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Now in its second year following an overhaul in engineering and design, the Kia Rio sedan and hatchback return for the new year with very few changes. That's not a bad thing, though: Kia has finally discovered a formula that makes that cars feel and look as well-constructed and almost as point-perfect as the Honda compacts of the early 1980s and 1990s. The Rio is now one of our preferred subcompacts on today's market, beating out other models like the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent, though the Chevy Sonic remains our favorite of them all.The Rio gets there with efficient drivetrains, great features and good packaging, but it's the snappy styling that first makes its case. The five-door hatchback's more winning than the four-door sedan, for sure, but both have sworn off the benign, bubbly shape of the prior car for a sculpted, neatly detailed look that wears Kia's signature grille with economy-car flair. As good as it gets outside, the Rio's interior seems even better: some throwback details recall the best of the 1980s econoboxes, down to the toggle switches for climate controls, but there's also a big LCD screen integrated neatly and soft-touch trim on most versions that rivals the glory days of Japan's best small cars of the past.
A single engine powers all Rio body styles and trims, and it's offered with a choice of transmissions. The front-drive Rio sports a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 138 horsepower and direct injection--identical to the Accent's output with the same engine, and to the output of the turbocharged 1.4-liter Chevy Sonic. The Rio doesn't feel as energetic as the Sonic, but the automatic we've driven has quick enough reflexes to keep the revvy four from bogging down. A stop/start feature, delayed from the 2012 model year, arrives this year and boosts the Rio's EPA city rating to 30 mpg (from 28 otherwise with automatic).
Compared with the former Rio, the new car rides and handles in an entirely different class. We prefer the Chevy Sonic's truly eager handling and the Fiesta's sporty electric steering, but the Rio fares better in its tuning than any small Kia before. For a car with such a short wheelbase, and such a basic strut and twist-beam rear suspension, the Rio damps its ride well, and doesn't bound or crash unless the road surface swells with lots of long, rising bumps or deep pits. The electric steering doesn't have much feedback, but the weight is dialed in at least to mirror the response rate of the suspension--and it's a little stiffer on the slightly more sporty 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, but the NHTSA gives the Rio four stars overall. It 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.
While we've confirmed the 2013 Rio is nearly identical to the 2012 model, pricing hasn't been made final. Last year's Rio five-doors came with a pricetag of about $14,350 including a $750 destination charge, and we expect the new model year won't bring much change. That model 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 Rio EX adds air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering; and Bluetooth.
The 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.