2012 Kia Rio Review | National Post, Toronto

2012 Kia Rio Review

2012 Kia Rio

By David Booth, National Post
It’s the curse of the successful sibling: No matter how bright, beautiful or beguiling you might be, you’ll always be in the shadows. Can you imagine being Brad Pitt’s brother? You could be a dolphin-saving volunteer pediatric heart surgeon with a scratch handicap and you’re still not going to get big props at Thanksgiving dinner. And thank God Charlize Theron is an only child; no matter how lucky you were in the DNA sweepstakes, you’d have to guess that you’d always be the ugly sister.
I sense that the sedan version of Kia’s new Rio may face a similar uphill battle for the hearts and eyes of subcompact shoppers who wander into the company’s dealerships. It’s not that the sedan is ugly. Indeed, the Rio sedan is quite lovely in its own right; it’s just that in comparison with the five-door hatchback, which is the most attractive small car not wearing a Mini badge, the sedan is not quite as attention-grabbing.
It’s still very fetching, penned by former Audi chief designer Peter Schreyer, who has transformed Kia into one of the more fashionable auto manufacturers. Like the Rio5 – which looks like a baby Audi – one can see a Germanic influence in the sedan’s silhouette. Cover the new Rio in a form-fitting blanket and it could be easily mistaken for the silhouette of a Volkswagen Jetta. Even some of the details, such as the real tail lamp treatment, are vaguely European. That said, the sedan’s headlights seem more bulbous than the hatch’s and, no matter how slinky the rear roofline, it can’t match the hatch’s cute-as-a-bug charm.
In almost all other ways, the sedan emulates the Rio5’s technology, equipment and performance. That’s no small compliment since the basic Rio’s list of superlatives in the subcompact segment is long. From the exterior – where the Kia incorporates the LED headlights pioneered by Audi (quelle surprise) – to the powertrain – where the piston is coated with a high-tech, Formula One-pioneered Diamond Like Coating (DLC) for reduced friction -Kia has ladled on the high-tech like the Rio is a five-star luxury sedan and not a cheap and cheerful subcompact that starts at $13,795.
Indeed, though any car can be more – and, too often, less – than the sum its parts, it’s impossible to ignore how much car one does get for that seemingly paltry sum. Included in the $13,795 manufacturer’s suggested list price (dealers may say for less, as the advertisements always stipulate) is an incredible laundry list of big-car features such asĀ  power windows, doors and locks (almost unique in base trim of subcompacts), intermittent wipers, anti-lock brakes and a high-tech electronic stability control system. At the high end, you can outfit a Rio with heated seats, an audio infotainment system and even a power sunroof. Yes, a full-boat EX Luxury edition costs $21,695, but it features a voice-recognition navigation system, a rear-view camera for parking and even an electrically heated steering wheel, for gosh sakes. Wasn’t it just last week that Kias were cheap and cheerful?
Of course, as with the hatchback, Kia is trumpeting the technology that drives the Rio as much as the gadgets that coddle. First and foremost of these is the 1.6-litre direct-injected in-line four that Kia Canada says is the most powerful in its class. And, indeed, the Rio’s 138 horsepower is the most of any in this segment, save for the Hyundai Accent, which shares the same powertrain. Certainly, compared with the Toyota Yarises of the world, the Rio is a veritable powerhouse.
It’s also a sophisticated little beast with variable valve timing, a variable inlet tract and a drive-by-wire electronic throttle control system, all systems we’re told designed to deliver mucho high-rpm horsepower and prodigious low-speed torque. It certainly accomplishes the first, but the second is open to interpretation. Yes, the Rio’s 123 pound-feet is superior to all but Chevy’s new Sonic, but it occurs at a rather heady 4,850 rpm. Certainly, the turbocharged Sonic feels more muscular down low. On the other hand, it’s not as if the Rio feels less torquey than the rest of its subcompact competition, only that it so overwhelms them at high rpm that one expects a similar superiority right off the line.
For that reason, I actually found the engine better suited to its six-speed automatic transmission, mainly because the slushbox automatically keeps the engine singing in the meat of its powerband. The manual, by comparison, requires that the driver row the box himself and, considering that passing is sometimes best accomplished by downshifting two gears, letting a computer do the hard work is more relaxing.
It helps that the engine spins up there relatively sweetly. The Rio’s Gamma four-banger will never be mistaken for a Lexus V8 or even an Audi four-banger, but it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss, more than can be said of all engines capable of ekeing out 100 kilometres of highway travel with just 4.9 litres of fuel. That fuel, by the way, can be watery old 87 octane despite the Kia’s 11:1 compression ratio thanks to that GDI system that pumps fuel directly into the cylinder at precisely the right time rather than just dumping it into the intake manifold willy-nilly.
Kia also claims that it is the sportier of the two South Korean automakers, the Hyundai Accent, in this case, sharing a chassis and suspension components but not damper and spring settings. The claim, therefore, is that the Rio is sportier than the Accent; I can’t attest to it, though I can say that, except for a steering system a little shy on feedback (thanks to the fuel-consumption-reducing electric power steering system), the little sedan handles with as much aplomb as anything in this class. Ditto braking, where Kia insists we mention that even the base Rio comes standard with four-wheel discs.
Indeed, the Kia Rio message is fairly simple: You can have more, you can have it for the same low, low price and we can wrap it up in a surprisingly stylish package at no extra cost. I suspect that, whether it’s the pugnacious little Rio5 or this, its four-door sibling, that’s a message that will gain some traction.

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