For 2002, a subcompact Rio wagon joins the front-drive Rio mini-sedan that debuted a year earlier as the least-expensive car in the U.S. market. On sale since summer 2001, the wagon is the least-expensive example of that body style sold in the United States, displacing the Suzuki Esteem, which held that title recently. Rio sedans switch from 13-inch to 14-inch tires for 2002, and a new power package is optional.
Since its acquisition by Hyundai, another South Korean automaker, Kia has been coming on stronger than ever by expanding its passenger-car offerings. A brand-new midsize Optima sedan arrived in 2001, following the debut of the mini-sized Rio sedan and the Spectra hatchback version of the subcompact Sephia sedan, which has been around since 1994. Kia sold 98,256 vehicles in the United States during 2000, vs. 82,211 units in the previous year, according to Automotive News. This years new products, including the Sedona minivan, give the company a total of six models quite a jump from the handful of Sephia sedans that began to trickle into the United States in the mid-1990s.
Kia provides a long-term warranty similar to that of its parent company. It covers the whole vehicle for five years/60,000 miles, major powertrain components for 10 years/100,000 miles and corrosion for five years/100,000 miles. Free roadside assistance is included for the first five years.
Led by what Kia calls an aero-look front end with memorable triangular taillamps at the rear, the Rio generally looks like a typical small sedan. Essentially, its based on the platform used by the Kia-built Ford Aspire of the mid-1990s.
With a 94.9-inch wheelbase and a 165.9-inch overall length, the mini-sized Rio is 9 inches shorter than the Spectra sedan, which is Kias larger subcompact. The four-door Rio sedan measures 65.9 inches wide and 56.7 inches tall, and its standard wheels have grown to 14 inches in diameter for 2002.
With a claimed five-passenger capacity, the Rio has front buckets and a three-place rear seat. Still, its short wheelbase and modest width means the backseat could be tight for all occupants, except young children. The height-adjustable drivers seat has an integral armrest, but the rear seatback does not fold down for extra cargo volume. The trunk holds 9.2 cubic feet of cargo. Optional features include air conditioning, power steering, a cassette player and a tilt steering column.
Under the Hood
Kias 96-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine mates with either a standard five-speed manual or an optional four-speed-automatic transmission. Antilock brakes are optional, and side-impact airbags are not available.
The Rio is not without its faults. However, Kias smallest model is a pleasantly appealing, surprisingly capable vehicle a sizable cut above whats usually expected from small cars. With the manual shift, acceleration is eager if not exactly overpowering, whether that is during standing-start takeoffs or for passing and merging. Performance also is better than adequate with the automatic transmission, unless youre on a heavy upgrade, which can cause the Rio to struggle to maintain speed. Automatic-transmission shifts are generally quick and easy, but pushing hard on the gas pedal can produce a bit of awkwardness as the gears change.
The Rio shines brightest in ride quality, which is well-behaved and composed. Quick steering response yields a sensation of confidence thats not often found in such small cars. A certain amount of steering-wheel correction is needed on straightaways at higher speeds, but no more than in other vehicles of this sort.
Its gauges are easy to read, but a tachometer is not included. Headroom is plentiful in the front seats. The backseat offers more space than many larger competitors, including the center-rear position. Because power windows are not available, occupants will have to do the cranking on their own. Radio buttons are bigger than in previous Kia models, though the lettering on the controls is still small. The Rios simple-to-use but effective air conditioner produces ample coolness on warm days.