First Drive: 2012 Kia Rio Hatchback

First mainstream use of gas-saving Stop/Start technology.

by on Oct.26, 2011

The 2012 Kia Rio 5-door matches its mileage numbers with a distinctive design.

Long an afterthought in the American marketplace, Korean carmaker Kia is rapidly emerging from the shadows of its better-known sibling Hyundai.  And the 2012 Kia Rio hatchback is proof why.

This impressive new entry into the fast-growing subcompact segment is the maker’s latest to get 40 miles per gallon on the highway out of its direct-injected four-cylinder engine.  Give some of that credit to Kia’s introduction of breakthrough Stop/Start technology that can boost fuel economy as much as 5% — the first time this system has been offered in a mainstream U.S. product.

But while mileage may today be one of the first boxes buyers check when shopping for a new car, there are other key factors in the decision process and Kia comes to the front there, as well.

In the Know!

Stylish on the outside and roomy on the inside, the new Rio is the handiwork of Kia’s Southern California styling center, which has done a first-rate job on the overall re-design.   Anyone who hasn’t check out the new look of the brand, in recent years, will be in for a shock at what has been accomplished by Kia’s design chief Peter Schreyer – who was responsible, in a past life, for Audi’s bold look.

Hatchbacks are becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. market.

The exterior of the 2012 Kia Rio hatchback balances discreet curves, artful lines and short overhangs to elevate the car’s overall wedge-shaped appearance and is finished off with a nicely executed grille set off on the top trim level by LED headlights and fog lamps.  The look of the new Rio hatch underscores the subcompact segment is no longer a dumping ground for dowdy little econoboxes.

The interior is not only roomy but comfortable — even for those of us who might be described as, ahem, “large boned.” The instrument panel and center stack features controls that are clean and straight forward. The seats are comfortable and easy to adjust while the visibility from the driver’s seat is excellent.

The car is also relatively quiet, compared to older small cars that long populated the segment. It’s not completely silent but enough to hear the entertainment system without endangering your ear drums and makes it easy to carry on a friendly conversation.

The well-appointed interior says the 2012 Kia Rio 5-door is no econobox.

The relatively small size of the cabin limits the interior storage space, which isn’t all bad since owners are ultimately going to wind up carry less junk in car. But Kia’s marketing effort is emphasize the fact that the Rio is eco-friendly. Indeed 85% of the car is recyclable and there are some nifty features such as seat foam that is completely biodegradable at the end of the car’s useful life.

Moreover, Kia’s engineers have equipped the 2012 Rio hatchback with a platform that’s stiffer and hence safer in a crash and nimble and easy to maneuver thanks to very responsive steering and a well-tuned suspension.

The Rio also is the first subcompact equipped with some advanced, mileage-boosting technology used in luxury cars. Dubbed Stop/Start, it is programmed to instantly turn off the engine rather than letting it idle at a stop light; but lift your foot off the brake and the 1.6-liter engine instantly reignites.

The Rio's 138-hp direct injection inline-4 is the first mainstream powertrain in the market equipped with fuel-saving Stop/Start functionality.

The Rio is powered by a 1.6-liter with direct injection engine matched with an optional six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission. The engine makes an acceptable 138 horsepower, in line with most of the small car segment.

The one drawback we discovered during the initial test drive was that if the engine was switched into the “Eco Mode” it seemed underpowered climbing hills since the automatic transmission wanted to stay in sixth gear.

But the Rio is basically designed for city driving so it’s not a huge problem.

The 2012 Rio also comes better equipped than previous generations of the car, which have been, until now, altogether quite forgettable. Among the long list of standard features, you’ll find: air conditioning, electric power steering, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with USB and auxiliary ports, SiriusXM satellite radio link.

Kia will offer both a 4-door sedan and the Rio5 hatchback for 2012.

The safety equipment includes Electronic Stability Control, a four-wheel Anti-lock Brake System, Hill-start Assist Control as well as six air bags that include a full-length side-impact curtain.

The base price for the five-door version of the Rio starts at $14,700 but top-of-the-line SX trim starts at $17,500, which includes several upscale features, including 17-inch alloy wheels, standard metal pedals, LED front accent lights, LED taillights, a Supervision meter cluster, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, power-folding outside mirrors, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, and UVO powered by Microsoft voice-activated infotainment system with rear camera display.

With its great mileage and striking design the new 2012 Kia Rio 5-door is no longer destined to be dumped into the also-ran category.

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