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Published: 05/10/2001 - by John DiPietro, Automotive Editor
Back in the day, I bought a new Subaru Justy. At the time (late in 1988), I had a 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible and didn't care for the idea of exposing my classic 'Bird to any more harsh New England winters than it had already seen. I found the Justy (a 1987 leftover) advertised at a local dealer for $6,200. It was a GL with air conditioning, a stereo, a tachometer and cloth seats. To make a long story short, I drove the trusty Justy for 100,000 miles with nary a problem except for the A/C giving up the ghost at around 60,000 miles. And that was not a great loss in light of the fact that when the A/C was turned on, acceleration was not an option. But it was a great little car that served me well and was still in good shape when I sold it with 102,000 miles on the odometer.
The Kia Rio, which is currently the lowest priced car sold in America with a base price of $9,118 (including destination), initially reminded me of my old Justy. Like the Subie, the Kia comes with a number of features that are surprising given the low price point. Standard on the Rio are such niceties as a height- and tilt-adjustable driver seat, dual trip meters, dual remote mirrors, rear window defroster, low fuel light and cloth upholstery with matching inserts on the doors. And then there's Kia's "Long Haul" warranty program that includes 10 years/100,000 miles of limited powertrain coverage, 5 years/60,000 miles of limited basic coverage and 5 years/100,000 miles of anti-perforation protection. Also provided is 5-year/unlimited mileage 24-hour roadside assistance. In addition to the options our test car had, the Rio can be ordered with antilock brakes, a four-speed automatic transmission, alloy wheels, an AM/FM/CD stereo and a rear decklid spoiler. Those who've gotten used to power windows and door locks will be dismayed to learn that these luxuries can't be had in the Rio.
But unlike the boxy old Justy, the Rio is perhaps the sharpest car in its class. To our eyes, the Rio has a more upscale visage than some other low-buck cars such as the Toyota Echo and Daewoo Lanos. The blackout window trim, wide bodyside molding and cat's-eye headlights give the Rio some distinction, but the thin grille opening reminded some staffers of a mail slot.
Inside the cabin, we found plenty of hard plastic trim and funky seat fabric, but everything seemed well screwed-together, and the dash design was uncluttered. But then again, what would it be cluttered with? Conspicuous in its absence was a tachometer, which is something we like to have when piloting a car with shift 'em yourself gears. Headlights and wipers are operated via stalks next to the steering wheel, a setup familiar to anyone who's driven most any Japanese (though the Kia is Korean) car of the last two decades. Likewise, the climate controls are simple, consisting of intuitive twist knobs. We found it easy to get a comfortable position behind the wheel with the adjustable driver seat and tilt wheel. And a fold-down armrest for the driver's right arm helped make long interstate drones more bearable, though it got in the way (and was thus useless except when cruising on the freeway) when it was time to change gears.
Under the Rio's relatively svelte skin beats a 1.5-liter 16-valve inline four, which produces a respectable 96 horsepower. This is down a bit compared to the Echo (108 horsepower) and the Lanos (105 ponies) and isn't going to give you a thrill when you lay into it, though a 0-to-60 mph performance of 11.3 seconds isn't as bad as it sounds. The Rio actually felt peppy around town, provided it was revved up, and on the freeway it happily cruised at 75 mph. At this speed, however, don't expect a quiet cocoon, as wind roar becomes prominent. Without a rev counter, one must shift by ear and speedometer. After driving the car for a while, we figured out what the best shift points were, and should one over-spin the engine in an attempt to dig up more power, a rev-limiter will step in to save the day (and the engine). Performing said gear changes was an exercise in blind faith in our driving abilities: The Rio's gear shifter felt like it was moving around in a bucket full of soft rubber balls and had us wondering if the gearshift linkage was comprised of thick rubber bands. Though it never balked and we never blew a shift, we were amused to discover that it was possible to move the gear lever laterally over 4 inches, as if it was in the neutral gate, when it was in gear. This was one of a couple of reminders that we were driving the lowest-priced car available in the U.S. Without ABS (which is available as a $400 option), our test vehicle stopped from 60 mph in a rather long 153 feet. Our road test editor stated that the binders offered enough feedback to make threshold braking (the point right before lock-up) possible, though not easy, and he would expect a shorter distance from an ABS-equipped Rio.
