Ronald Montoya, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
This is a great time to be a compact car buyer. The cars in this class are more fuel-efficient than ever, have a greater list of premium features and are more fun to drive. And in the case of the 2012 Kia Rio, they even look better than ever. As we overheard someone say, compact cars are no longer a penalty box — now they are a box suite. Cars in this price range can even be ordered now with leather, heated seats, navigation and more.
When Kia's designers set out to redesign the Rio, they carried over nothing from the previous-generation car. The 2012 Kia Rio has undergone such an extensive overhaul that Kia even changed the font of the type in the "Rio" badge. The 2012 Rio is better-looking, more fuel efficient, fun to drive, and best of all offers a great value to consumers in need of a compact car.
The Kia Rio also matches up favorably to its competition. The Honda Fit has more cargo room, but less engine power. The Chevrolet Sonic matches the Rio's power and adds more torque, but you'll have to pay extra for the optional turbo engine to get the added benefits. The Ford Fiesta is another solid pick in this class, but if you are interested in a navigation system, the Rio has a traditional touchscreen setup while the Fiesta relies on voice-guided directions.
The 2012 Kia Rio is powered by a direct-injection 1.6-liter inline-4 engine. It produces 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. When it comes to acceleration, the Rio isn't the fastest car off the line, but it has more than enough power to keep up with traffic. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard on EX models and higher, while other vehicles in this class make you pay extra for the automatic. During Edmunds instrumented testing, the Rio went from zero to 60 mph in 9.7 seconds.
The Rio stands out from its competitors by having four-wheel disc brakes, while the others make do with drum brakes in the rear. The Kia came to a stop from 60 mph in 119 feet, pretty good for a vehicle this size. The use of disc brakes in the rear instead of drums better resists brake fade during repeated stops and also delivers firmer, more confidence-inspiring pedal action.
The Rio's sport-tuned suspension, exclusive to the SX trim, helped it earn high marks in our slalom testing. However, this sporty suspension is slightly firmer and may not appeal to everyone. Take it for a test-drive and judge for yourself.
The EPA estimates that the Rio will get an estimated 30 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg in combined driving. The traffic-congested streets and freeways near our office did our fuel economy no favors, so the best we could manage was about 25 mpg in mixed driving conditions.
The Rio's seats are comfortable and have bolsters that keep you in place during spirited driving (Kia also notes that the seat foam is made with a biodegradable castor oil). It was easy to find a comfortable seating position. The seat has numerous adjustments and can manually be adjusted for vertical movement. Additionally, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes to help give you a better driving position.
The interior is relatively quiet, except for the engine, which tends to be rather noisy. But if you drive with the radio on like most of us, it shouldn't be a huge issue.
The rear-seat legroom is snug, and may be too tight for taller passengers. A kid's car seat fits well when it faces the front. However, if you need to have the child seat facing the rear, seat size might an issue. We always recommend bringing your car seat with you to the dealership to test this for yourself.
Rear visibility is somewhat compromised by a thick C-pillar and a high rear trunk, but the rear camera featured on our test vehicle helped us cope with the consequences.
The 2012 Kia Rio has a cargo capacity of 15 cubic feet. This is a bit less than its competition, and it showed when we ran the Rio through our gauntlet of real-world usability tests. We could only fit one full-size piece of luggage or two golf bags or three small carry-on suitcases. If you need to carry more, both seats fold down and give you more room to work with.
Our test car came with an easy-to-use stereo with a high-resolution display that features the Microsoft-developed Uvo voice-activation system. Uvo promises voice controls with more natural tone of voice, but we found it hard to use without knowing its very specific commands. Uvo is not quite on par with Apple's Siri, but once you learn the commands, it should get easier to use. The good news is that the touchscreen interface is easy to use, and most commands are a few clicks away. We had no problems pairing an iPhone 4S via Bluetooth and using the touchscreen to search the phonebook and make calls.
Of course, if you opt for the navigation system, you cannot get the Uvo control interface. We've tested the navigation system in other Kias and found that it worked well and was easy to use. When the Rio is equipped with either Uvo or the navigation package, a rear back-up camera is included — a rarity among vehicles in this price range.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2012 Kia Rio is virtually unrecognizable from its prior generation, and that's a good thing. The Kia Rio is one of the better-looking subcompact cars out there and it makes last year's Rio look bland by comparison. This is the next big hit for Kia's "design-led transformation" philosophy of product development, which emphasizes dramatic styling to change customer perception. The Rio's front looks sporty and aggressive, while the rear has the look of a stylish European hatchback.
Things look just as good on the inside, too. The SX model we tested (and EX models with the Convenience package) has a soft-touch dashboard with a pleasant feel and solid build quality. The climate controls have a traditional three-dial layout, with four buttons underneath that have been inspired by airplane-type toggle switches.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2012 Kia Rio will appeal to someone in need of a good-looking fuel-efficient vehicle that is backed by one of the longest warranties in the car industry. This car serves as a reminder that when you buy an inexpensive compact today, you don't have to skip premium features or premium looks.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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