beefier starter and battery. They say the EPA fuel economy rating will not change but insist they see a seven percent increase in real world fuel economy.

What You See The Most Of

We all seem to be drawn to what a car s sheetmetal looks like but the interior is what a buyer stares at day in and day out. Inside the Rio, shapes are pleasant, materials look good, and with a rubberized coating on the door pulls, feel good too. Apparently, tabs that operate the heat and AC are inspired by an aircraft cockpit. There are touches of faux aluminum and piano black in the instrument panel.

The cloth seats in my EX tester look good and support nicely. There are details such as a sliding middle armrest and covered console storage that often get left off in budget cars.

For those claiming they would pay extra for an interior upgrade, Kia calls your bluff. My EX car has the Convenience Package which adds more than a wrapped steering wheel, back up camera and Uvo voice control. The instrument panel gets a soft touch material, side mirrors get power folding operation and LED signal lights. The wheels change to alloys too. All this and more is a bargain at 1,000 bucks.

Allow Me To Get Picky

The gauge needles (that sweep upon start up) are a bit overdone, looking like the nose of a Star Wars X-Wing fighter. The small LCD display for the odometer and trip computer is hard to read in bright sunlight. Audiophiles will need to hit the aftermarket to improve the sound system, the standard system is quite, well, standard. That s about it though, in all other aspects Rio is an over achiever.

Trading in a Cadillac? Probably not on this car but if you were, Rio offers upscale features like heated leather seats, navigation and keyless ignition as options to make the switch easier. The EX gets standard Bluetooth and iPod integration.

The back seat has belts for three, but really, room for two full sized adults. Legroom is fine as long as you re not an NBA star (talking to you Kia spokesman Blake Griffin). Put your Coke in the door mounted holders (don t slam the doors though) and small stuff in the dual seatback pockets. It s rare to find a power port, or folding armrest in budget cars and that doesn t change here. Rio doesn t have a head restraint for the center passenger either.

Hatchback Versatility

With the back seats usable I ll guestimate the cargo hold can swallow 5 bundles of TP (remember, I m in Texas so I m far away from my bath tissue supply). Drop the 60/40 split seatbacks and it would be easy to throw a bike in back. There are a couple small cubbies to stash things and storage under the floor where a spare tire would normally be, but isn t. Spare tires are becoming a thing of the past.

There s a sedan version of Rio that should be in showrooms by January 2012. These days Kia s biggest problem is making enough cars. Apparently their design led transformation is working, they ve doubled their market share in the US in just three years.

Kia offers up a pretty solid warrantee, 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain, 5 years or 50,000 miles basic coverage and 5 years of roadside assistance (hmmm, maybe you don t need that spare tire after all). Kelly Blue Book recently announced Kia is #1 in cost of ownership besting Hyundai and Honda in the non-luxury category.

The EX model I m driving represents the sweet spot of the line up. As tested it s $18,345. Rio LX starts at $14,350 with a manual transmission. If you re shopping Accent, Fiesta, Mazda2, Sonic, Yaris or Versa it would be a wise idea to check Rio out. 20K may not be a huge amount of money for a car, but it represents a significant chunk of change to the Rio s target market. Spend a few extra hours of test drive time to find the vehicle that s right for you.

For people who haven t shopped the segment in a decade, the subcompact segment is a different world that now allows buyers to order up fancy touches, meaning the ownership experience isn t a blah one. Offering up economy, comfort and the expressive design that Kia s becoming known for, small car shoppers should head to Rio for a test.

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