Driven: 2012 Kia Rio Five-Door

By Tom Martin

October 13, 2011

—Austin, Texas
Every year it becomes more obvious that you have to pay attention to what Kia is doing. It has rolled out nine new cars in the last three years, is growing faster than the industry during the recovery, and is now up to about a four-percent share of the US market. For perspective, that puts Kia well ahead of not only premium brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW, but also Mazda, Subaru, and Volkswagen. Next in their sights is probably Nissan, with about seven percent of the market. With all the choices in the automotive market, we figure that you don’t make those gains by accident. But, we have to say that it is the rare Kia that stands out in our minds, so we were curious to try Kia’s latest new offering, the Rio 5-Door, to put some perspective on the Kia success story. These guys are doing something right, but what exactly is it?
The Rio five-door is one of the new B-segment cars that now seem to be proliferating on our shores. If you haven’t been following this closely, we’ll jog your memory by mentioning the Honda Fit, the Ford Fiesta, the Nissan Versa, the Chevrolet Sonic, the Toyota Yaris, and the Mazda2. With EPA regulations forcing manufacturers to up their average fuel economy numbers rapidly through 2016 and beyond, suddenly Americans are getting small cars whether they want them or not.
From our perspective this is a very good thing (not the part about jamming things down people’s throats, but the strong competition in the B segment). We’re happy for starters because these small cars get decent fuel mileage. B-segment cars also tend to be light and therefore entertaining to toss about. They tend to offer manual transmissions, adding to the fun factor. And they are quite affordable, while still having plenty of room for most needs. So, they can be one’s only car. Given all that, we have showered the Honda Fit and the Mazda2 with accolades over the past two years, and we should note that the Fiesta is pretty nice as well. With that perspective in mind, we wondered, “What can Kia possibly bring to this rather crowded party?”
Turns out the Rio has plenty to offer. But to understand that, you have to view the car from the right perspective, or perspectives as it happens. Based on our time in the Rio, this is a car you pick because it has a combination of features and value that is appealing, not a car you pick because it has the best driving dynamics in this class. So, rather than follow our normal format, we’ve summarized the ways a likely buyer might understand the new Rio.
The Rio Is An Improved Fiesta
We think the Fiesta is a benchmark car in this segment for mainstream buyers (less so for enthusiasts). Like the Fiesta, the Rio is a nicely styled (inside and out), nice to drive B-segment car. 
Like the Fiesta, the Rio is relatively quiet and has a smooth ride. Both cars have enough acceleration to be perfectly serviceable. They both have smooth transmissions. They are both light and feel nimble. Also like the Fiesta, the Rio feels solid. And the Rio has plenty of techno-features.
Now consider the Rio’s advantages. The Rio is a little bit bigger inside. The Rio gets slightly better mileage (one to two more miles per gallon in the city). The Rio has a bit more power (138 versus 120 horsepower). The Rio has a longer warranty.
The point is that the Rio has some small advantages and doesn't fall down on anything mainstream buyers would consider important. So, the Rio is certainly fully feature competitive with the Fiesta. And then comes the deal closer: the Rio is about $1900 less than the Fiesta (and less than many other B-segment cars as well), which is particularly meaningful given that Kia now has some of the best residual values in the category.
The Rio Is A Mini-Luxury Sedan
If you compare the Rio 5-Door to a mid-sized luxury sedan like the Acura TL or the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the Rio gives a little ground but isn’t blown away. That's because the feel of the Rio seems to be targeted to mimic softer, more isolated cars such as these. Like the bigger sedans, the Rio has a comfortable ride. Because the Rio has a shorter 101-inch wheelbase, it moves around a bit more on bumps and such, but because it is lighter (by about 1500 pounds) it can offer a more compliant suspension without getting floaty. The Kia is quiet too, though the engine noise when you get into the throttle intrudes somewhat more than it does on the Acura or the Mercedes-Benz. The Rio has comfortable seats and adequate room front and rear. Sure, the Rio isn’t quite as roomy inside as a mid-sized car, but the difference isn’t as big as you might imagine. The Rio also offers plenty of creature comforts, including a reverse camera, USB audio input, hard drive for music storage, Bluetooth, and voice activated controls.
All-in-all, the Rio has perhaps 80-percent of the comfort, with a related feel, at 33-percent of the price of such premium luxury cars.
The Rio Is A Prius Alternative
For green-oriented buyers, the Prius is the benchmark car, and the Rio presents an interesting alternative. The Prius gets 51/48 EPA mpg, while the Rio gets 30/40. That seems like a pretty big difference, though over a typical 10,000-mile driving year the Rio only would cost about $400 more to fuel.
Another selling point of the Prius is its hybrid street cred. The Rio counters with a very light form of hybrid technology, called ISG, which turns the engine off and on at stops, for a gain of about one mpg in the city. On top of that, the Rio is 85-percent recyclable. It may be harder for your friends to see that you are hugging a tree with the Rio, but Kia is delivering some advanced eco technology to a new price point. You get a flavor of that when you look at window stickers. The Prius costs $8420 more than the Rio, meaning that economy isn’t the reason to prefer the Prius. More to the point, the Rio gives eco-oriented buyers a really usable, comfortable green car at a price that many can handle.
The Rio Is Ridiculously Sensible
We keep talking about the small (or not so small if you have to make the payments) price advantage of the Rio. That aspect of the Rio is certainly practical, as is the good fuel economy. We’ve also mentioned the warranty, which is a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, combined with a five-year/60,000-mile limited basic warranty, and a five-year/100,000-mile anti-perforation warranty. A five-year/60,000-mile roadside assistance plan also is part of the deal. The Rio is also fully up-to-date on safety features, with six airbags, ABS, stability control, and serious structural engineering. And, we have to say, we are B-segment fans because the hatchback arrangement allows so much stuff to be crammed into the car, making these vehicles reasonable substitutes for small crossovers. And while two-box cars like the Scion xB and Kia Soul can certainly compete (and win) on this last point, the Rio’s more conservative styling may appeal more to some tastes and career paths. As we said: sensible.
So, you can see that the Rio has a lot to offer. That said, we have to mention that for the traditional Winding Road reader, the Rio wouldn’t be our first choice. For the buyer who puts driving dynamics first, we’d choose the Mazda2 or the Honda Fit without question. That’s because those cars have tighter suspensions, better manual shifters and more communicative steering than the Rio does (the Rio isn't bad in these categories, just more isolated). But we don’t think the Rio is aimed at that buyer. For the many buyers who simply want a great value, measured by features and comfort per dollar, we think Kia has a winner in the Rio 5-Door. Watch your market share around these guys.
Kia Rio Five-Door
Engine: Inline-4, 1.6 liters, 16v
Output: 138 hp/123 lb-ft
Weight: 2410 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 30/40 mpg
Base Price: $13,600
On Sale: Now