By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The Kia Rio I just spent a week driving around is an extremely fuel-efficient little car — one of the very best in its segment, actually. And not just on paper, either. Out in the real world, in real-world driving, it lives up to its EPA billing: 30 city, 40 highway. I averaged 32.2 according to the car’s computer. But you’d never know it if you went by the gas gauge — which drops from “F” to a quarter-down almost as quickly as the gas gauge in my ’76 Trans Am — and it gets about 12 MPG. Of course, my Trans-Am has a 21 gallon tank — so its rate of consumption is appalling. The Kia’s isn’t — but seems like it is — because it only has a 11.3 gallon tank.
That is a very small tank.
Think about it. Three gallons is almost a third of its total capacity. Even if the car averages low 30s — as the Rio did during my test drive — you will burn through the available fuel pretty quickly.
Which creates the perception that the car is pretty thirsty.
Toyota — just to give you a frame of reference — fits the Prius hybrid — which burns less gas — with a larger (12 gallon) tank. So it goes pretty far on a full tank. Or, consider the Ford Focus — a car closer to the Rio in terms of price and size and layout. Its EPA mileage stats (26 city/36 highway) aren’t nearly as good as the Kia’s, but because it has a larger tank (12.4 gallons) it will seem more economical than it actually is.
The Rio needs — deserves — a larger gas tank. Thirteen gallons, at least. That would keep the needle pegged at “F” for longer — and slow its descent to “E.”
It’s one of the few things I’d change about this car if it were up to me.
More on that now.
WHAT IT IS
The Rio is Kia’s entry-level compact sedan/hatchback sedan — and one of the most affordable (and economical to drive) small cars on the market.
Prices start at $13,600 for the LX sedan- which comes standard with AC as well as heated outside mirrors and a decent stereo system — and top out at $17,900 for the sporty SX hatchback, which comes with an aggressive 17-inch wheel and tire package, sport-tuned suspension, leather trim, LCD information screen with Kia’s UVO voice-activated control system and rearview camera.
For the new model year, the Rio gets an optional auto-stop function (like more and more new cars) to help squeeze the most MPGs possible out of the thing — by cutting off the engine when the car rolls to a stop. The system automatically re-starts the engine when the driver takes his foot off the brake and pushes down on the gas pedal.
SX trims with the optional automatic get secondary paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel.
Excellent gas mileage is standard. (You don’t have to buy an optional engine — or extra-cost “eco” package — to get it.)
SX version is a low-bucks VW GTI in the corners — that also gets excellent gas mileage.
More substantial-looking (and less expensive) than a Mazda2.
Lots of stuff for not much bucks.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Tiny gas tank means frequent fill-ups.
Some might find the engine overly noisy.
Some may find the ride (SX versions) overly firm.
Sporty-themed SX trim shares its engine with the base LX trim. A bit more power would give the SX the Walk to go with the Talk.
UNDER THE HOOD
All Rios come 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 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-era technology) four-speed automatic transmission — which limits mileage to 28 city and 34 on the highway. Even the manual five-speed equipped version of the Mazda2 is pretty piggy for such a small car: 29 city, 35 highway.
With the newly available Auto-stop system and a light right foot, it ought to be possible to consistently average low/ mid 30s in the Rio — with either transmission.
I did — so I know it can be done.
How about when the light goes green?
The Rio takes about 9.7-9.8 seconds to get to 60, which is on the slowish side relative to others in this class. For example, 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.).
2,410 pounds is pretty porky for a small car — about 400-500 pounds more, in fact, than comparable cars weighed back 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 — with carbureted engines.
And — in some cases — three-speed automatics.
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 — which are increasingly coming into conflict with federal fuel economy requirements. You can have a very safe car, or a very economical car. But not both in the same car.
At least, not without compromise — or cost.
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?)
Ditto the handling.
The stiff sidewall tires and a very 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.
But, there is a downside — ride quality. The SX is a stiffy — and not for everyone. Both my wife and father-in-law (neither of them “sporty” minded people) made negative comments.
Now, of course, the SX is built for people who are sporty minded. Who want a firm ride. So, it’s probably not an issue. What may be, though, is the SX’s engine — which as mentioned earlier is the same engine as in the base LX and every other Rio. Put another way, a base $13k LX is just as quick as the “sporty” — and $17k — SX. I think the SX ought to be noticeably quicker than the base LX. Another 10 hp or so would do it — and probably not incur much of a fuel economy penalty.
While it may not have deep reserves of power, the Rio 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 with the engine turning relatively low RPMs, about 3,300 at those road speeds — and not making a lot of noise.
It’s only when you attempt a pass at those speeds — and lower speed, too — 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 then the engine will make a lot of noise — but not much forward progress will register on the speedometer.
But, we shouldn’t complain too much. After all, here we have a 40 MPG economy compact that is absolutely capable of running close to 100 MPH all day long — with more on tap. I’m old enough to remember the ’80s. Maybe you aren’t. Well, back in those days, an economy compact might have been able to deliver 50 MPG on the highway. But at 70 MPH, you were approaching its Top Speed — and the thing felt like it was about to come apart.
And sometimes, did.
AT THE CURB
Inside skinny: 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 its Hyundai-badged corporate cousin.
Subjectively, I think the Rio looks a lot more solid than the cute but fragile-appearing 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 that Kia charges about the same for either version of the Rio — the standard sedan or the more functionally versatile hatchback. 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, with either body style.
A few months back, I reviewed the 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. But not the hatch. 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 charges you $600 more for the hatchback Sonic ($14,785) than you’d pay for the sedan ($14,185) and of course, both versions cost more than either version of the base Rio — both of which start under $14k.
The Mazda2, meanwhile, only comes as a hatchback sedan — and it starts at $14,720, or almost $1,000 more than the hatchback Rio. It also has less interior/cargo space. The Rio hatch has a 15 cubic foot cargo area behind the rear seats — comparable to the trunk space of a mid-sized car — and 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 Kia 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.
I really liked the large pushbuttons below the LCD display on the center stack — the controls for the AC, defrost and so on. Above these are also large rotary controls for fan speed, outlet and temperature control. They are all easy to see — and so, hard to miss — even for those of us with fat fingers. Ditto the USB hook-up for your iPod. It’s ahead of the shifter, in the forward part of the center console — not hidden inside a storage cubby (or the glovebox) where it’s awkward to access while you’re driving.
Overall, this car struck me as a compelling commuter because it’s more than just an A to B appliance, despite its low-bucks MSRP. The base LX is well equipped — or at least, equipped with all the necessaries (such as AC and an adequate stereo) as it sits — so it’s not necessary to spend more coin to make it pleasant for everyday use. It’s almost as easy on gas as a hybrid or diesel — but the buy-in is thousands less, so you will probably end up paying less overall.
It has everything it needs to be a great all-around except (as regards the SX trim) for maybe a few more beans under the hood.
Or a bit less girth around its middle.
Oh, and a larger fuel tank.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Did you notice Honda and Toyota weren’t even mentioned in this review? Go check the Rio out — then check out what the same money would buy you at a Toyota or Honda store.
Then you’ll know what I know.
But better you find out for yourself.