Erin Mahoney, Contributor
Kia's at it again, ladies and gentlemen, determined to save consumers even more Cash! Cash! Cash! with the introduction of America's least expensivenot cheapest, mind youcar, the Rio. The erstwhile financially troubled car company is attempting to corner the entry-level market with this one, a subcompact sedan with impressive build quality and a peppy engine.
The folks at Kia chose to introduce the Rio in San Antonio, Texas, alongside the picturesque-if-murky San Antonio River. The atmosphere was as festive as the brightly colored cars themselves -- a grand celebration of the unassuming subcompact's distinctive, if not exactly distinguished, claim to fame as being the most affordable new car available in the States. Now, to be quite honest, it's not easy for a bunch of spoiled automotive journalists to take such a blatantly econo-status car too seriously, especially while fraternizing with the fun-loving gaggle of Kia's PR staff. So, as we waited in line for the Rios that rolled out one by one from the hotel garage (much like kids waiting in line for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland, counting back to see which color they'll get. It was Sunburst Yellow, in case anyone cares.), we prepared ourselves for a long, less-than-enthralling ride to Fredericksburg. Praise be, we lucked out and got a manual transmission in our test vehicle. Though this was a delightful twist of fate for us, it means we are unfortunately unable to tell you how the Rio performs with the $895 four-speed tranny option.
Our first pleasant surprise was with the disarming 1.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder, the only engine available on the Rio, which was surprisingly peppy, making 96 peak horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 98 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. It provided quick acceleration from a stop, as well as adequate passing power on the highways. The engine's accelerative abilities proved especially useful whenever the grille of one of Texas' seemingly standard-issue F-150s would loom ominously in the rearview mirror of the diminutive Rio. Over 75 mph, the Rio's engine serenades the driver with an incessant whine, but maintains speed quite well.
The five-speed manual transmission on our test car switched gears easily, although the shifter felt a little numb and unrefined. A fair amount of drivetrain buzz traveled through the shifter and gas pedal, reminding us that we were in America's lowest-priced car. Nonetheless, the gear shifter was agreeable and easy to manipulate, which made us think that this would make a great car for a first-time driver as well as a first-time buyer. Although we didn't get to test it out, we were informed that the optional four-speed automatic tranny has an overdrive-off button to avoid gear searching in the hills, a considerate feature for such an inexpensive vehicle.
The contemporary wedge-shaped exterior design of the Rio is inoffensive, if generic. Outside, the Rio boasts upscale-looking clear lens headlights and, with the $380 upgrade package, wheel covers and bodyside moldings. Alloy wheels are available as an independent option for $275, and you get a nifty spoiler for 85 bones. Kia didn't take many risks with the design cues of this vehicle; the rear end is Daewoo-esque, while the rest of the car can be compared to anything from a Honda Civic to a Hyundai Elantra. Still, it's kind of a cute little thing.
While the interior appears to be solidly screwed together, the materials used reflect the bargain-basement price of this subcompact sedan. Hard plastics and cheesy upholstery abound, but rattles and squeaks are kept to a minimum within the cabin. After about an hour in our test car, an annoying squeaking noise began to emit from the driver's side of the dash, but a short time later it mysteriously subsided. Wind noise was a minor issue, but an issue nonetheless, pestering us from the A-pillars and the side mirrors once we got over about 65 mph. Regardless, we were impressed by the fit and finish of the $8,595 base-priced Rio.
The inside of this thrifty sedan is logically and simply laid out. Radio controls are conveniently placed above the HVAC switchgear, although the climate controls are set a little too low in the center stack for optimum ergonomic affability. The buttons and switches are all big enough and easy to find and use, especially the large, rectangular buttons for the hazard lights and rear window defroster. Although the stereo controls are thoughtfully placed, we were dismayed by the absence of bass and treble controls. More unfortunate still, you can choose the option of either an AM/FM/cassette stereo or an AM/FM/CD stereo on the Rio, but you can't get both.
We found the air conditioning, a $750 option, to work beautifully in Texas' August heat. Maintaining speeds over 70 mph for about an hour with the A/C on full blast must have taxed the engine somewhat, however, because after a brief pit stop, the Rio felt sluggish upon initial acceleration.
Front seats in the Rio are comfy, but lack lumbar support. Both driver and front passenger get decent head-, foot- and legroom, and the driver's seat is height-adjustable, as are the front shoulder belts. The rear seat feels like a park bench, but foot- and legroom are pretty impressive for a vehicle of this size, and outboard passengers get three-point seatbelts. One accouterment of which Kia is especially proud is the driver's seat fold-down armrest, but it's pretty much useless with the stick shift, and in fact impedes arm movement somewhat even in the folded-up position. There are a total of four cupholders, two pop out at the base of the center stack and two more reside between the front seats, to be used by either front- or rear-seat occupants.
The Rio behaves well on the road, with a tight suspension that keeps body roll to a minimum, but transmits irregularities in the tarmac directly to the driver, thus making for an at-times bumpy ride. The rack-and-pinion steering is tight and accurate for a vehicle at this price point and the little car handled the twisties with ease. But we were disconcerted at one point to find ourselves practically blown into the next lane by a sudden gust of wind from a larger vehicle passing us in the opposite lane.
We found the ventilated front-disc/rear-drum brakes to be confidence inspiring, especially considering that our test car was not equipped with the $400 ABS option. There was virtually no pedal travel before the calipers took hold, and stopping action was smooth and swift. The Rio is equipped with driver and passenger airbags, and Kia's Crush Impact Absorbing Structure (CIAS) body design is supposed to combine minimum weight with maximum strength for crash safety.
Equipped with the $380 upgrade package (which includes power steering, tilt steering wheel, wheel covers, bodyside moldings and visor vanity mirrors), air conditioning and AM/FM/cassette stereo, the Rio will run you a mere $10,045. What's more, Kia's new-for-2001 Long Haul Warranty Program gives all Rio buyers a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, a five-year/60,000-mile limited basic warranty, and a five-year/100,000-mile anti-perforation warranty. That ought to give Hyundai a run for their money.
Kia says that its goals are to provide well-built, affordable, high-value cars to its consumers, and the Rio looks like it will go a long way in helping the carmaker to reach its aspirations. The Rio competes with the Hyundai Accent, the Daewoo Lanos and the Toyota Echo, and it's cheaper than all three, while still being solidly built, so it's definitely worth checking out if you're low on ducats.
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