For members of the North American Small Car Love Association, this might seem to be a golden age. Lately every manufacturer (with the notable exception of Volkswagen) seems to be taking the B-segment seriously. GM, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Hyundai, and Kia have all recently introduced new or substantially redesigned models. Yet, amidst this orgy, where’s the love? With so many new cars, why aren’t we lusting after ANY of them? Case in point: the 2012 Kia Rio SX.
Not a problem for the Rio: styling. Though Hyundai controls Kia, and the two share platforms and powertrains, the latter company retains a high level of independence. So the redesigned-for-2012 Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio have substantially different exteriors and interiors. The latter has a cleaner, almost German appearance. The athletic stance and taut surfacing are very VW, while the ovoid shape suggests what VW might do if it weren’t so intent on recreating the 1970s Golf over and over. The Rio comes by this resemblance semi-honestly, via ex-VW designer Peter Schreyer. The SX has 17-inch alloys, an inch larger than those on the Accent SE.
The Rio’s interior strongly resembles that in the Sportage crossover. Though less sexy than the exterior and less overtly futuristic than the Accent’s cabin, it’s subtly stylish and logically laid out. A MINI-like touch: a row of four prominent switches at the bottom of the center stack, including one more than is necessary for switching between fresh air and recirc. A canted center stack as in the Optima would make the rightmost audio controls easier to reach
Interior materials and features approach the top of the segment. Intelligent design artfully combines a padded instrument panel face with a hard plastic instrument panel top. You won’t be touching the latter, so why spend the money to make it squishy? (Toyota had the same idea with the new Yaris, but a much less attractive execution.) The headliner is woven. The steering wheel suggests that the Koreans have finally grasped that the point of a leather wrap is to facilitate your grip. The pedals have metal faces. Features on cars with the $2,200 Premium Package include heated leather seats, a sunroof, a steering wheel that both tilts and telescopes, keyless access and ignition, lighted visor mirrors, a UVO voice-control system that integrates external devices, nav with a rearview camera, and even power-folding mirrors. The last isn’t common on cars with prices in the thirties and forties, much less those that list for $20,650. A puzzle: even on this fully belled-and-whisteled car you’ll find button blanks. Will they be adding even more content in the future or elsewhere?
The tested car’s sticker might seem steep for a B-segment hatch, but it includes about $3,000 worth of features you cannot even get on a Hyundai Accent. Equip the car like an Accent SE and adjust for remaining feature differences (using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool) and their prices are about the same. You can get many of the high-end features on a Fiesta, but the Ford is about $1,000 more before adjusting for feature differences, and about $2,200 more afterwards.
The driving position is passable. I’d personally prefer a less distant, less aggressively raked windshield that didn’t require windowlettes ahead of the doors (as on the Accent). But this architecture does enable a sleeker, swoopier exterior and roomier-feeling interior. A very small rear window (also found on the Accent) visually pancakes other cars. The front seats, though they provide little lateral support, are comfortably firm. This being a B-segment car, the rear seat isn’t expansive, but it’s at least roomier than that in the Fiesta. The average adult male will fit with perhaps an inch to spare.
Thus far we have an attractive, well-equipped contender, and the specs suggest that the Rio will drive as well as it looks. A direct-injected 1.6-liter four kicks out 138 horsepower, tying the Accent and Sonic for segment leadership and well ahead of the 120-horsepower Fiesta and 100-horsepower Mazda2. A six-speed automatic (unlike with the Accent, a manual is only offered with the base trim) offers plenty of ratios. In practice, acceleration is only adequate and the engine sounds thrashy when revved. The automatic is slow to react to manual inputs, and downshifts with a firm tug when slowing to a stop. Engaging the “active eco” system quickens upshifts to the point of mildly lugging the engine. This powertrain will serve, and even outperform the segment average, but it won’t bring a smile to your face.
Despite the engine’s impressive specs, its EPA ratings are also at the top of the segment, 30 miles-per-gallon city and 40 highway. The problem: C-segment cars do about as well, leading potential buyers to rightfully wonder about the payoff of the lower curb weight (about 2,500 pounds) and smaller engine. In typical around-town driving with a moderately light right foot the trip computer usually reported about 30, with a high of 33. I observed roughly equal numbers in the new 240-horsepower 328i—and much more impressive numbers when hyper-miling the BMW in “eco power mode.” Trip computer error? Stay tuned.
The Accent suggests that Hyundai is finally figuring out how to properly tune a suspension. Not that its ride and handling are excellent, but they’re not the weakest aspect of the car—that would be the manual shifter (which I nevertheless prefer to the automatic). The Rio, unfortunately, neither rides nor handles as well as its sib. Its ride feels lumpier—the car’s wider, lower profile tires might play a role—and less expertly damped. The chassis feels stable, and even serves up some mild entertainment in casual driving, but lapses into a vague plow when rushed. The steering remains mute throughout.
Of course, most current cars suffer the same dynamic shortcomings. The Rio is far from a bad car to drive. In fact, it’s quite pleasant and certainly offers a lot of style and stuff for not a lot of money. But, like a number of others in the segment, the most diminutive Kia is so intent on behaving like a larger car that it drives too much like a larger car, sacrificing the tossability that made the best small cars of the past such a delightful alternative. Granted, most car buyers aren’t looking for “fun to drive.” But plenty of larger cars offer what they’re looking for. Why not have a small car focus on what small cars do best–and that larger cars can’t do? As it stands, we have buff book comparison tests where the judges seem excited by none of the cars and the contender that sucks the least wins.
Kia provided the tested car with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.