By on April 21, 2012

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago we discussed, “What vehicle was the last bad car sold in North America?” This is my definitive answer to that question. Enjoy!

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 SPG. 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 had 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.

 

 

 

 

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23 Comments on “Review Rewind: 2008 Kia Rio (Base)...”


  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    KIA Rio the worst? They were still building Chrysler PTs.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      I can’t see the Chrysler PT Cruiser (CPTC?) being nearly as bad as the Rio, especially as the PT was classified as a ‘truck’. The practicality of being able to remove the rear seats and haul much more stuff goes a long way to offsetting shortcomings.

      The Sebring and Caliber, OTOH, might be a different story, particularly when one considers how much more than the Rio they cost.

      • 0 avatar
        Volt 230

        I rented a PT back a few years ago and was surprised at how much wind and road noise came through even though the doors had 3 (three) rubber seals all around the frame, how could there be wind noise with 3 seals around the door?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I think they likely had to pay that model about as much as a Rio cost to pose like that with that car.

    It also occured to me that the Kia Rio was compeditive… with my 1997 Escort packing 2.0 I4, 110 hp furry… and at least the Escort had decent handling courtsey of Mazda suspension engineers.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I’ve had a couple of these as rentals, and I have to disagree – they are not that bad. Not wonderful, but not terrible either. And I actually like the way they look – they have actual windows you can see out of, a nice wedgy profile, and a distinct lack of Bangled random creases.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    I agree with krhodes1. My wife and I rented one of these when we took a vacation to the finger lakes area in New York. Enjoyed driving one of these all over the place and frankly probably would never have been able to talk the wife into a small car if the ride had not been pleasant.

    I think we spend too much time projecting ourselves through our cars to think about what a car is designed to do – tote us around. I drove vw beetles for years and thought this was a pretty good car. Of course thats comparing apples and oranges.

    I think I agree with the gist of the story Steven. It’s just a “so what” sort of agreement. I did not buy one of these and think it would have worn thin on the long haul. I did enjoy renting one and think I got 40mpg but someone else had filled the tank so who knows.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      “I think we spend too much time projecting ourselves through our cars to think about what a car is designed to do – tote us around.”

      Good point, I’m used to the bare minimums since my first car was an old VW Bug.

  • avatar
    johnhowington

    I see tons of these in the austin texas area, i expect it to actually retain very good resale and reliability ratings. I dont see many ragged out either. In contrast I do see Kia Spectra’s more ragged out of the same year/vintage.

    • 0 avatar
      dundurrbay

      I own a 2007 Spectra, and while its not the best car, it does the job well. The dash is all soft-touch, ergonomics are great, and even though it is an iron block I4 due to it’s low weight and 141HP with the 5-speed, it is actually pretty peppy. I use the car as a pizza delivery vehicle and it fulfills the role quite well, netting me 30-32 mpg in the city and not a single thing has gone wrong in 50,000KM. I guess time will tell how the Kia holds up, but I surprisingly love my little Kia. It really isnt that bad of a car.

  • avatar
    JCraig

    I had one of these as a rental and it was the worst car I’ve ever driven. When you start it the engine sounds like it’s in your lap.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    “The orgy of automotive penury continues….” – what a description!

    Here in Texas, I’ve never met anyone with the stripped-down base model, which I believe was advertised for $9,995 and even less when the next year’s models were on the lot.

    The sister ship, the Hyundai SE maxed out at over 16K here, before tax, titles and licence.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      Yeah, these ultra-cheap ‘loss-leaders’ are designed to do nothing other than get schlubs into the showroom where high-pressure salesmen can easily upsell them into much higher profit, better equipped models ‘for just a few more dollars per month’. There are very few strippos ever kept in stock. Usually, it’s just one so they can legally say they have one.

      The problem is that once the normally equipped models are spec’d out, suddenly those cheap loss-leaders aren’t any cheaper than other, much better competitors’ vehicles.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    I test drove an ’09 Rio5 LX, though not the base model, it wasn’t so well equipped either. Oh it had the autobox, AC, decent CD double din head unit with Aux/USB and decent enough sound but no power windows/locks though back in January and it drove/rode nice – for an inexpensive subcompact hatchback.

