My first experience with the current-generation Kia Rio was behind the wheel of the 2011 Rio B-Spec race car. This red-and-white pocket rocket differed from the Rio at your dealership in its fully stripped interior, full roll cage, racing bucket seat with six-point harness, quick-release steering wheel, and digital racing instrumentation. Underpinning the car was a lower, stiffer suspension and lightweight wheels shod in the sticky Continental slicks dictated by the series' spec. However, aside from a louder exhaust, the four-cylinder engine was essentially stock, with similar levels of power and torque to what it rolled off of the assembly line with, and the same six-speed manual gearbox putting that power to the front wheels.
The surprising bit was that this low-powered hatch that handled like it was on rails was easily my favorite car to drive as part of a day that included the Fiat 500 Abarth, the Subaru BRZ, and the Jaguar XKR-S. That experience left me with a great deal of fondness for the littlest Kia, so I was excited when the 2012 Rio SX sedan pulled into the Car Tech garage.
Of course, the road-going, mass-produced version was a much, much more watered-down experience that was nowhere near as exciting as the race car, but that doesn't mean that the Rio was by any means a disappointment. On the contrary, it proved to be quite the fun little compact, offering good technology, reasonable value, and performance reminiscent of the glory days of the Honda Civic.
Big cutesy headlights with halogen bulbs dominate the Rio's front end, flanking the automaker's tiger nose. The light they cast seemed a bit on the dim side. LED daytime running lights make the lamps look even dimmer by comparison when approaching the vehicle at night. Unfortunately, HID xenon lights are not available.
The four-door body features a windswept look and a roofline that flows seamlessly from the hood to the trunk lid, making it difficult to tell the difference between the sedan and hatchback from the front quarter view. Personally, I prefer the utility and aesthetic of the five-door when viewed from the side and rear angles.
Inside, the Rio's interior feels inexpensive to the touch, but doesn't look it to the eye -- at least, not really. You'll never feel like you're sitting in a car that costs more than the Rio SX's $17,500 sticker price, but to its credit, you'll never feel like you're driving one cheaper -- particularly if you spec the Premium package that includes leather seats. Nice touches like chrome trim around the glossy, optional push-button starter and the climate control knobs visually punch up the interior aesthetic.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel in our SX felt good in the hand, but the tallish seating position (while great for around-town visibility) isn't ideal for sporty driving.
Mechanically, the 2012 Kia Rio is mostly identical to the current generations of Hyundai's Accent and Veloster compacts. The similarities start in the engine bay where a direct-injected 1.6-liter gasoline four-banger generates 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual is available at the Rio's lowest LX trim level, but our SX is only available with a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
The EPA estimates the Rio will get 30 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway, and 33 mpg combined average. An Eco package is available on EX models that adds auto start-stop and 1 mpg to the city estimate, but the SX model lacks this option. During our testing, we nearly matched the EPA's combined average with a trip-computer-reported 33.4 mpg over a test cycle with a driving mix that was heavy on highway driving, with a few aggressive stints on b-roads.
The Rio is suspended with a MacPherson strut setup on the front axle and a torsion beam rear suspension. All Rios feature four-wheel disc brakes, with 10.1-inch rotors up front and 10.3-inchers in the rear. (It seems odd that the brakes would be smaller than the rears, so I'm questioning the accuracy of Kia's online spec sheet.) The SX model features larger front 11-inch rotors with single-piston floating calipers.