2012 Kia Rio5 Review | National Post, Toronto

2012 Kia Rio5 Review
2012 Kia Rio5
By David Booth, National Post
The trick to the knock-off, as the haute couture industry so assiduously proves every fashion season, is to always emulate something more expensive. Thus, a lesser version of something Chanel found in a Target (known as Tar-Jay to the budget-minded fashionistas who prowl its aisles for bargains) is considered a coup; Target’s reciprocation might not be quite as appreciated. Likewise, an association with John Paul Gauthier would surely enhance Walmart’s standing; Jessica Simpson’s Collection, as fiscally successful as the sometimes-pudgy singer’s designs are, would do nothing to enhance Holt Renfrew’s appeal.
The same applies to car design. While it is always enviable to imbue the styling cues of a more expensive brand in your econocar, the inverse is seldom welcomed in luxury cars. Chris Bangle’s penchant for awkward angles and scalloped side panels, for instance, might have made the cheap and cheerful Fiat Coupe the toast of the 1993 Brussels Motor Show, but it was a dismal failure when he tried to apply the same motif to BMWs. (One design critic once described Bangle’s Z4 sports car as having been designed with a machete.)
On the other hand, Ian Callum all but copied the DB9 he sketched for Aston Martin when he remade Jaguar’s XK Coupe and absolutely no one complained. Indeed, Jaguar’s stature was increased for the association with the nominally superior brand. The lesson, one has to assume, is that automotive design, like fashion, is better trickling down than reaching up.
So, the fact that Kia’s new Rio5 econocar looks like a baby Audi can hardly be considered an insult. Nor should it come as a surprise that it looks so obviously influenced by Volkswagen’s luxury brand. Peter Schreyer, the man who penned it – and the new Optima – used to be the head of design at Audi.
Nonetheless, it’s shocking how Germanic (with a hint of French with its Peugeot-like haunches) the Rio5 looks. Peel off the Kia stickers, slap on some classier rims and the whole thing could pass for a revised A2. Sleeker than the Volkswagen Golf, prettier than the Honda Civic and dramatically sportier than the Ford Fiesta, the new Kia is definitely wearing the tiara in the subcompact beauty pageant. On looks alone, Kia should sell a boatload of Rio5s.
Nor is the hot-as-Olivia-Wilde hatchback’s performance likely to disappoint. Since it shares so much technology with the Hyundai Accent, the fact it’s powered by the same 1.6-litre four-cylinder should be no surprise. Blessed with both direct injection and variable valve timing on both its dual overhead camshafts – as well as an Idle Stop and Go (ISG) system that shuts down the engine at stoplights on the ECO model – the Rio5’s relatively diminutive four pumps out 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque, both figures class-leading.
It makes for sprightly performance far beyond that of Ford’s Fiesta and the Mazda2 (never mind the Yaris – let’s hope the upcoming revision will get Toyota back in the race). It helps that both the manual and available automatic transmission have six speeds as each makes it easier to keep the 1.6L in the sweet spot of its powerband – and that’s with the tachometer significantly canted toward its 6,300-rpm redline.
If Kia’s new powertrain has a weakness (and since it’s rated at 4.9 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway, fuel economy isn’t one of them) it’s that all that power is only meted out at the upper reaches of the rev range. Thankfully, the four-banger has little of the thrashiness common to many of its ilk. The six-speed automatic on my tester did a better job of making the most of the 1.6L’s output than the manual, which can demand downshifting for even moderate hills and passing slow traffic. Now that six-speed automatics are almost commonplace in subcompacts (isn’t it only a decade ago that Dodge’s Neon made do with an awkward three-speed slushbox?), it’s no longer necessary to opt for the manual transmission. Even fuel economy – at least in the Rio5’s case – is roughly the same.
The Rio’s ride and handling also belie its economical ($14,095) starting price. There’s little of the crashing over potholes and manhole lips that are supposed to be part of subcompact experience. The Kia is not VW’s Golf, to be sure, but the suspension compliance/damping is sportier than in previous small Kias without turning the ride buckboard-like. If not class-leading, the Rio is at least the equal of anything in this price range, particularly when you consider that electric power steering – which I remember BMW bragging about as its latest technical innovation just a few short years ago – is standard on the cheap and cheerful Rio.
As for the interior goodies, my tester was a pre-production prototype of Kia’s topline EX Luxury, with virtually every goody the accessory department could ladle in, which leaves me without a keen sense of what a base Rio5 will look like. However, I can attest to a dramatically improved dashboard layout that seems both modern and easily decipherable. For those looking for more subtle indicators of Schreyer’s Audi influence, the gauge set’s lighting is Volkswagen Group LED red.
Noticeable for its inclusion on a subcompact is Kia’s UVO (Your Voice) in-car infotainment, developed by Microsoft. Think Ford’s Sync but simpler if a little less powerful. There’s Sirius satellite radio included as well as voice-activated commands for the audio system, an on-board hard drive to store songs and Bluetooth-enabled cellphone connectivity. But the highlight, especially at this price point, is the built-in reverse camera displayed (complete with colour-coded directional indicators) on the UVO’s 4.3-inch LCD screen. Yes, the screen is small compared with those on luxury sedans, but, coupled with an available heated steering wheel as well as heated front seats and an air conditioned glove box, it puts the Rio5 – at least the EX Luxury – at the height of subcompact hedonism.
It’s also pretty roomy inside. With the driver’s seat adjusted for my 5-foot-11 frame (though I must admit I like the seat fairly close to the steering wheel), there was still enough legroom in the rear. And, since it’s a hatchback, there is headroom to spare. Like many subcompacts, the rear seat’s bottom is fairly short, offering little thigh support – so you’ll not be taking any NBA stars for extended rides, at least not in complete Rolls-Royce-like comfort. Also, at 10.2 cubic feet with the seats up, the trunk is smallish. But it is excellently shaped to get the most out of the available space. (Fold the 60/40-split rear bench and there’s 29 cu. ft. to play with.)
What this all means, if you have not been reading the subtext, is that the new Rio5 will be a huge – make that humongous – hit. Sexier than even the most European of hatches, the Rio5 is Continental charm brought to North America with South Korea’s ruthless efficiency. If the Rio5 is an indication of the company’s stylistic trend, I suspect there will be a lot more Kias on the road in the near future.
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