New & Used Kia Rio: In Depth
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The subcompact Kia Rio, the Korean brand's least expensive and smallest model, can be found as both a five-door hatchback and a four-door sedan. Despite its modest price, the latest generation launched in 2012 significantly boosted the Rio's refinement, style, and available features and options. While the earliest Rios were firmly anchored in the most basic economy-car set, the current model is a worthy competitor in the sportier, more stylish end of the segment.
It's likely to be compared to the Chevrolet Sonic and Ford Fiesta, though the fun-to-drive but far more basic Mazda 2 can also be round there. The Hyundai Accent, which shares some underpinnings with the Rio, is also a competitor--as is the all-new 2015 Honda Fit, which remains one of the best subcompacts and now offers far higher fuel efficiency.
The 2012 model was the third generation of Kia Rio. While its price was considerably higher than the 2011 car it replaced, the latest Kia Rio is not only sportier and more stylish inside and out, but also much more engaging to drive. Crisp details, lots of body sculpting, and a European-inspired interior bring the nicely proportioned Rio—especially in sedan form—into full competition with rival models.
A smooth 1.6-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder engine makes 138 hp and is paired with six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions, and EPA figures land at 30 mpg city, 40 highway. Its safety ratings have improved, and it offers many more technology features--both standard and optional--than before.
Among other features, the new Rio offers steering-wheel audio controls, standard satellite radio compatibility, and a USB port. The EX models add air conditioning, cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering, power accessories, and Bluetooth. Finally, the top-of-the-line SX models get heated mirrors, fog lamps, LED exterior lighting, and other upgrades. An optional navigation system or UVO connectivity interface can also be specified.
One black mark on the otherwise cheerful Rio's record is that it was one of several vehicles for which Kia (and also Hyundai) were found to have overstated fuel economy numbers. Kia self-certified that the Rio automatic achieved 33 mpg combined (30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway), with the manual higher at 34 mpg combined.
But after complaints from buyers, the EPA tested several vehicles and found that the actual numbers should have been 31 mpg combined (28 mpg city, 36 mpg highway) for the six-speed automatic, or 32 mpg combined (29 mpg city, 37 mpg highway) for the six-speed manual. Perhaps more embarrassing yet, the 2013 Kia Rio Eco model was busted down from 34 mpg to 32 mpg combined, with its magic 40-mpg highway number falling to 36 mpg as well.
Kia will reimburse owners of all the affected cars for the extra gasoline costs reflected by the more accurate lower ratings. (The company attributed it all to test-cycle errors on its part, and apologized profusely and repeatedly.) Owners can register with Kia to receive reimbursement for the gas consumed above and beyond expected levels; more details are found at KiaMPGInfo.com.
Kia made no notable changes to the Rio for 2013, although a long-delayed engine start-stop option finally arrived, priced at $400. The system smartly shuts off the engine at stoplights to save fuel, restarting it as soon as the driver starts to lift off the brake pedal. The impact is about 1 mile per gallon more for the Rio's city fuel economy rating, though we're not convinced the option will find many takers.
Earlier Rio models
In 2007, the second-generation Rio shared its running gear and underpinnings with the Hyundai Accent (Hyundai owns Kia, though the two brands operate fairly separately in the U.S. market). The revised Rio had had one of the better interiors in its class—even though it wasn't that exciting in design—as well as much better ride quality. It caught up with competitors on several levels and remained one of the better-equipped subcompacts in the class for several years. A smooth new 110-hp, 1.6-liter four gave it more gusto, while transmissions remained a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Unfortunately, despite its standard side airbags (hardly ubiquitous at the time), its crash-test ratings were some of the lowest in the class. A Rio5 five-door hatchback model was introduced for 2008, although only in the somewhat more expensive LX trim.
Way back in 2001, the first-generation Rio became the third Kia model to be offered in the U.S. after the Sportage small crossover and the Sephia sedan (later succeeded by the Spectra, and most recently the Forte). That first Rio used a 96-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine (upgraded to 104 hp for 2003), along with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. At a price below $9,000, we found it well-built but coarse and unrefined, with substandard interior materials. In 2002, a Rio Cinco five-door hatchback (or, arguably, a wagon) joined the lineup, offering low-priced cargo volume and versatility.