Another reminder of the bargain-basement mission of the Rio was its suspension performance, or lack thereof. We discovered that the Rio liked to dance. Accelerate hard (especially on broken pavement) and the resultant torque steer will have the steering wheel wiggling like Ricky Martin as he sings "Livin' La Vida Loca." What affects the Rio's handling the most is the road's condition. On smooth, twisty pavement, the Rio can be fun as the car maintains a stable, flat cornering attitude, and the economy-biased tires (P175/70R13s) offer surprising grip and plenty of warning before they let go. And under these ideal conditions, the steering feels tight and precise. Throw in some bumps, however, and the Rio loses its composure as the car hunts around the line you've set your sights on. The ride quality could also get harsh over choppy pavement. The Rio's suspension design, consisting of the obligatory MacPherson strut setup in front with a semi-independent rear, seems sound enough, but there's no question Kia could stand to improve this area of the Rio's engineering.
As the Rio has yet to undergo frontal and offset crash testing, we can't comment on its safety in those areas. However, it did score three out of five stars in the side-impact tests, for both front and rear, which is considered average.
The general consensus around here is that if you simply must have a new car, the Rio seems like a fairly safe choice, given Kia's 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. But by and large, if you enjoy driving even a little (or a lot, as we do), a two-year-old Honda Civic would be a better choice for the same money.
Road Test Summary
For a base price of around $9,000, Kia's Rio offers a lot: peppy engine, thoughtful features and a strong warranty. It also offers a manual gearbox whose shifter is the antithesis of a Miata's and an unrefined suspension that has a mind of its own over broken pavement.
System Score: 2.5
Components. Well, I guess the cheapest production vehicle for sale in America shouldn't be expected to have a thumpin' sound system. Good thing, because this one is a major bummer. I've seen clock radios with more features.
Speaking of boomboxes, this system has one of the telltale signs found on that kind of low-fi equipment: an inscription on the cassette door that reads, "High Power, 25W + 25W." This is just the kind of bogus power rating that you see on cheap stereos with low power. And there's yet another sign that this car's system was rescued from the dustheap of hi-fi history: a mechanical fast-forward/rewind button on the head unit that we haven't seen since well before Y2K (or was that Y1K?). Anyway, we're picking on Kia, and maybe we shouldn't be so harsh. At least it has a stereo, which lights up and makes noise and all that, and it really doesn't sound too horrible. The system has two pairs of speakers a 6.5-inch full-range duo along the back deck and a second pair in the front doors. And while the radio is pretty bare bones, it does have a cassette player.
Performance. Mediocre, at best. There's not much to recommend this system, other than its volume. It actually plays pretty loud for a cheapie. Other than that, without a CD player in sight, you're thrust a decade into the past.
Best Feature: Plays pretty loud.
Worst Feature: Tiny buttons, no separate bass and treble controls.
Conclusion. Well, you wanted a cheap car you got a cheap stereo, as well. This one won't win any prizes, but it beats singing to yourself.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
Rudimentary is the only word that can describe the Kia Rio. Having just spent a couple of hours and nearly 100 miles driving it on a wide variety of roads, I can say with some degree of authority that there are two reasons to buy one: 1) You don't have any money and 2) You must have a new-car warranty. If you don't meet both criteria, forget about Rio.
I can't decide which is more humorous, the tendency of the Rio's front wheels to break left or right when accelerating over bumpy pavement or the way the front end rises up like watercraft under power when the gas pedal is depressed. The suspension is utterly incapable of controlling ride motion or absorbing road irregularities. Actuating the proper gear while rowing the floppy five-speed manual transmission is an exercise in guesswork, while smooth engagement of first gear requires the precision and concentration of a surgeon.
The entire time I was behind the wheel of our test Rio, the airbag warning light glowed red. On bumps, the exhaust system rattled against the underside of the car. Rough pavement elicited several buzzes from various cabin materials.
