By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
At first, I thought something had to be wrong.
The window sticker that came with the new Kia Rio I’ve been test driving said 30 city, 40 highway. The car’s mileage computer said I was averaging 33. But the fuel gauge needle seemed to move as soon as I turned the engine on. After a trip “down the mountain” and back (about 60 miles) it had moved a lot. A quarter down.
That can’t be right.
Luckily, it wasn’t. Well, it was – but not in the way that you might think.
The Rio was delivering 33 MPG, average – and I have no doubt it’s capable of 40 on the highway, as advertised. Probably more, if you’re gentle.
But you’ll still be stopping for gas fairly often. Not because the Kia uses a lot, but because there’s not much in the tank to use. It has a mere 11 gallon capacity – which means the “low fuel” light will come on when you’re down 8-9. And eight or so gallons will only take you about 264 miles at 33-ish MPG.
Other small economy cars have the same issue. It’s probably not too noticeable in the urban-suburban environment, where stopping for gas fairly frequently is no big deal. But if you live in a rural area as I do and put some distances behind you each day, a car like the Rio can seem awfully thirsty, even if it isn’t really.
So, be advised. But remember: It’s not the car. It’s the teensy tank.
WHAT IT IS
The Rio is an entry-level compact sedan/hatchback sedan that’s sportier than typical of cars in its price range – including its corporate cousin, the more subdued-looking Hyundai Accent – without giving up near top-tier fuel efficiency.
Prices start at $13,400 for the LX sedan and top out at $17,700 for an SX hatchback.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2102
The ’12 Rio’s all-new.
A low-bucks VW GTI in the corners – that gets better gas mileage, too.
More substantial-looking (and less expensive) than a Mazda2. Quicker, too.
Gets 40 MPG without cost-adding turbos (Chevy Sonic) or extra-cost “fuel economy” packages.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Small gas tank means frequent fill-ups.
Could use more scoot in a straight line (turbo Sonic’s about a second quicker to 60).
UNDER THE HOOD
The Rio comes standard with a 1.6 liter, 138 hp Gas Direct Injection (GDI) four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Direct injection – and the six-speed transmissions – account for the Rio’s excellent 30 city, 40 highway MPG ratings.
For perspective, the standard Chevy Sonic with 1.8 liter engine makes the same power – but only rates 26 city, 35 highway. Even with its optional (and much more complex) 1.4 liter turbo engine, the Sonic only manages to not-quite match the Rio’s at-the-pump performance with a 29 city, 40 highway ranking.
Another car in this class, the otherwise appealing Mazda2, is crippled up by its ancient (1990s) technology four-speed automatic transmission – which limits mileage to 28 city and 34 on the highway.
The Rio’s acceleration, on the other hand, is mediocre. Expect the 0-60 run to take about 9.7-9.8 seconds. The turbo Sonic is a full second quicker and even the Mazda2 (with just 100 hp on tap and less efficient transmissions to deliver what’s on tap) is only a couple of ticks of the stopwatch behind the Rio. Probably this is because the Kia weighs about 100 pounds more than the Mazda (2,410 lbs. vs. 2,306 lbs.).
2,400 pounds is porky for a small car – about 400-500 pounds more, in fact, than comparable cars weighed in the ’80s. This is why, by the way, modern economy cars struggle to break 40 MPG on the highway while back in the ’80s, numerous economy compacts were doing almost that well in city driving – and pushing 50 on the highway.
But don’t blame Kia – or Mazda or any of the other car companies. They’re just doing what they have to (adding bulk) to comply with ever-more-demanding federal safety requirements. And a safe car is certainly a good thing.
But it is not a cost-free thing.
ON THE ROAD
I tested an SX Rio – the sportiest trim – which comes with a pretty aggressive 17-inch wheel-tire package that reminded me of the current VW GTI (check the design of those pie-cutter wheels… see anything familiar?)
So did the handling.
The stiff sidewall tires and a pretty firmly calibrated suspension translate into minimal body roll – and “point and click” directional changes. Pick your line and the car will hold it, requiring very little in the way of course corrections to keep on track. It’s precise and immediate – but it’s also not darty, as some sporty cars with aggressive wheel/tire packages can be. You don’t feel every road irregularity, either. The suspension, though firm, isolates and absorbs that stuff exceptionally well. It takes a deep pothole to trigger any interior aftershocks – and you can’t really fault the car for that.
What happens when you press the gas pedal down is another story. 138 hp in a car that will weigh close to 3,000 pounds with two adults onboard is a bit on the lean side. You will need to plan your passing – and you’ll need plenty of room to succeed.
The upside is this is true of other current-year economy compacts. Nice as they all are, they’re all to damned heavy – thanks to the government. It takes a does of turbocharging (as in the Sonic) to get all the beef to 60 in a comfortable 8-ish seconds or so. And by comfortable, I mean with enough margin to make it by more than “just barely.”
