Driving the 2012 Kia Rio around its Seoul, South Korea, homeland makes us appreciate how far this entry-level compact car has come since its arrival in the United States more than a decade ago.
It's an odd feeling since we doubt many people here like to drive. Traffic is terrible even in the wee hours of the morning and although everyone slows for the speed cameras, stopping for red lights is a judgment call. Why bother designing a good car for this semi-lawless slog when everyone could just take the subway?
Yet, the 2012 Rio rises above conditions on the ground. New drivetrains improve acceleration and fuel economy, while a lengthened wheelbase and an overhauled suspension give it a more refined ride quality than ever before.
Hatchback or Sedan
We're here to drive the 2012 Kia Rio five-door hatchback that goes on sale in early October, but come December, you'll be able get a slightly awkward-looking Rio sedan as well. Even Kia's designer Peter Schreyer would tell you to get the five-door. (A three-door hatchback will round out the Rio family, but it's not coming to the U.S.)
If getting to work is all that matters, either body style will suffice, as all 2012 Kia Rios come with a new direct-injected, 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine that uses variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust side. The engineers were able to raise compression, too (11.0:1 versus 10:1 on the previous Rio), and the result is 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 123 pound-feet of torque at 4,850 rpm.
The transmissions are the same as on the mechanically similar Hyundai Accent, but with one key difference. If you pay the extra tariff for the six-speed automatic (over the standard six-speed manual), you'll be able to get an idle-stop function (called ISG for Idle Stop and Go) that shuts off the Rio's engine when you're stopped at a light.
Kia's trying to ease us into the coming era of mpg austerity, so the automaker will indeed offer ISG as an option in the U.S. even though it will only lift the Rio hatchback's EPA rating from 29 city/39 highway mpg to 30 city/39 highway (the Rio sedan gets a rounder 30/40 rating that goes to 31/41 with ISG). Either way, it's an upgrade over the 2011 Rio, which was rated 27/34 with a four-speed automatic.
Our preproduction U.S.-spec Rio hatchback has both the six-speed auto and ISG. The latter is mostly nonintrusive in Seoul traffic, but it doesn't feel as slick as other start-stop applications we've tried as the engine starts back up as soon as you ease up on the brake pedal.
Our efforts to slice and dice with the locals on the freeway reveal the 1.6-liter engine's lack of low-end grunt. The 2012 Kia Rio should be one of the quickest automatic-equipped cars in its class on the test track (we timed an automatic 2012 Accent five-door at 9.8 seconds to 60 mph and 17.1 seconds at 81.2 mph for the quarter-mile), but in the real world, it doesn't feel strong until you approach 4,000 rpm.
Still, this engine is smoother and more refined than previous Kia four-cylinders, so you don't mind working it a little. The transmission downshifts when you need it to, which is helpful since tall gearing has the engine down around 2,500 rpm when you're cruising at 70 mph. Expect the six-speed automatic to be replaced by a continuously variable transmission (CVT) when the Rio gets a face-lift in 2014.
Good Highway Car
Eventually, we find our way out of Seoul and point the 2012 Rio five-door toward an impressive-looking Daesoon temple on South Korea's East Coast. Oftentimes, road trips aren't that relaxing in smaller compact cars, but our Rio EX hatch, which wears P185/65R15 low-rolling-resistance Kumho Solus KH25 tires (SX models get 205/45R17 tires), finds a good compromise between control and compliance. South Koreans pay hefty tolls to keep their highways in pristine condition, so there aren't many rough patches to test the suspension's mettle. No matter, we'll take care of that once we test the Rio in Southern California.
Nor can we tell you about the car's cornering ability, as the country's transportation department has built tunnels that go through the mountains (we went through 26 of them during a 270-mile trip) instead of fun roads that wind around them. Kia officials tell us the chassis engineers benchmarked the 2012 Rio's ride/handling characteristics against the Ford Fiesta and Peugeot 207. All Rios have four-wheel disc brakes, but the SX gets larger front rotors along with a slightly more aggressive state of suspension tune.
Like the Accent, the 2012 Kia Rio now uses an electric motor to power its steering, and it's a well-tuned setup. Effort levels are just right for a small car, and there's a useful dead spot on center to minimize course correction when cruising on straight highways.
Doesn't Feel Like an Econobox
Our biggest complaint about the last Rio was the lack of seat comfort and Kia has addressed this in the 2012 model. The front seats are better shaped and more supportive, and Rio EX and SX models get a telescoping steering wheel (the base LX has just a tilt wheel) that results in a more natural driving position than you'll typically get in this class.
There's actually an inch less front legroom this year, as Kia gave priority to the backseat, using the 2.8-inch wheelbase stretch to carve out 3 more inches of legroom for the rear. Still, at 5-foot-10, we're not using quite all the front-seat track travel. We also have enough room to sit in back, though the hard plastic on the front seatbacks is uncomfortable when our knees brush against it.
Otherwise, the materials in the 2012 Rio's cabin give no cause for complaint. As in the Accent, everything is a little nicer than you expect in this class. None of the controls feel flimsy and our Rio has respectable soft-touch vinyl on its dash. Interestingly, though, the dash trim is optional on the EX and standard on the SX. What's more, you only get vinyl door trim on the EX and SX; it's plastic on the LX.
The Rio five-door hatchback has an advantage in cargo space, of course, with 15 cubic feet of capacity behind its rear seat versus the sedan's 13.7-cubic-foot trunk. However, this is a bit less capacity than the outgoing Rio hatch (15.9 cubic feet). Kia hasn't yet released a seats-down cargo capacity figure.
How It's Equipped
Kia also hasn't released pricing on the 2012 Rio, yet, but it appears the automaker won't try to go head-to-head with the Nissan Versa at the $11,000 mark. The base Rio sedan has been discontinued, and the LX starts out with everything you need in both body styles, including air-conditioning, a height-adjustable driver seat and a decent stereo with auxiliary and USB inputs.
The EX adds Bluetooth and gives you access to options like alloy wheels and the UVO voice control system, which works pretty much like Ford's Sync. We like the user-friendly touchscreen interface Kia designed for UVO, as its menus make it easy to set up Bluetooth streaming audio. A back-up camera is also included.
The knock against UVO is that if you buy a Rio SX, you can't combine it with the factory navigation system that's optional exclusively on that trim level. Kia officials tell us this won't change until the next model cycle. Other SX-only options include a keyless ignition and a sunroof.
South Korea's Best Small Car?
There's no denying that the 2012 Kia Rio is very similar to the 2012 Hyundai Accent to the point that these are two versions of the same car. However, much like with the Optima/Sonata cousins, the Rio is more compelling, mainly because it's downright attractive as a hatchback. It also comes with a few more features, like a telescoping steering wheel and Bluetooth audio, both desirable if you have arms and a smartphone.
Add acceptable performance and a well-tuned chassis to that package, and you have a car that takes some of the drudgery out of commuting whether you live in Seoul or L.A.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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