There are good things about this package. Take the center armrest, for example, or the surprisingly good power from the engine. Handling on a twisty two-lane road is even halfway decent, thanks to good roll control and tires that give plenty of advance warning that they're giving up. And any car with seat cushion tilt and height adjustment gets positive marks in my book, especially at this price point.
Still, Rio is an awful car. You might think my criticism of the cheapest new car sold in America is nothing more than the jaded ramblings of a pampered automotive journalist who gets to drive too many BMWs. It was only 11 years ago that I bought, brand-new, a 1990 Ford Festiva, produced for Ford by Kia in Korea. It was a good little car, comfortable enough to drive across the country several times and reliable enough to take my incessant beating right up until it needed new valves at the 120,000-mile mark. In fact, the Rio is a direct descendant of the Festiva.
But the Rio pales in comparison to my trusty Festiva. It is, without question, the most horrible new car I've ever driven in my life.
Technical Editor Miles Cook says:
The Rio is the absolute lowest-priced car in the American marketplace. That said, there's nothing truly horrific to say about it. This little beer can (oops, didn't really mean that) does everything you could ask of a car that is purely meant to get you from point A to point B.
It got me from point A (Santa Barbara, Calif.) to point B (the Edmunds.com offices in Santa Monica, Calif.) in a fashion that actually went beyond my expectations considering its price. If you look at it from a purely functional standpoint, this car does its job as well as a $300,000 Bentley. It gets you from one place to another the primary function of any motor vehicle.
As evidenced by the slalom numbers, the car doesn't handle too badly, either. Just stay on your toes when you stand on it, so as to keep the torque steer in check. Other little things worthy of praise include the comfy fold-down armrest for the driver and the lack of squeaks or rattles on smooth roads. It even has A and B trip meters. If the lowest-priced car in America has this very handy feature, then why doesn't every car?
If a new-car warranty is your first priority, and you don't have much money to spend on a new car, then the Rio is worth a look-see. But spending 10 grand on a two- or three-year-old Honda Civic would be a better bet.
Associate Editor Liz Kim says:
"Life in the Middle Ages was nasty, brutish and short," wrote one historian. He might as well have been speaking of driving the Kia Rio. One can imagine that the person who buys this car considers "That New Car Smell" (which is available at your local car wash for $1.99 a spritz, by the way) and a 10-year warranty the most important aspects of a vehicle purchase. The shifter has as much positive engagement as arranging lilies in a vase, and what's more, you're only left with an auditory "GAAAAAH" to tell you when to shift, since there's no tachometer. The 1.5-liter powerplant heaves more than a Jayne Mansfield movie off-line, although once you get it going, it does have some pep in the middle ranges. The Rio wallowed, rolled and torque-steered its way up a twisty canyon road on our test loop, all the while asking "Why is this happening to me?" If it were being utilized merely as a transport from point A to B, however, it could make sense. But you'd have to get used to lettering on the stereo that's approximately the size of the type in a Gideon's Bible.
If my friend were in desperate need of a car and only had 10 grand to spend, I'd advise him to get a used Honda Civic and give him $30 to get it detailed and looking brand-spankin' new.
