First Drive: 2012 Kia Rio

I’m sitting in Miner’s Old-Fashioned Diner in sunny Yakima, WA state, staring exhaustedly at a half-finished hamburger the size of a hubcap. “Y’want fries with that?” Well, I thought I did, but no longer: There’s no way I can finish this obscene amount of food.

Outside in the parking lot, a bevvy of all-new 2012 Kia Rio 5-doors wait to whisk my group on its way. I can’t help feeling a bit guilty about my personal excessive consumption, when we’ve come all the way down from Seattle and the Kias have wasted nary a drop of fuel. I push back my chair and head for the door.

These days in the automotive industry, less is more, big is out, and the small car is king. This has been the case for several years in Canada, where we prefer one size smaller from our cousins to the South. Americans buy Camrys and Accords, we buy Corollas and Civics.

For years, going small meant getting crammed into a unpleasant penalty box. Subcompacts had four doors, four wheels and a four-cylinder, and that’s about it. Interiors were swathed in nasty plastics and designs had all the sex appeal of a jelly-bean.

If we’re honest, the old Rio was exemplary of this sort of cost-cutting behaviour. Sure, the previous-gen Rio was inexpensive, but it was also cheap, with all the ho-hum economy-minded buzziness that the word implies.

This new one, though…

You might be forgiven for thinking that the Kia design department accidentally unearthed beneath their offices one of the Monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, given the way they’ve simply leap-frogged forward evolutionarily. At first, they were over there, building average vehicles that sold on cut-rate pricing and cheap monthly financing. Blink once, and suddenly they’re over here, putting out designs that practically shame the luxury marques.

The Monolith’s name? Designer Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi. Having turned the Optima into a lithe euro-sedan, turbo-charged the Sportage into one of the hottest cross-overs on the market and taken aim at the Japanese compacts with the Koupe and Forte, Schreyer & co. now turn their attention to the most diminutive member of the Kia family and swing for the fences.

Quite frankly, the 2012 Kia Rio’s a home run. Call it a “microlith.”

Starting with the flared-out, wide-tracked and new angular design, the Rio 5-Door is immediately recognizable as a Kia product, and we live in an era where that’s a good thing. There’s more than a smidgen of Audi A3 in the DNA and it’s a comparison that Kia is only too happy that people are making.

Step inside, and the chocolate-box-tray plastics are completely gone, replaced by soft-touch materials and a more ergonomic layout. Even the base models have the feel of a more up-market ride, comfortable and spacious.

The Rio’s 1.6L direct-injection engine isn’t going to set any dragstrips on fire, but it’s surprisingly quiet and peppy and, as previously alluded to, miserly when it comes to fuel consumption (4.9L/100kms hwy). For urban driving, there’s available integrated start-stop technology for the automatic transmission. It’s a simple idea, shutting off the car when you’re stopped at a light, but it’s one more way to cut waste by boxing clever.

Out on the road, the Rio’s ride is that of a larger car; my driving partner easily drifted off in the passenger’s seat in a post-lunch coma (and no wonder). When we came to some downhill s-bends, that widened track kept the car planted through the curves: Perhaps a sports model is in the works? The chassis could certainly handle more power.

Really though, it’s the feature list that makes this car a game-changer. While Kia will happily sell you an entry-level Rio for the old pennies-a-mile payment plan, there’s no reason you need dwell in some budget-version of purgatory just because you want to dodge high fuel bills. Spec out your Rio with a leather interior if you want, a heated steering wheel, Kia’s excellent UVO voice-control technology (which actually works, unlike others we could name), push-button start, LED tail-lights; in short, a list of goodies you’d normally expect to find in a car costing twice as much.

In a nutshell: The new Rio 5-Door happily expunges any last whiff that Kia is a company building cut-rate economy cars. With a complete lineup that’s fast and efficient, sharply styled with clever features and well-priced to boot, the Koreans should be making those Japanese mainstay brands very nervous indeed. It seems there’s a new sun rising in the East.

2012 Kia Rio
LX: $14,095
LX+: $15,595
LX ECO: $17,695
EX: $16,995
EX Luxury: $20,795

Image courtesy of Brendan McAleer.

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