The Kia Rio's performance envelope doesn't stretch too far in the direction its Euro-themed shapes might suggest, but it's no longer a sluggish or listless performer. Its small-displacement four-cylinder's eager to rev, gets excellent fuel economy, and its handling makes the most substantial improvements of all.
The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that powers the Rio is also found in the similar Hyundai Accent, and here too, it's rated at 138 horsepower. With direct fuel injection, it's happy to rev smoothly around its powerband--and it's important to be nice when it takes almost 10 seconds to accelerate the Rio to 60 mph, no matter whether the front-driver's equipped with the six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Throughout its rev range, the engine's mostly muted and doesn't have much vibration associated with high engine speeds, though there's some ticking generated by the direct injection that could use a damper of its own.
Kia says only a handful of buyers opt for the manual transmission, which we've spent only very limited time with. The automatic transmission in four different Rios we've driven has been the same--it has no performance shift modes or paddle controls, just well-spaced gears and smooth, quick shifts to make the most of the available torque and to help turn in excellent fuel economy.
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 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.