2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Review: What Is It
Life as an automotive critic isn’t as easy as it looks. First of all, if you hope to have any credibility at all, you’ve gotta know cars and you’ve gotta understand how the industry works. Second, you need to be able to apply that knowledge to every new car that you drive, combined with an understanding of how the vehicle will be marketed, who is likely to buy the vehicle, and what the competitive set is. Third, you need to accept that no car is perfect, and be willing and able to explain why.
Only then can the credible automotive critic make a determination as to whether or not any given car, truck, SUV, or minivan has what it takes for success.
Having spent a week with a 2012 Kia Rio SX 5-Door, taking a family road trip in it, going to the beach for a day in it, and driving it on my standard Southern California test loop, I’m sitting here struggling to find anything substantially wrong with the car. Aside from the fact that it didn’t come anywhere near delivering the fuel economy promised on the window sticker, and that I found the back seat to be very uncomfortable, the Kia Rio SX 5-Door might just be the perfect subcompact car.
2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Review: Pricing and Trim Levels
Kia sells the Rio 5-Door in LX, EX and SX trim levels. Standard equipment for the Rio LX ($14,350 including destination charge) includes air conditioning, power heated exterior mirrors, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, a tilt steering wheel, and a trip computer. Because the Rio is aimed at young buyers, the stereo provides a CD/MP3 player, a USB/iPod connection, an auxiliary audio input jack, and a free three-month subscription to satellite radio. The Rio LX rolls on 15-inch steel wheels, and a Power Package ($1,000) containing power windows, power door locks, and remote keyless entry is optional on models equipped with the automatic transmission ($1,100).
Next up is the Rio EX ($17,250 including destination charge). This model includes the LX Power Package plus Bluetooth connectivity, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, cruise control, upgraded interior and exterior trim, and an automatic transmission. An optional Convenience Package ($1,000) adds 15-inch aluminum wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, soft-touch interior materials, a 4.3-inch color touch screen radio with a reversing camera, automatic headlights, fog lights, and power folding side mirrors with integrated turn signal indicators. An Eco Package ($400) is also available on the Rio EX, and installs automatic stop-start technology to fractionally improve fuel economy.
The sporty model is the Rio SX ($18,450 with destination charge), which includes the EX Convenience Package plus 17-inch machined-finish aluminum wheels, LED taillights, Supervision gauges, and metallic pedal trim. A Premium Package ($2,200) adds leather, heated front seats, navigation, Smart Key keyless access with push-button start, and a power moonroof.
All Rios come with six airbags, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and Hill-start Assist Control. A reversing camera is optional on the EX and standard on the SX.
The NHTSA gives the Kia Rio 5-Door a 4-Star overall crash-test rating, but notes a concern related to rear door panel intrusion during the side-impact test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Kia Rio a “Good” rating in the moderate overlap frontal impact test, but hasn’t evaluated the car for side- or rear-impact protection, or for roof crush strength.
2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Review: What It’s Up Against
The Kia Rio 5-Door goes head-to-head against other subcompact hatchbacks including the Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Mazda 2, Nissan Versa, Scion xD, and Toyota Yaris.
Some of these vehicles have individual characteristics that make them very appealing. The Sonic, for instance, can be equipped with a turbocharged engine. The Honda Fit features a Magic Seat design offering superior cargo toting talent. The Hyundai Accent matches the Kia’s impressive warranty. The Mazda 2 is terrific fun to drive. The Scion xD is a “Top Safety Pick.” The Toyota Yaris enjoys an enviable reliability record.
The Kia Rio SX 5-Door, however, is the complete package, and is my new favorite in the segment.
2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Review: Exterior
What’s New for 2012:
- Redesigned for 2012
- LED running lights and taillights on SX model
How It Looks
Kia’s current design language is on plain display upon the Rio’s flanks. From the LED running lights to the LED taillights, and from the sculpted side panels to the machined-finish 17-inch aluminum wheels, the Rio 5-Door SX is distinctive, attractive, and very European.
Perhaps that ought not be surprising, since Kia’s Chief Design Officer, Peter Schreyer, works from an office in Frankfurt, Germany, and came to the Korean automaker in 2006 after serving at Audi. As Schreyer put it in a 2010 interview: “I see cars less as modes of transport and more as objects of desire. The allure of a Kia should extend well beyond the fact that it moves people from one place to the other.”
Alluring might not be the right word to describe the Kia Rio 5-Door, but we’ll say this: the new 2012 Rio is much better looking and more sophisticated than anything else in its class, which goes a long way toward making it seem like an absolute bargain.
2012 Kia Rio Review: Interior
What’s New for 2012:
- Redesigned for 2012
- UVO infotainment system with color touchscreen display
How It Looks and Feels
When considering a subcompact, entry-level car, one assumes the interior is going to be cheap and uncomfortable. The opposite is true with the Kia Rio. I know. I can barely believe I just wrote that, especially considering all of the Rios that came before this one.
