SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Motoring the traffic-clogged I-35 heading north out of San Antonio, I notice that one of the rear wheels of a car in front of me is wobbling significantly. It turns out to be a Texas State Police car and I become even more concerned about letting the officer on board know the condition of his Impala’s wheel. Speeding ahead now, I dodge in and out of traffic to reach him. The car I’m driving handles perfectly as I weave my way forward.
Alongside the officer, I make hand signals and mouth out: "Your rear wheel!" He doesn’t get it. We agree to pull over and after some more maneuvering, we come to a stop on the shoulder. He gets it. And, I feel like a good citizen.
Soon, however, I realize that it will take time, skill and a good throttle response to reenter the flow of back-to-back, high-speed traffic. When the timing is right, I step on the throttle of America’s lowest-priced car and am impressed to find all the power needed is easily there. It’s a real confidence-booster and before long, I’m in the passing lane, heading to the hills – the Texas Hill Country, that is — to put this car through its paces through the slow twisties, over uneven surfaces and on up and downhill grades. But, for me, it’s already received high marks.
At $8595, the new Kia Rio sedan is not only this Korean carmaker’s least expensive car, it’s the cheapest car sold in the United States today, undercutting the hatchback Daewoo Lanos by about ten percent, or $900 (which, in this class of car, is a bunch of cash). Air conditioning, cassette stereo, and the upgrade package (including power steering, tilt wheel, wheel covers and visor vanity mirrors) will take the tab to $10,045, still less than the base price of most of its competitors. Stand-alone options include an automatic transmission, cassette or CD-equipped stereos, a rear spoiler, alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes as well as air conditioning.
2001 Kia Rio
Despite its reasonable price, the Rio is actually a pretty decent car. Exterior design of the four-door-only Rio is expressive without being geeky or cheesy. Its lines are tidy and crisp, with an especially attractive rear end. Clear lens head and tail lamps collude with the body-color bumpers and door handles to keep it from looking like the bargain that it is.
Inside, the height-adjustable front seats, covered in a multi-colored, nylon-ish fabric, have good lateral and thigh support, although they could use a bit more lumbar support.
The dashboard has a clean, logical layout, and as with the exterior, there is more design flair than you would expect in such utilitarian transportation. There is plenty of elbow and head room for four (or maybe four and a half, but five is very tight), and outward visibility is good through the standard tinted glass. Even the base model features a rear defroster, four cupholders, a standard four-speaker stereo and map pockets behind each front seat.
Under the hood resides a Kia-designed 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. The result is 96 horsepower at 5800 rpm, and 98 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. It is a surprisingly peppy engine, but the lack of a tachometer leaves you guessing the best shift points. Brakes are vented discs up front, with drums in the rear.
The MacPherson strut front/torsion beam rear suspension layout is somewhat modest in its capabilities – nowhere near more upscale, pricey competitors such as the Ford Focus in terms of tossability – but, damping of the bumps is good, though, lessening your chances of shaking the Rio apart over years of ownership.
Putting its money where its warranty is, Kia is offering the Rio with the Kia Long Haul Warranty Program standard, The package consists of a 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, a five-year/60,000 mile basic warranty and five years of free roadside assistance. This is also standard on all new Kias. Of all the Rio’s competitors, only the Hyundai Accent (Hyundai is the parent company of Kia) offers such outstanding coverage. Nothing else comes close. Kia knows that it will take on a hefty expense by offering such coverage on the albeit non-transferable warranty, but Kia has something to prove here, so it will bite the bullet until the American public has confidence in the quality of its products.
Base price: $8595 Major standard features:
2001 Kia Rio
Engine: 1.5-liter DOHC in-line four, 96 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual, four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 94.9 in
Length: 165.9 in
Width: 65.9 in
Height: 56.7 in
Weight: 2242 lb
Fuel economy: 27/32 mpg
Full cloth interior
Base price: $8595
Major standard features: