Kia Rio Wins Subcompact Sedan Shoot-Out

But Consumer Reports slams Toyota Yaris.

by on Mar.22, 2012

Strong praise for the Kia Rio from Consumer Reports.

Don’t call the new Kia Rio sedan a “penalty box.”  There was a time when that might have applied to subcompact sedans in general – and Korean-made products in particular – but a shoot-out among domestic and import small cars suggests the best of the subcompact segment deliver more than just a cheap price tag.

The Rio EX, in particular, made a strong impression on the folks at Consumer Reports, the non-profit publication rating the Korean subcompact best in an otherwise impressive class of sedans.  The Rio hatchback didn’t score quite as well, but still landed in the top three among a field that also includes the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa.

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Notably, CR some harsh and unexpected pot shots at the Toyota entry into the growing – and increasingly competitive – subcompact segment , suggesting the Japanese giant’s Yaris hatchback  “continues to underwhelm.”  Once dominant in the small car market, Toyota has been losing ground of late, and many industry analysts believe its decline is only tangentially related to last year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The challenge is keeping up with a segment that has improved dramatically in recent years.

The updated 2012 Toyota Yaris fell short of expectations, said reviewers.

“Subcompact cars were once collectively known as “penalty boxes” for their noisiness, rudimentary interiors, uncomfortable rides, and weak performance. But now improved redesigns, combined with an affordable prices and impressive fuel economy, make a number of subcompact models good all-around choices for people looking to stretch their budget,” said Consumer Reports’ chief of automotive research David Champion.

Equally significant is the fact that the Japanese, in general, no longer dominate the small car market.  The Kia Rio was the magazine’s top pick in the subcompact sedan category, but the similar Korean model, the Hyundai Accent came in close behind.  And the Chevrolet Sonic was another strong performer.

The magazine had generally strong praise for the Detroit entry, but found its fuel economy unimpressive,  CR also faulted the top-line turbocharged Sonic LTZ, suggesting it was too expensive, at $20,000, “and didn’t live up to its sporty aspirations.”

CR reviewers were less than overwhelmed by the Nissan Versa sedan, meanwhile.  Redesigned for 2012, the magazine found it “doesn’t measure up to the previous model,” despite the strong promises made by Nissan at its launch last year.

Japanese makers did a bit better among hatchbacks, the subcompact Honda Fit leading the list, followed by the Nissan Versa SL and, ranking third, the Rio.

The annual shoot-out could be another setback for Toyota, a brand that had long been a favorite of Consumer Reports testers and readers alike – based on past reviews and the magazine’s annual owner surveys.

The magazine had little good to say about the Yaris, writing that “Despite being redesigned, the Toyota Yaris is still bare-bones transportation. It’s noisy, the ride is choppy and the interior is austere. Instrument layout and driving position were improved, but pedal and steering wheel placement remain awkward. Handling lacks agility, and the car is slow to accelerate.”  About the only thing CR could come up with on the positive side was that the Toyota subcompact’s “adequate” performance was offset by “excellent” fuel economy.

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