Brawl In The B Class: Kia Ready With 2012 Rio

By Paul Seredynski October 24, 2011

2012 Kia Rio Ready lede.jpg

A consensus seems to be forming that the 2012 Kia Rio is a handsome car, particularly for a subcompact. Sharp styling can’t hurt as the new Rio enters a U.S. B-class segment suddenly chock full of major-league talent. According to Kia, all the solid new products in the subcompact class – along with America’s continued price struggle with the gas pump – should see U.S. B-class sales jump 91 percent by 2015 (to almost 800,000 units), making it the sixth-largest segment in the United States. Priced smart and loaded with features recently unheard of in the class, the 2012 Rio’s initial share of U.S. B-class sales will likely be constrained only by production availability.

Kia will produce both a 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback version of the Rio for the U.S., with all production based in Korea. The 5-door Rio is hitting dealerships now, and the 4-door is expected in Kia’s 750-dealer U.S. network in the early part of 2012. Bucking the quickly-fading “hatchbacks don’t sell in the U.S.” mantra, Kia executives noted at the launch event in Austin, Texas, that they expect to sell more hatchbacks than sedans. No one from Kia would go on the record for expected Rio sales volumes, but it’s reasonable to expect a similar boost Kia has enjoyed with the new Optima midsize sedan (doubling monthly sales, a 22-percent boost in transaction pricing, and days to turn plummeting from 121 to 25).

Pricing for the 2012 Kia Rio 5-door starts at $13,600 (plus $750 destination) with a 6-speed manual transmission. The manual tranny is available only on the base LX trim, where adding a 6-speed automatic adds $1,100 for a base price of $14,700. The volume mid-level EX trim checks in at $16,500, while the top-trim Rio SX starts at $17,700. Pricing for the 4-door will be announced closer to launch.

AO102411 Rio & Subcompact MS.jpgThe Hardware
The 2012 Kia Rio has been completely redesigned, its chassis now on a 2-inch longer wheelbase than the previous-generation car. All Rios are powered by an all-aluminum, direct-injected 1.6-liter “Gamma” 4-cylinder, backed by either the 6-speed manual or automatic transmission. The engine produces 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque, features dual-variable valve timing, and with either tranny hits the magic marketing number of 40 miles per gallon highway (30 mpg city). Low rolling-resistance tires are standard, along with electric power steering. Later next year, a segment-first Idle Stop and Go (ISG) option that shuts off the engine during stops will be available. The $400 feature is expected to add 1 mpg to the Rio’s city rating.

All Rio trims feature the same MacPherson strut front suspension and solid, torsion-beam rear axle, though the top-level SX trim will feature a stiffened setup. Four-wheel disc brakes are also standard on all trims (a rarity in this class), with larger front-brake discs for the SX trim. A number of options should help customers ease any downsizing pain, including leather-trimmed seats, power folding and heated mirrors, heated seats, rearview camera, navigation system, power moonroof and a smart-key setup with pushbutton start. A fully-tarted Rio SX with the optional Premium Package will check-in just under $20K ($19,900) before destination. Kia claims that across all trims, comparably equipped Rio pricing has dropped 2 to 9 percent.

Is the market ripe for B-class cars with leather, nav, power moonroofs and heated seats? “You know, two, three years ago, nobody would’ve expected that,” said Michael Sprague, Kia Motors America (KMA) VP of marketing and communications. “But you see a lot of people who are downsizing either for a lifestyle change or concerns about fuel economy. They’re giving up some pretty nice cars, and when they get into the sub-compact car, they’re looking around saying ‘Where’s all the stuff I had before?’ It will be required to succeed.”

Though ready on the content front, the 2012 Kia Rio will enter a stout B-Class segment reborn by high fuel prices. Beyond its sister model Hyundai Accent, the Rio will battle Ford’s hot-selling Fiesta (with Ford also being Kia’s number one cross-shopped brand). Early reports on General Motors Co.’s new Chevrolet Sonic subcompact have been extremely favorable and Toyota Motor Corp.’s completely revamped Yaris certainly will be a player based on its content, price and brand image. Nissan’s new Versa hasn’t seen much praise from the press, but has enjoyed consistent marketing and brings to the party the industry’s lowest base price. The Honda Fit now is one of the segment’s oldest players – it’s due to be redesigned next year – but is one of Honda’s few models that continues to exhibit the brand’s old spunk (though sales have been hurt due to Japan’s natural disasters).

2012 Kia Rio Ready 01.jpg 2012 Kia Rio Ready 03.jpg

Millenial Marketing
Like most new entries in the segment, the 2012 Kia Rio will be marketed towards Millennials, though unlike the new Yaris, the Rio will not forgo the traditional broadcast space. “My biggest challenge still as a brand is awareness. [Kia is] at 3.9 percent market share.” Sprague said. “A lot of people still just don’t know that Kia is out there or if they do know of Kia, they think of the old Kia. Since the Soul, we’ve been slowly transforming people’s opinion of Kia – so broadcast (advertising) is still a great way we can instill the awareness and consideration. It won’t be huge broadcast but it will still be some. We’ll do a lot in the digital space. If that’s who we’re going after, that’s how they want to be communicated with.”

AO102111 Kia Quick Hits.jpgKia plans to continue its marketing associations with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and L.A. Clippers star Blake Griffin, though Kia fortunately has a strike clause with the NBA lockout continuing. Kia also will go back to LaCosta in 2012 with the LPGA and golfer Michelle Wie, and will create a spec-racing series around the Rio. The company plans to announce more on the competition series at next month’s SEMA show, where it also will display a number of project cars, including one from West Coast Customs.

