Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Like sleep deprivation and water boarding, it's rumored that a five-hour road trip in a Kia Rio is on the CIA's list of effective harsh interrogation techniques.
When the original Rio hit the market in 2001, the above would have been believable. The Rio was the cheapest car on the market, and it drove like it. Rickshaw and hitchhiking were more favorable modes of transport.
Things are different now. After five years, Kia has completely redesigned the Rio for 2006 and the new Rio is certainly better than its predecessor. Changes include a revised suspension, a stronger engine, a more spacious interior and six standard airbags. There's even a new model, the 2006 Kia Rio5 hatchback, which replaces the poorly named Rio Cinco wagon.
To find out if the changes make the Rio a car you want to drive, or if the Rio Road Trip is still an effective weapon in the war on terror, we decided to drive this Sunset Orange Rio5 five hours from Los Angeles to San Jose.
Come along for the ride, if you dare.
First impressions The original Rio looked as cheap as it was — no style, no distinctive lines, no nothing. As we load up our Rio5, we notice its flared wheel arches and flush grille that blends nicely into the hood and headlights. Even the standard 15-inch wheels have a clean five-spoke design.
One reason the Rio5 doesn't look so cheap is because it isn't. All Rio5 hatchbacks come in the top-of-the-line SX trim level while the Rio sedan is offered in less expensive base and LX trims. The base price for the Rio5 with an automatic transmission is $14,350, and ours tops out at $15,960 with options.
All Rio5s get basic equipment like air conditioning, a CD stereo and a 60/40-split-folding rear seat along with a few upgrades over the sedan like a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever and metallic interior trim. Front, side seat and side curtain airbags are also standard on all models. Our options include antilock brakes ($400), floor mats ($70) and the optional Power Package ($600) which adds electric mirrors, windows and locks with remote keyless entry.
Loading up Longer and taller than its predecessor, the Rio5 won't be cramped for the 300-mile trip, at least not up front. A 3.5-inch-longer wheelbase gives the Rio 42.8 inches of legroom for the driver, the most in its class. The driver seat also comes standard with height and lumbar adjustments and a fold-down armrest. Passenger room in back is tighter, with slightly less leg- and headroom than the Scion xA.
Our only size problem crops up when we try to toss a golf bag into the cargo bay. It won't fit even though the 2006 Rio is almost an inch wider than the previous version. With 15.9 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, the Rio has twice the luggage room of the Chevrolet Aveo. We angle the bag a little, it falls into place and we pile on another suitcase with room to spare.
After settling in we notice how much better the interior looks and feels compared to the previous Rio. It's still mostly gray colors throughout, but this time the dash is a darker shade that contrasts with a light-colored headliner and medium gray door and seat trim. Metallic trim on the stereo and steering wheel further brighten things up.
Hitting the road Topping off the 11.9-gallon tank doesn't take long, and with EPA ratings of 29 city and 38 highway we should make it to San Jose with a few gallons to spare.
Developing 110 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque, the Rio's new 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine matches or beats both the xA and Aveo in both categories. It's matched to either a five-speed manual or, as in our test car, a four-speed automatic.
We flat-foot it getting onto the freeway and there's a swell of noise and vibration but not a lot of push from the seat. The leisurely feel of its acceleration is later confirmed by an 11.5-second 0-to-60 run at the test track which is nearly a second slower than its Chevy and Scion competitors.
Shifts from the automatic are reasonably quick and an on/off button for the overdrive gear makes it easy to drop to 3rd for climbing long grades. We make use of it often and find ourselves maneuvering through traffic with ease. There's no ignoring the engine noise at full throttle, but when the transmission drops into top gear on the flat sections the cabin gets surprisingly quiet with little road or wind noise.
The long haul After a hundred miles or so we've found a couple of this Rio's ergonomic shortcomings. The driver seat becomes uncomfortable after about an hour and no amount of fiddling with its numerous adjustments helps.
Then we pick up a 32-ounce soda at a rest stop and find that although it technically fits the shallow cupholder it's too wobbly to trust without holding it. The absence of a center console is another odd design flaw, but the foldable armrest works fine in its place and a well-placed storage tray in front of the shifter gives us a place to keep a cell phone within reach.
Handling the highway Gusty winds don't bother the Rio5 much considering its small size. It feels well planted and cruises calmly at 75 mph. The steering has a convenient dead spot on-center that makes plowing down the interstate a mindless chore. If it had cruise control the car wouldn't need us at all.
There are a few winding roads along the way and the front-wheel-drive Rio handles them well. Steering feel off center is good and an antisway bar up front keeps body roll well under control. A fast 64.5-mph slalom time at the test track confirms the Rio's ability to handle itself at the limit.
Four-wheel antilock disc brakes helped it turn in an even more impressive number in the 60-to-0 brake test. At 122 feet the Rio stopped as quickly as some sport sedans that cost three times as much. When you're not laying into them with full force, the pedal feels progressive and easy to modulate.
Ride quality over broken roadways isn't quite as impressive. It's jittery and unrefined with a little too much clunking from the suspension. Hit a big pothole and it shudders through the cabin with a thud.