"Well we bought our Rio a couple months ago, and for $10,500, you can't complain. We bought it to rack up miles on a vehicle that we wouldn't have to worry about because of the 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. If it didn't have the warranty, we wouldn't have bought it. We had a '91 Integra that was stolen and chopped up and we had to sell my Civic del Sol (with VTEC) due to two children now in our family. The Rio is no Honda, but it's nice having a car that you don't have to worry about. So far, the engine light has come on, and we had to get that fixed; the paint quality sucks it's chipping already and there is a thumbprint in the paint on the front bumper (which is covered in the warranty and we will get fixed in the spring); and the airbag module malfunctioned. I wouldn't suggest this car to anybody looking for quality. But if you need a good commuter car or you have children and you don't want to worry about upholstery, this is the car to buy. We have installed a quality Panasonic CD player, a Clifford alarm, and just put on a set of remote lighting fog lights on it, so its probably the coolest little Rio around, and future plans include exhaust, window banner and getting power windows and door locks for the driver and passenger sides. (Car Toys does a pretty good job.)" vegita, "Kia Rio," #33 of 99, Nov. 9, 2000
"I purchased this car in September 2000 with a manual transmission, air conditioning, CD player, alloy wheels, rear spoiler, tilt wheel, etc. for $11,250. My main objective was to get a new second car that was low in cost but had a good warranty. I will not be doing more than 5,000 miles on it per year and only city driving . Pros: (1) Good value for the money. Cars up to $17,000 normally depreciate at around $2,000 per year. After five years and 30,000 miles of driving (although I should have written off the car), I still hope to get some money out of it when I sell it. (2) Excellent warranty I don't expect to spend anything on repairs over the next five years. (3) A/C is good. (4) Good styling. Cons: (1) Will I get a good resale value if I sell it off in the next one to two years? Hyundai Accent seems to be doing well, but I haven't seen any other Rio on the road as of yet! (2) The engine could be better: it's noisy and not as smooth as a Suzuki's. (3) I only get 24.5 mpg in city driving which is low. (4) Interior door trims and upholstery could be better. (5) No remote trunk opener. (6) The gas cap has no lock." pguhat, "Kia Rio," #32 of 99, Nov. 5, 2000
"I bought a Rio 14 days ago, and I am very pleased with it. I traded a 1995 Ford F-150 for it, and the first thing I noticed (after the size, of course) is how tightly put together the little scooter is. The fact that I get twice the mileage is also an inducement. I initially picked the Rio for two reasons: (1) I could use a rebate in lieu of a down payment, and (2) the exceptionally long powertrain and bumper-to-bumper warranties. I'd have loved to buy an American car, but none of the Big Three come close on the warranties. Honda Civic? Well, I got my Rio loaded for less than a stripped Civic. Honda's not an entry-level car anymore. I've put almost 800 miles on her already, and I find that the car is hoot to drive around town and secondary highways, although I'd suggest that the reach to fifth gear be shortened, as I have to lean out of the seat a bit. On the highway, the engine's a little buzzy over 75 mph, but what the heck, that's probably fast enough in a subcompact. Seriously, when I got her, I figured I was 'settling,' but I have been very pleasantly surprised by this little car. BTW, it's not as if I don't like little cars, but my summer driver's a 1968 Plymouth Fury III, so the Rio did take some getting used to." jjacobsen, "Kia Rio," #25 of 99, Oct. 19, 2000
"Took my car in for the 5,000 mile service and did verify that there has been a recall on the automatic transmission hose. Dealer took care of it and no worse for the wear. After about five months and 5,000 miles, I am pleased with the Rio and consider it an excellent purchase. Some shortcomings are that it takes a bit first thing in the morning for the car to shift out of first gear (automatic transmission), since apparently, there is some temperature control managing the shift. The other thing is that the first braking in the morning is a bit rough, as the brakes seem very sensitive. So if you are not careful and step on the brakes hard, you are in for quite a lunge. The other minor point is that for some design reason, you have to push a button on the radio to get the time. In most cars, the clock is the default setting whereas with the Rio, the station number or CD track number is the default setting. Otherwise, I would really recommend that someone who is looking for a used car or a second car to take a long look at the Rio. For the price and warranty, it has some advantages." tommyc4, "Kia Rio," #89 of 99, March 29, 2001
"I have owned a Rio since October the car just reached 3,500 miles last week. So far, we have been pretty pleased with the car. Of course, all my other cars were family hand-me-downs from the '80s, so it was pretty easy to impress me and the price with the warranty was the major point anyhow. A few months back after washing the car, I pulled out of the car wash, and the car was making a sound [as if] the turn signal were on. Anyway, the sound went on and off for a few days, and then it stopped, and so did the sensor for leaving the lights on and keys in. Now the noise is back, but the sensor [is] working . Another problem is the dome light, [which] has been working on and off for two months. It worked when I went to the dealer of course. Also have the problem of the overdrive light blinking along with the 'check engine' light being on, but that will be fixed soon and has not caused any problems. Other than that, it's a great car, but I would recommend getting it from a friendly dealer because you will have these annoying little problems. The car handled great in the snow; however, it was a little loose on dirt roads." ghostcrash, "Kia Rio," #80 of 99, March 12, 2001
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