My Rio SX 5-Door test car had soft-touch dashboard trim, materials grained to convincingly mimic leather, durable feeling cloth that didn’t look garish or feel cheap, a thick-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel, simple yet stylish controls, and a color touchscreen radio with a reversing camera.
Really, this car looks and feels terrific inside. The Rio offers plenty of front seat track travel, and a perfect driving position is easy to achieve thanks to a height adjustable driver’s seat and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel. Plus, the Rio provides excellent forward sightlines.
I used the Rio for a weekend family road trip, and for a day at the beach. For the road trip, that meant stuffing a full-size stroller and a bunch of soft luggage into the 15 cu-ft. cargo area, with additional items placed in the rear foot wells - the rest of the space gone to children in child safety seats. For the beach day, that meant carrying an umbrella, folding chairs, a small cooler, towels, a couple of backpacks, and assorted extras. In both cases, the Rio had no trouble swallowing all of our gear and transporting my family of four in comfort.
Before returning the Rio to Kia, I removed our kids’ safety seats and tested out the back seat myself, sitting behind the driver’s seat as positioned for my own comfort. The seating position was low, snug, and uncomfortable. I would not want to ride back there for longer than it would take to arrive at a hyper-local destination.
2012 Kia Rio Review: Powertrain
What’s New for 2012:
- New engine and transmissions
How Does It Go
Every 2012 Kia Rio is equipped with a 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder engine. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on Rio LX models, with a six-speed automatic optional on the LX and standard on the EX and SX. The powertrain is covered by Kia’s excellent 10-year/100,000-mile warranty, while the entire car is protected with a 5-year/60,000-mile warranty including roadside assistance.
The engine that goes into the Rio has been named to an industry journal’s “10 Best Engines” list, and Kia says that this is the most powerful vehicle in its class. We did some fact checking against that claim. The Hyundai Accent has the exact same engine, and both of the Chevy Sonic’s engines match the Kia in terms of horsepower and beat it in terms of torque. Perhaps Kia would like to adjust its position on the whole horsepower and torque issue.
Happily, the engine achieves a rating of 30 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, regardless of transmission choice. Sadly, the worst thing about the Rio is how the engine underperforms in terms of fuel economy.
I drained three tanks of gas while driving the Rio. On the first tank, the Rio got 30.8 mpg, and the majority of the driving was performed on the highway. With the second tank, the car returned 28.6 mpg in mixed driving. The third tank provided 26.6 mpg, but that including plenty of flogging in the mountains. Average ‘em together, and we fell short of the EPA’s 30-mpg city rating by 1.4 mpg, let alone the combined mileage rating of 33 mpg.
2012 Kia Rio Review: How It Drives
The Kia Rio 5-Door is a terrific little city car, and is good for highway cruising. It will even power up a mountain grade with relative ease, and is fun to drive on a level or downhill twisty road.
What you don’t want to do is get into a drag race, or pull out into traffic without a pretty good amount of runway, because despite having one of the most powerful engines in its class, the Rio doesn’t feel very quick when you floor it. That’s why we think a turbocharger, even a small one designed to increase and broaden the torque curve, is all that’s really necessary to perfect this car.
As it stands, the six-speed automatic transmission is responsive with the Eco Mode shut off, but downshifts lethargically with Eco Mode turned on. A manual shift gate is located to the right of main shift pattern, and offers intuitive tap-up upshifts and tap-down downshifts.
The Rio’s electric steering is well weighted without any numb on-centeredness that sometimes plagues such systems. Could it be quicker? Sure. But for the majority of the driving you’ll do it’s perfect.
As for the braking system, the pedal feels terrific underfoot, making it really easy to modulate pressure as is necessary. The four-wheel-disc setup, with ventilated discs in front, exhibited no grabbing, no initial lack of bite, and no fade on a hot testing day.
The Rio SX’s suspension is unquestionably taut, and the 17-inch wheels with 205/45 tires make it a little more unforgiving, so if a softer ride quality is what you seek, stick with the LX or EX models. But wow, the Rio SX is a stable little car in a straight line, and it grips well in corners while providing plenty of advance warning about limits of adhesion.
2012 Kia Rio Review: Final Thoughts
After spending a week with the Kia Rio, I couldn’t stop telling people what a terrific little car it is. Nimble, attractive, and from the driver’s seat, not even close to feeling cheap, the Kia Rio SX 5-Door tracks straight and true on the highway, dives around corners, and offers the solidity and cabin isolation of a larger vehicle. It proved commodious for my family of four, and relatively fun to toss around on twisty mountain roads.
What this car needs is a turbocharger without any loss of existing fuel economy. Or it needs better real-world fuel economy. In hindsight, that 28.6-mpg average was the most disappointing thing about a week spent behind the Rio’s wheel.
2012 Kia Rio Review: Pros and Cons
- Exterior styling
- Interior design and control layout
- Steering, handling, and braking
- Front seat comfort
- Driving position
- Unexpected amenities for the price
- The price
- Fuel economy
- Rear seat comfort
Kia provided the vehicle for this review
2012 Kia Rio SX 5-Door Photos by Christian Wardlaw