The Rio also is targeting new buyers via technology and its new UVO (“YOU-vo”) voice-controlled infotainment system. Kia is only the second manufacturer after Ford (with Sync) to implement the technology developed with Microsoft. “So Ford came out four or five years ago and they had the exclusive agreement with Microsoft and as soon as that expired, we recognized it as a great opportunity,” Sprague said. “Looking at trends, consumers wanted something that could control all of their devices, and it’s a great platform.” Kia claims to have made some significant improvements from a voice-recognition standpoint over the original system. “The Gen Y consumer is the first generation to grow up with technology and so I think you draw attention to yourself if you don’t have it,” said KMA sales vice president Tom Loveless. “UVO serves as a surrogate to let this important Gen Y consumer know that we’re a brand that is relevant.”

On The Road
In the sheetmetal, the Rio is a handsome car, which gives it more physical presence. Particularly with the 17-inch, large-spoke alloy wheels in the SX trim (above), this car is a looker. The interior is also inviting, with soft-touch (or soft-touch-looking) materials and a horizontal dash layout that adds a real sense of width. Passenger space is adequate enough that many will question the need to move up to a C-segment compact car, particularly if adults aren’t often encamped in the back seat. There’s also enough gadgets onboard to make you quickly forget this is a subcompact; the high-content feel of Ford’s Focus kept coming to mind. The Rio’s handling is essentially viceless, and even sure-footed enough to enter the realm of entertaining on some of the more twisty bits of Texas Hill Country.

On the rolling landscape outside of Austin, the new 1.6-liter Gamma engine was just the slightest bit buzzy above 4,000 rpm, but it smoothed out and started to sound better as it approached redline. The new engine is not awash in torque, though making good use of the transparent 6-speed transmissions keeps the Rio easily outpacing traffic. We wouldn’t mind a just little more insulation from road noise, and Kia has more improving to do on the voice-recognition skills of the UVO system – Sync seems far more consistent in recognizing commands and details such as the names of song artists. For a subcompact that comes loaded for less than $20,000, this is currently about as nice as the B-class has ever had it. Almost no reasonably expected feature is glaringly missing.

Finding something to harp on in a subcompact car has never been difficult, so the Rio's few minor foibles demonstrate how much the class has matured in a short time. For the money, customers are likely to find the Rio an alluring prospect inside and out. Running down a checklist of what consumers probably require to accept owning a B-Class car, the 2012 Rio won’t come up short. “People need the forty miles per gallon but they need the creature comforts associated with bigger automobiles,” Loveless said. “And so when you take that and put it in a blender, I think the value equation we have with Rio really fits the bill on either count.” Sprague was even more bullish: “I think we’re going to sell every one we can get. And if we can get more, even better."

2012 Kia Rio Ready 05.jpg 2012 Kia Rio Ready 04.jpg

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throwback says: 12:46 PM, 10.24.11

I thought B segment sales have been soft. There are quite a few good B segment cars, but I still have my doubts about all of them hitting their sales targets. If aything their C segment brothers will probably hurt their sales more than anything else.

dc_autogeek says: 1:55 PM, 10.24.11

I've yet to see any marketing for the Rio. I'm a big fan and will follow this car very closely.

Also, if I recall the ISG system will only be an option on the EX trim models. It doesn't appear to be available on the SX or LX trim cars.

bc1960 says: 8:04 PM, 10.24.11

Great looking from every angle except the front, which is dominated by headlamps about twice as large as they should be and cheap-looking Mazda-style dull black waffle-stamped fake grilles flanking the air intake. Like almost every entrant in the class, the rear seat doesn't fold completely flat; there is a significant step from the cargo floor to the folded seatback, which is infuriating because the Forte 5-door does it right, like most other C-class hatches.

Like most Kias except the Forte, the nice options require buying the top SX trim and are bundled in one hugely expensive package, pushing up the price significantly--if you want a sunroof without navigation or sitting on dead animal skins, "No Rio for you!"; plus it puts you within $1000 list of a new Skyactiv Mazda3 5-door with sunroof and Bose stereo package, not to mention $1000 more than a Forte EX 5-door with sunroof--so you had really better want the leather and nav system.

The center stack isn't as overdesigned as the Fiesta, but is perhaps too plain, and the interior finish, particularly in the cargo area, didn't seem as unexpectedly nice as some of the competition.

loaddown says: 7:05 AM, 10.25.11

Another perplexing limitation is in the paint choices - i.e. the SX hatch has only 5 colors, while the EX has 10.
You pay more, but you get less choices???
Customer service confirmed that the ISG is only offered on the EX.
I guess they imagined that young sport enthusiasts will be only wanting black, non-ISG Sxs???

loaddown says: 7:06 AM, 10.25.11

Another perplexing limitation is in the paint choices - i.e. the SX hatch has only 5 colors, while the EX has 10.
You pay more, but you get less choices???
Customer service confirmed that the ISG is only offered on the EX.
I guess they imagined that young sport enthusiasts will be only wanting black, non-ISG Sxs???

loaddown says: 7:07 AM, 10.25.11

Another perplexing limitation is in the paint choices - i.e. the SX hatch has only 5 colors, while the EX has 8.
You pay more, but you get less choices???
Customer service confirmed that the ISG is only offered on the EX.
I guess they imagined that young sport enthusiasts will be only wanting black, non-ISG Sxs???

loaddown says: 8:17 PM, 10.25.11

Sorry for the stutter. No acknowledgement of my post.

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