    It WAS a bit noisy on the highway, with engine noises beginning to intrude at around the 2K rpm mark and had some general road/tire noise intrusion as well.

    The rearward visibility of the hatchback was surprisingly good for a 2009 model car, of which I appreciated. In the end, I got the Mazda Protege5 instead and am very happy with it.

    The RIO5 would’ve been an OK choice too, as long as you opted for the up graded LX or SX trim instead.

  • avatar
    rodface

    People are selling low-mileage four-year old Rios for $4k? I’ll buy them and sell them to Carmax for a tidy $3,000 profit. They’re selling them for no less than $10,000.

    I’ve driven one of these from the age of 13,000 to its current 46,000 with nary a hiccup. The car has been with me since July of 2010; during that time I’ve changed a light bulb, a battery, the windshield wipers, and the tires. The engine feels slightly weaker than it used to, and the interior’s getting a bit ragged, but the car is still a competent little vehicle that hasn’t let me down. Seems incapable of getting less than 28mpg no matter how hard I thrash its 110 horses.

    Sorry, but I’m tired of passing the “always buy an old Toyonda” Kool-Aid. This car has been great.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      This review is a repost of one that was written in 2008, before Carmegeddon and the resulting shortage of late model used cars. My daughter has one of these, I don’t think it’s too bad looking, but it’s certainly no driver’s car. I borrow it occasionally, and as long as you’re not in a hurry it’s actually a pleasant ride.

  • avatar
    stryker1

    Looking at that picture is making my brain all crazy.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    This was the first Kia subcompact to be based off a Hyundai (Accent) and as such it really isn’t a “bad” car. Totally unglamorous and low-cost, yes, but it also gets you from A to B with a minimum of $$$ and grief.

    One other point: a car this size really doesn’t need power steering. The tires aren’t wide or grippy enough, and even with FWD there’s not that much weight on the front wheels. Manufacturers put it in anyway since people have been trained by decades of awful-steering Detroit boats to expect it.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Looking over used car ads locally, I am seeing subcompacts (Rio, Accent, Yaris) selling for close to or the same as compacts like Elantra and Corolla, personally In don’t think the couple of extra mpg’s you get is worth getting a lower class of car.

  • avatar

    The “sour, noxious smell” referred to in the review made me laugh. Is this a continuing thing with Hyundai/Kia cars? When I was at the Frankfurt Auto Show I wanted to check out the Kias there and the smell when I tried to sit in one was overwhelming. In March I rented a Hyundai Accent in Toronto and the smell was pretty bad. The car had around 500 km on it but by the time I had added another 800 the smell seemed to be gone. I did test drive a Kia Forte5 and a Sportage but both were demonstrators with more than 1500 kms on each and there was no smell anymore. I suspect it is off-gassing from the low-cost plastics on the dashboard but I never noticed it in any other new cars I have recently driven, such as the Nissan Qashqai I had last week.

  • avatar
    Otterpops

    Kia had the KDM Elan, a license-built Kia-engined (probably Mazda-derived) continuation of the FWD Lotus Elan in the mid 90s.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    The funny thing is that most of the press was saying that Hyundai and Kia had dropped their bottom-feeders status and was making cars at least as well as their segment competitors by 2008. Maybe if you considered their competitors to be GM-Daewoos, but not so much when you looked at the better Japanese cars then, and not so much now. Too bad I feel for it back in 2008 and advised two friends to buy H-Ks, friends that won’t be consulting me for automotive advice in the future. Having recently test driven a Genesis 5.0 R and smelled a Genesis coupe interior, people that buy these cars should believe their own observations over what the read or are told.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    The funny thing is that most of the press was saying that Hyundai and Kia had dropped their bottom-feeders status and were making cars at least as well as their segment competitors by 2008. Maybe if you considered their competitors to be GM-Daewoos, but not so much when you looked at the better Japanese cars then, and not so much now. Too bad I feel for it back in 2008 and advised two friends to buy H-Ks, friends that won’t be consulting me for automotive advice in the future. Having recently test driven a Genesis 5.0 R and smelled a Genesis coupe interior, people that buy these cars should believe their own observations over what the read or are told.


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