But, there’s an upside – as far as the Rio is concerned. While it may not have deep reserves of power, it does have deep gearing, six-speeds (manual or automatic) in a segment where many still have five speeds and even (in the case of the poor Mazda2) four-speeds. What does it mean? It means that you’ve got long legs. Once in top gear – a deep overdriven sixth – you can comfortably roll 80, even 90 mph without the car sweating. It’s only when you attempt a pass at those speeds (or even 60-70) that you’ll notice the hp deficit. The transmission will downshift two gears (or you’ll do it yourself, if it’s the stick version) and the engine will make a lot of noise – but not much progress will register on the speedometer.
But, to be fair, we shouldn’t complain. I mean, here we have a 40 MPG economy compact that can effortlessly run close to 100 MPH all day – not that you would, of course. I’m old enough to remember the ’80s. Maybe you aren’t. Well, in the ’80s, an economy compact might have been able to hit 50 MPG on the highway. But at 70 MPH, you were approaching Top Speed – and the thing felt like it was about to come apart.
AT THE CURB
The Rio is a Hyundai Accent that’s been to body combat – those classes they have down at the gym. It’s butched-up and muscular, tight and right.
For this – and a sportier ride/handling experience – you pay a couple of bucks more than you would for the Hyundai. As nice as the Accent is, if you want a little more presence, the slight upcharge is worth it.
Subjectively, I think the Rio looks a lot more solid than the cute but fragile-seeming Mazda2. And though the Chevy Sonic has a handsome face, its tail end (with those bulbous, out of proportion tail-lights) could use some work.
What’s objective is the Rio’s standard sedan and hatchback sedan layouts – and also the nice touch that Kia charges about the same for either. A Rio hatch is only $200 more than a Rio Sedan – and this overlap continues all the way up to the range-topping SX trim, where, again, there’s only a $200 difference either way.
Kia also lets you get the same equipment, either way.
Last week I tested out a Mitsubishi Lancer, which like the Rio is offered in both sedan and hatch-wagon bodystyles. But Mitsu only lets you have certain options – like a manual transmission – if you buy the sedan. Why any automaker would do such a thing, I don’t know. If someone wants to buy your car but you tell him he can only have this version with that engine (or whatever) it’s a real turnoff.
Competitors like the Chevy Sonic also offer the sedan/hatch choice – but Chevy hits you with a $900 extra if you want the hatch rather than the sedan ($13,865 vs. $14,765).
The Mazda2, meanwhile, only comes as a hatchback sedan – and it starts at $14,530. It also has less interior/cargo space. The Rio hatch has a 15 cubic foot cargo area behind the rear seats; just under 50 cubic feet with them folded flat. The Mazda2 has 13.3 cubic feet – and maxes out at 27.8 cubes with its backseats folded down.
The Chevy Sonic beats both behind the second row, with 19 cubic feet of cargo space – but comes up short with them folded down, just 30 cubic feet to work with. The Rio hatch can cart around a lot more stuff than either.
It also has significantly more front seat head (40 inches) and legroom (43.8) than either the Mazda2 (39.1 inches, 42.6 inches) or the Chevy Sonic (38.7 inches, 41.8 inches). But it comes at a cost – to your backseat passengers. The Rio’s second-row legroom (31.1 inches) is significantly less than in the Mazda (33 inches) and the Sonic (34.6 inches). Rear headroom’s a draw: 37.6 inches for the Rio, 38.1 for the Sonic and 37 even for the Mazda2.
Overall, this car struck me as a compelling commuter – inexpensive to buy, as good on gas an anything short of a hybrid or diesel – and which has almost everything it needs to be a great all-around except for maybe a few more beans under the hood (or a bit less girth around its middle).
It has personality, it has looks – it is a lot of fun to play with – provided you don’t need to pass two or three slow mo’s at a time.
You get a lot for your dollar – including (take note) standard air conditioning. In the base $13k LX. There are several $15k cars out there – including the current Toyota Corolla and the Mitsu Lancer – that don’t come standard with AC. The base LX Rio (sedan or hatch) also comes with a decent stereo (including iPod hook-up and Sirius satellite radio and power, heated outside rearview mirrors. Remember, too – the six-speed transmission is standard. So are four-wheel-disc brakes (several in this class have rear drums.)
The base LX also comes with economy-minded 15 inch steel wheels, which is what I’d select if I were buying this car. They’re cheaper, they’re stronger and the tires will cost you 40-50 percent less than the 17-inchers and will probably last 40-50 percent longer than the soft-compound, stiff-sidewalled performance tires fitted to the optional 17-incher wheels.
The $13k-ish Rio is thus satisfactorily equipped as it sits. You do not need to buy a bunch of expense-padding options just to get the essentials (like AC). But if you want more than just the essentials, Kia offers a bevy of equipment, including: power-folding outside mirrors, leather, UVO voice-command, sunroof, heated seats and GPS navigation. Order it all and it’s still hard to crest $20k.
The Kia’s warranty coverage is also excellent – best you can get, in fact.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If it had a bit more zip, it’d be the clear segment leader. But even without that, it’s clearly one of the top picks in this segment. It’s hard to find another car that’s significantly less expensive that’s not a stripped – and impossible to find one that gets 40 MPG, comes with AC – and only costs a bit more than $13k.