The original Kia Rio had little going for it other than a big warranty. It was basic transportation, nothing else.
But basic transportation doesn't cut it anymore, even among the smallest and most affordable compact cars: The carefully packaged, nimble-handling Scion xA saw to that. Kia's engineers and designers wisely took a good look at the xA while they were redesigning the Rio.
Although the 2006 Kia Rio may not have the Scion's fashion sense, unlike the old Rio, it's pleasant to drive, loaded with features and comfortable to boot.
More Amenities For 2006, Kia is offering the Rio sedan in base and LX trim levels, along with a five-door Rio5 hatchback in a single SX trim. With no air conditioning and skinny 14-inch tires, the base sedan is still very much a budget ride. Yet, you do get an attractive cloth interior, two-way seat-height adjustment for the driver, side-impact airbags for front occupants, and side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants for a base price of $11,110 (including a $540 destination charge). A five-speed manual transmission is mandatory on the base car, and there's now a standard tachometer so shift points aren't shots in the dark.
Kia expects most buyers to step up to the LX sedan, which for $12,985 comes with essentials like A/C, a four-speaker CD stereo, power steering, a 60/40-split folding rear seat with adjustable head restraints, tilt steering wheel adjustment and slight wider tires.
Priced a few hundred dollars above the least expensive Kia Spectra, the $14,040 Rio5 SX hatchback is sharper-looking than the Rio sedan, thanks to its neatly finished tail and standard 15-inch alloy wheels with meatier tires.
It has more cargo space, too, with 15.8 cubic feet behind the rear seats to the sedan's 11.9. Maximum capacity is 49.6 cubic feet, 5 more cubes than the old Rio Cinco, although the Cinco was 9 inches longer than the tidy Rio5. Inside the Rio5, you'll find metal-trimmed pedals and faux aluminum trim on the dash and the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The other major benefit to choosing the LX sedan or SX hatch is the availability of options. Both can be had with a four-speed automatic transmission ($850), antilock brakes and the Power Package, which provides power windows, mirrors and locks; keyless entry; and a pair of tweeter speakers. As a bonus, ordering ABS sets you up with four-wheel disc brakes in lieu of the standard front discs/rear drums. Cruise control is the only obvious omission.
Reasonable Power and Economy Energized by a 30-pound weight loss and a new 1.6-liter inline four with variable intake valve timing, the 2006 Rio gets around as easily as any of its peers. Horsepower comes in a 110 at 6,000 rpm, while torque rates 107 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. Low-end pull is surprisingly good, and a strong midrange allows the Rio to merge into 70-mph freeway traffic with no problems. The engine is even tempered but does get noisy at higher rpm.
We drove both a manual-shift LX sedan and an automatic Rio5 hatchback, and found the acceleration equally acceptable. Shifting the manual gearbox is actually enjoyable, thanks to the distinct gates and a clutch that couldn't be more forgiving. Meanwhile, the automatic serves up smooth upshifts and on-time downshifts.
Fred Aikins, product strategy manager for the Rio, tells us that a manual-shift sedan or hatchback should turn in a 0-to-60-mph time of 9.5 to 10 seconds. That's a respectable time for this class, but if you're looking for more speed, Kia has been working to expand aftermarket support for its lineup and plans to show off the Rio's performance potential at this year's SEMA show.
Fuel economy is another bright spot for the '06 Rio. Its EPA ratings are much higher than the last year's model — 32 mpg city/35 mpg highway with the manual and 29/38 with the automatic.
Fine Manners Now a platform mate of the Hyundai Accent, the new Rio rides on a 3.5-inch-longer wheelbase, and slightly wider front and rear tracks. The suspension still consists of struts in front and a semi-independent torsion bar with coil springs in back, but Kia engineers tuned it to better manage body movement and road irregularities. The Rio's ride is smooth and stable around town and on the highway.
We didn't get to test the cornering capability of our LX sedan with 14-inch wheels, but the Rio5 hatch with 15s (both of the cars we drove wore Hankook Optima tires) had little difficulty with tight turns. There was a fair amount of body roll, but the car settles in predictably every time and turn-in was crisper than we expected, especially in the Rio5. The steering even has a firm feel to it at speed.
Comfortable Inside Of the two interior color schemes, the beige is definitely the way to go. It gives the Rio's cockpit an airy, optimistic feel that's so often lacking in this price bracket. Interior materials quality is above average but not quite up to the Scion xA's level. Careful selection of patterns and finishes helps mask the hard plastic, but shiny dash panels detract from the otherwise buttoned-down ensemble.
The control layout is as straightforward as they come. The large audio head unit comes straight from the Spectra and offers a clear display and a separate tuning knob.
Seat comfort is excellent for a low-priced car. The well-shaped front chairs allow you to sit up high and there's a generous range of seat travel for taller drivers. An armrest is standard for the driver, but we'd trade it for a regular center console box that provides elbow support for both front occupants, along with valuable storage space.
In back, headroom is a bit tight for 6-footers, but legroom is good and there's plenty of room to slide your feet under the front chairs.
Small + Cheap = Good? It wouldn't have been enough, says Fred Aikins of Kia, to build a Rio that was merely capable of taking on the existing players — the Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Aveo and Scion xA. Rather, it had to be ready for Toyota's Echo replacement, the 2007 Yaris, as well as all-new entries from Honda and Nissan.
After driving the 2006 Kia Rio and Rio5, we think they're ready to lead the way in this price-sensitive segment.