Editor's note: Estimated mileage ratings have been lowered to reflect a November 2012 EPA audit of this car's stated mileage.
Up against elevated gas prices, car shoppers should take comfort in the fact they don't have to pay a premium for a hybrid to save money at the pump. There's a new crowd of subcompact and compact cars that are fuel-efficient, start below $15,000 and dispel some outdated notions about small cars. Available in sedan and four-door hatchback body styles, the 2012 Kia Rio is one of these cars. I tested the hatchback, which is called the 5-Door. The sedan is covered separately.
With its redesign, the 2012 Kia Rio 5-Door goes from basic transportation to a refined subcompact that's appealing for more than just practical reasons.
The Rio 5-Door starts at $14,350 including a $750 destination charge, but our well-equipped SX trim level's as-tested price was $20,745 and included upscale features like a navigation system and heated leather seats. To see how the Rio 5-Door's specs compare with the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic and Honda Fit, click here.
Just as it's likely that a redesigned model will produce more horsepower than its predecessor, it's also a safe bet that its styling will be more aggressive. The Rio 5-Door follows this trend, and the result is a small hatchback with the face of an angry dragonfly. Bulbous headlights border a pinched upper grille.
For a subcompact car, the Rio 5-Door has a great stance. While some of its competitors' height is overly emphasized by a narrow track (the distance between left and right wheels), the Rio 5-Door looks wide by comparison. It's not the widest car in this class, but it has one of the lower rooflines, contributing to its eye-pleasing proportions.
The Rio 5-Door gets an EPA-estimated 29/37 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and 28/36 mpg with the automatic. In addition to standard low-rolling-resistance tires and electrically assisted power steering, Kia also includes a selectable Active Eco mode on automatic-transmission models to squeeze more miles from each gallon of gas.
When Active Eco is activated, the transmission upshifts sooner and downshifts later to keep engine rpm lower. It also tries to smooth gas pedal response. Although the system doesn't lead to an official increase in the Rio 5-Door's EPA gas mileage, Kia says Active Eco can improve fuel economy by up to 7 percent.
There's a downside to the Active Eco mode, and it's a big one: Gas pedal responsiveness is severely diminished. It makes the car feel sluggish and takes away from the refined four-cylinder engine that powers this car.
With Active Eco turned off, a more accurate picture of the 1.6-liter four-cylinder emerges. It revs smoothly and offers adequate power. The six-speed automatic, which is optional on the LX and standard on the EX and SX, makes the engine look good, with quick kickdowns when you jab the gas pedal. At highway speeds, however, the four-cylinder's passing power is pretty much exhausted.
Ride & Handling
Unlike the other trim levels, the SX version is fitted with a sport suspension. Ride quality is taut and can be bouncy at times, but the car feels nicely planted, too. All versions of the Rio 5-Door have an independent front suspension and a semi-independent torsion-beam rear suspension. The electrically assisted power steering provides minimal steering feedback.
Cabin Roominess & Comfort
For a subcompact car, the Rio 5-Door feels relatively spacious up front. Unlike some of its competitors, you don't feel like you're crowding your front occupant's personal space.
Unfortunately, the front bucket seats compromise overall comfort. For one, the seat cushions are short. I'm 6-foot-1, so they didn't provide enough thigh support, even though the legroom itself is good. Beyond that, the seats have a firm, boardlike feel that's not conducive to comfort. Like other cars in this class, the Rio 5-Door's backseat is tight for adults, as legroom is in short supply.
Upscale features are appearing in more new small cars, including the Rio 5-Door. Premium options include a navigation system with a 7-inch touch-screen and a backup camera, heated leather front seats, push-button start, power-folding side mirrors and Kia's Uvo system for controlling cellphone features.
The 2012 Rio 5-Door received a four-star (out of five) overall rating in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing, but its performance was marred by a Safety Concern warning in the side barrier crash test. In NHTSA tests, a Safety Concern highlights a situation that isn't calculated into the star rating. While the Rio 5-Door received five stars for its overall side crash-test performance, in the side barrier test the rear door panel struck the backseat test dummy's torso. This represents a higher likelihood of injury.
The Rio 5-Door has standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, features that are required on all new cars beginning with the 2012 model year. Additional standard features include side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and Vehicle Stability Management. Using the electric-assist power-steering system, VSM can make steering corrections to help the driver regain control in an emergency.
Rio 5-Door in the Market
The redesigned Rio 5-Door is a big step forward for the nameplate and is worth considering if you're shopping for a subcompact. It follows a familiar path that Kia's taken with other recent redesigns like the Optima sedan and Sorento crossover by offering a combination of standout design and value that's too enticing to overlook.
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