Delivered to the destination After five hours behind the wheel we arrive with a new opinion of the Rio. It cruises quietly, has plenty of room and a simple interior design that works well and looks good. The seats could have been more comfortable, but there aren't many cars for this price that don't get stiff after a few hours.
We burned a little more than 10 gallons of gas for an average of 28.5 miles per gallon. Not the number it promised but respectable given how hard we pushed it along the way.
At nearly $16,000, this Rio5 was a little more expensive than we expected. You can get the Chevrolet Aveo or the Scion xA for less, but if we had to go another 300 miles we would prefer to drive the Rio5. The Rio road trip is torturous no more.
System Score: 8.0
Components: The standard audio system for the Rio5 is a four-speaker stereo with a single CD player. Our car was equipped with an option package that includes front-pillar-mounted tweeters bringing the total speaker count up to six. The Power Package costs $600 but includes more than just extra speakers — with such features as power windows, power door locks, keyless remote entry and power heated exterior mirrors it includes features that clearly add value to the car but have nothing to do with the stereo (except those tweeters). No other audio system is available.
Performance: Based on sound quality alone, this Rio stereo is excellent. The bass, while not exactly thumping, is deep and rich and most other tones sound surprisingly clear. The highs are sharp and can tend toward "tinny" but for the most part the system offers good separation and terrific sound reproduction.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that this low-cost car offers such good sound quality as well as separate bass, midrange and treble controls. Some cars costing much more than the Rio don't offer a midrange control. We also like how much range there is within these controls; each has 20 levels of adjustment ranging from -10 to +10. Again, not every car offers this type of control, especially those costing $15,000.
There are also preset equalizer settings for different music styles such as jazz and classical. One such setting is labeled "pops" which we can assume means "pop." But cultural errors aside, the EQ settings do change the sound profile noticeably. However, they don't always fit the correct type of music. Some rock and pop we listened to sounded really great on the classical setting.
The head unit is attractive and the buttons and knobs feel nice and smooth but not in a cheap way. We also like the easy-to-read display.
Unfortunately, the Rio5's stereo is lacking some features that are becoming quite common even on budget-priced cars. This stereo does not have a mini-jack connector for portable MP3 devices nor is it able to play MP3 CDs. And a CD changer isn't even an option. Inexpensive vehicles like the Scion xA and xB have more comprehensive sound systems that we feel hit the bull's-eye with the intended under-30 market.
Best Feature: Overall sound quality.
Worst Feature: Lacks MP3 capability.
Conclusion: A better-than-expected stereo for the price. Only Scion's Pioneer sound system sounds better but we think the Rio5 would be more appealing overall with a more feature-laden audio system. — Brian Moody
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: Like Hyundai did earlier this decade, Kia has shown the ability to gather itself up and put forth quality vehicles. Now its efforts have trickled down to its entry-level ride. The new Rio is so much better than the car it replaces that Kia may have considered giving it a new name.
Although my time in the Rio5 was brief, it was immediately apparent that the carmaker sweated the details. There was none of the buzzy, tinny feeling of the old Rio, instead this car felt like it would remain tight and rattle-free for years. Performance and handling dynamics are likewise refined; the drivetrain remains unflustered even when you've got the gas pinned and the handling is on the soft side but not lazy or sloppy in the least. Heck, I even like the looks of the 5, as certain design elements — such as the flat black trim and big light clusters —, give it a sharp European look.
But it seems that with the Rio5, Kia is trying to take advantage of its newfound respect. At $16,000 with ABS and a power package, the 5 is just too pricey for this class. If I were spending that much for an entry-level car, I'd have to go with the Scion tC hatchback coupe, which has a much bigger and more powerful engine, four-wheel disc brakes and everything — including a moonroof, Pioneer sound system, stability control and 17-inch wheels — as standard.
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says: This has to be the best Kia yet. Watching it approach from a distance, I was surprised at how polished and modern it looked on the road. Its exterior is every bit as appealing to me as the more expensive Honda Civic, and I consider the Rio5's overall look to be higher quality than the Chevrolet Cobalt.
Inside, I especially liked the gauge cluster, center stack wrapped in silver trim and the fact that there was no sign of quirky, little hard-to-use buttons. I spent an hour behind the wheel in heavy freeway traffic and found the seats to be comfortable and supportive. The seat fabric with silver inserts was both attractive and downright sporty, instead of the ugly, outdated trims often found in Korean products.
Sure, power is a bit conservative, but that's hardly unexpected from a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. If consumers can just get past the Kia label, they'll find a car worth considering against the Civic, especially when considering the outstanding 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.
"Everyone seems so hyped on having the latest & greatest vehicle without regard to cost, mileage, etc. It seemed that bigger was better. How I proved them wrong. My Kia Rio is very peppy, auto insurance cost-effective, makes it to the gas pump every two weeks on $15.00 a fill, has a 10-yr/100,000 warranty and has a great big trunk to put all my shopping in! And I can park in the compact car parking spaces! I have never had a mechanical/performance problem whatsoever in the three years I've owned, since purchased new." — Kim Wilson, November 9, 2005
"Kia Rio is an excellent car to drive, it's comfortable and everything is within easy reach. You can drive a long distance and never feel uncomfortable while driving. I think it's the neatest little car, handles great, comfortable and good on gas." — Rio, October 18, 2005
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