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We've seen it before, with the Optima, the Sorento, the Forte and Soul. Now it's the 2012 Kia Rio's turn, and it's another major upgrade into the big leagues. The Rio is as good as the last Honda Civic we truly enjoyed driving--the pre-2006 version--and joins the Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent as one of the new benchmarks in the subcompact class, with looks, features and efficiency as its most convincing bullet points.
European designers draw European-looking cars, and that's true with the Rio, more so in the five-door hatchback than the four-door sedan. The bland bubbly shapes of the past have dissolved into a wedgy look with lots of body sculpting behind the front wheels, Kia's new signature grille in front (chromed on sedans, blacked-out on hatchbacks) with large trailing headlights and a rounded rear end. The five-door is pert and clean and interesting for the first time in the nameplate's history. And while it's tough to draw sedans on this scale, but the Rio succeeds better than just about any of its competitors. It's even better inside. The cockpit's nicely finished dash hashes together 1980s econobox chic with airplane-style toggle switches, a medium-to-large LCD screen and a soft-touch panel on most trims for a distinct look with BMW outlines and glory-days Honda finishes.
There's one powertrain in all Rio sedans and hatchbacks for the 2012 model year, and it's a smooth, and pretty powerful, 1.6-liter four with direct injection and 138 horsepower, as much as the Hyundai Accent and the turbocharged Chevy Sonic. It's not as truly quick as the Sonic feels, but the Rio's combination of its four and a six-speed automatic is one of the highlights of the car. The four-cylinder's pretty well muted and the transmission shifts cleanly, without any noticeable driveline shock and with quick response that Ford's PowerShift automatic hasn't matched in our drives. Altogether, the Rio estimated EPA figures of 28/36 mpg with the automatic transmission or 29/37 mpg with the manual.
Ride and handling hardly compare with the old Rio. We're still bigger fans of the Sonic's cheerful scrabble under turbo power, and the Fiesta's electric steering leads in tuning, but the Rio acquits itself better than any small Kia has, and mostly above the mean for such a short-wheelbase car with a basic strut and torsion-beam suspension. On fairly smooth roads in Texas and Nevada, the Rio rides comfortably, with little of the bounding and crashing that truly small cars used to count among their worst traits. The steering loads up on weight quickly, with the usual electric-steering lack of feedback. The feeling of continuity between those two systems is what works best, even with the slight uptick in heft in the more sporty Rio SX.
Kia pitches the Rio squarely in the subcompact class, with 88 cubic feet of interior space. Cars like the Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent put more cubes on paper with their boxy rear ends, and the Nissan Versa is a bit larger. The Rio lines up best alongside the Ford Fiesta, with a 101.2-inch wheelbase, an overall hatchback length of about 160 inches, and a cargo hold measuring 15 cubic feet (13.7 in the sedan, which goes on sale late in 2011). The Rio's front seats have good, long bottom cushions and great, long seat travel, putting a good foot forward for solo drivers or pairs of adults. The back seat is more confined than in the Fit, with no adult-sized knee or head room to spare; its Accent cousin does a better job of providing space for four, and in luggage room too, where the Rio's nicely squared-off cargo hold nonetheless leaves the right kind of space for roll-on bags and Costco boxes.
Safety scores aren't yet available from the IIHS or from the NHTSA. The 2012 Rio has the usual airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control, as well as hill-start assist. A rearview camera is an option, as is Bluetooth.
All Rio five-doors come with a pricetag of $14,350 including a $750 destination charge. That sticker brings standard 15-inch wheels; a manual transmission; a rear spoiler; tilt steering; split-folding rear seats; an AM/FM/CD player with satellite radio and a USB port; and steering-wheel audio controls. The automatic is a $1200 option. The $17,250 Rio EX adds air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering; and Bluetooth. The $18,450 Rio SX adds 17-inch wheels and sport tuning; bigger front brakes; fog lamps; power-folding heated side mirrors; and LED taillamp and headlamp accents. It also gets Kia's version of the Microsoft-powered voice controls sold by Ford as SYNC--only the Kia flavor has fewer available voice commands for phone and audio. Major options include UVO on EX models; a navigation system that replaces the UVO system on SX models; pushbutton start on the SX; and also on the SX, leather seats, a sunroof, and front seat heating. All models have Kia's five-year, 60,000-mile warranty.