Kia is one of the only car brands sold in America that's never built an enthusiast's car. Sensible Swedish Saab offered the 900. Before their core clientele started losing their pulse, Buick ran the Grand National. Saturn looked to the Sky for salvation. GMC got caught up in a Typhoon. Even Hyundai has the Tiburon circling its enthusiast oriented customers. Kia? Nothing but cheap. Or… maybe not. "Being practical doesn't mean you have to take the joy out of life," their web copy proclaims. "That's the thinking behind the Rio. It's affordable and likes a good time as much as you do." What exactly does THAT mean?
Affordability aside, nothing much. The Kia's sheetmetal serves as an instant, constant reminder that the good times are not about to roll. For starters, the front fascia appears to be a mismatch of cheap plastics and leftover pre-bankruptcy surplus (check out those diminutive fog lights on the top-of-the-line SX). The orgy of automotive penury continues with side door protectors that look like they came from the wrong side of the 1980's. The Hyundai Accent has these removed– with the mere imprint remaining. But that's like saying the Rio isn't the only sister in the family that grows a moustache.
At the back, the Rio's rear lights came straight from a Chrysler junkyard; the lower end retains the cohesiveness of overexposed cheap plastic. Overall, only the equally dire, equally South Korean Chevrolet Aveo can compare with the Rio's ultra-cheap, I mean "affordable" exterior appearance.
The Rio's interior surprised me, even in base trim. Yes, the radio controls look and feel like rubber dog toys (don't get me started) and the carpet's thinner than my imaginary hairline. But the seats are comfortable, the ergonomics faultless, and the steering wheel feels solid in your hands. In truth, only one element of the Rio's cabin will repel frugal folks before they turn the key: a sour, noxious smell. The olfactory assault may fade over time, but it sends a subconscious signal that you have abandoned all hope of a fly ride.
You don't drive a Kia Rio. You ride in it. Well, on the highway. Anywhere else, you fight with it. There's no handling as such, just a constant struggle against lateral forces and 14" of limited adhesion as you wrestle with the lack of power steering (available on the LX and SX models). Unless you think it's OK for a guy to dance by himself at the High School prom, piloting this machine is a particularly joyless affair. Did I mention the 110hp engine (@ 6000rpm) or understeer? Why would I?
Another non-surprise: the Rio with a manual transmission is a pain to drive, with a box that puts the "arggg" in agricultural. Needless to say, the optional four-speed autobox is geared for maximum mileage (i.e. minimal acceleration). Unfortunately (for Kia), moving up to the automatic lifts the price firmly into Versa / Yaris territory– where the Rio simply can't compete.
The good news: the base Kia rides smoothly down the highway with controlled body motions, and remains quiet, in an "Applebee's isn't as noisy as a TGIF's" way. That's a good fit for most of the general public that seeks to drive no more than 2/10's to 3/10's of a vehicle's capability– and wants an upper body workout. Oh, the suspension bottoms-out on moderate bumps at highway speeds. Sorry.
The word "base" has new meaning here. No power steering. No ABS or rear disc brakes, poor IIHS side-impact safety rating and, just as dangerous for southerners, no air conditioning. You can't even order a chiller in the base model. You can get AC for $700 more in an entry-level, if equally unexciting, Toyota Yaris hatchback along with… power steering! Or, you can get a variety of near-new low-mileage vehicles ranging from the unloved but far more competent Chevy Cobalt, to the quite loved and still fairly unknown Suzuki SX4.
All of which means that if the Kia Rio loves good times as much as you do, you don't love good times. At all. The Rio has nothing whatsoever to offer the enthusiast and even less to offer the frugalist. OK, the warranty is long and extensive. But then most cars today will last 200k miles.
It's a shame that the most economically-vulnerable members of society will be seduced by the Rio's low sticker. If they checked eBay's completed items section they'd see that an ultra-low mileage four-year-old Rio has trouble breaking the $4k barrier. That's $2k worth of depreciation per year. On the flip side, you can buy a certified three-year-old Corolla or Civic for nearly the same price as a new Kia Rio and get lower depreciation, better fuel economy and far better overall quality. Game, set and match.