The 2011 Kia Rio looked plain, but was fairly lively, economical and backed with a long warranty. You either bought it — or maybe a used car.
The redone 2012 model has slicker, European-inspired styling, more power, a better automatic transmission and improved fuel economy — besides keeping Kia’s 10-year/100,00-mile powertrain warranty.
The front-wheel-drive Rio comes in base LX, mid-range EX and top-line SX trim. It’s sold as a sedan or hatchback. List prices range from $13,400 to $17.700, excluding a $750 destination charge.
Standard for the LX are air conditioning, AM/FM stereo, CD Player, satellite radio, adjustable steering wheel with audio controls and large power mirrors.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard in the LX sedan and hatchback, but you can get both versions with a new six-speed automatic for $14,500 (sedan) or $14,700 (hatchback).
The EX adds the automatic transmission as standard, besides power windows and door locks with keyless entry.
The sporty SX has cruise control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, leather-wrapped wheel, lower-profile tires on larger (17-inch) wheels, suspension enhancements, a back-up camera and power mirrors with turn signal indicators.
Rio safety items include lots of air bags and all-disc brakes.
The 2011 Rio had 110 horsepower and a dated four-speed automatic transmission. But all 2012 versions have a 138-horsepower direct-injection 1.6-liter four-cylinder with dual overhead camshafts and 16 valves.
The new Rio’s more modern six-speed automatic works efficiently and has an easily used manual-shift feature.
Estimated fuel economy for this new Kia is impressive: 30 miles per gallon in the city, 40 mpg on highways.
The engine is noisy when revved high for the best acceleration, but quickly propels the car from 65-75 mph on highways. Merging into fast freeway traffic is no problem. Cruising is effortless, with little wind or road noise.
The steering is quick, with good road feel, and the Rio has agile handling. (The SX is the best handler partly because it has thicker anti-sway bars.) The ride is compliant, and the brake pedal has a soft feel, but a progressive action.
Traction control, electronic stability control and a vehicle stability management system also helped keep my test Rio on course.
There is a variety of option packages. My test car had the $2,200 Premium package. It contains such popular features as a power tilt/slide sunroof, navigation system, push-button start, leather seat trim and heated front seats.
I tested the $17,500 SX sedan, which costs $17,700 in hatchback form. It has a large trunk for a subcompact car, and rear seatbacks flip forward and sit flat for more cargo room. However, the pass-through opening between the trunk and backseat area is only moderately large.
The trunk opening is wide, but rather high for the quickest loading. Curiously, the trunk lid has no interior grip to help close it without getting hands dirty on outside sheet metal.
The Rio has large door handles, inside and out, and wide door openings to allow easy entry and exit. Front seats offer good lateral support, and there’s decent room in back for two 6-footers.
The interior is quiet, but has a lot of average-looking plastic. The backlit gauges can be quickly read, even in bright sunlight. Climate controls are large. Although, smaller, radio controls are easy to use, and all controls are within convenient reach. Front cupholders are nicely placed, but the small-but-deep center console bin is set far back.
Front doors have pockets and rear ones have beverage holders. The glovebox is unusually large.
The outside hood release is easy to find and use, without groping for it and bruising fingers, and the padded hood is held up with a short rod.
The Kia Rio fits nicely in the growing entry level small-car market, which has become increasingly competitive.
Pros: Sexier styling. Quick. Fuel-thrifty. Roomy. Sure handling. Compliant ride. Two body styles.
Cons: Lots of interior plastic. Rather high truck sill. Limited manual transmission availability.
Bottom line: The Rio offers a six-speed automatic transmission, which is unusual for the subcompact class besides advanced features such as direct fuel injection.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and used car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.