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2012 Kia Rio. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
2012 Kia Rio. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

2012 Kia Rio

Kia's Rio raises the econo-box bar Add to ...

Things just got a little more interesting in the subcompact market. In addition to a flurry of new models entering the fray – Hyundai Veloster, Chevrolet Sonic, Scion iQ, Mini Cooper Coupe, etc. – Kia has launched its latest remake of the Rio hatchback. It joins a slightly revamped Soul in Kia’s 2012 entry-level stable.

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But before we get into it, a word about Kia’s fortunes in Canada. In a nutshell, it was a very good year. Sales in 2011 are up 20 per cent over 2010, and in an industry beset with falling profits and disappointing sales, the Korean car maker has been a beacon of light. This past August was its best month, sales-wise, in the company’s history in Canada. Most satisfyingly, perhaps, the South Korean company is out-pacing its Japanese rivals, most of whom were in the red during 2011. Kia is moving the iron.

And it’s thanks in no small measure to a German executive. Kia hired Peter Schreyer as chief designer in 2006, and his touch is seen throughout the company’s lineup – including the new Rio. Schreyer was formerly with Volkswagen and Audi, and if Kias are better looking than they used to be, he’s one of the reasons why.

With a marked resemblance to the new VW Golf, the 2012 Rio is longer, wider and lower than its predecessor. It has a nice athletic look to it and is very European in flavour.

Like its kissing cousin, the Hyundai Accent, the new Rio utilizes the corporate 1.6-litre Gamma four-cylinder engine. Also found in the Hyundai Veloster and Kia Soul, in this configuration, it develops 138 horsepower. Transmission choices are either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

This engine could use a bit more power, and if you want to get the most out of it, you’ll be using every gear you’ve got, particularly when it comes to climbing mountain grades. Decent fuel economy though; in the city, it’s thriftier than most of the competition, and on the highway, with the exception of the Accent GL, it leads the pack.

But what makes the new Rio intriguing is not its power or fuel economy so much, but a little gizmo called Idle Stop and Go (ISG). In a nutshell, this turns the car off at stoplights and restarts it when you take your foot off the brake.

GM has been utilizing a similar system on some of its models for years, but in this case, it also temporarily shuts down the vehicle’s alternator when climbing long hills, to squeeze every drop of power out of the engine. To keep everything kosher, ISG features a more powerful battery, beefed-up starter motor, and a “smart” alternator. And it doesn’t continually restart the engine over and over again – in bumper to bumper traffic, for example – until the vehicle has been driven up to at least 5 km/h.

“It’s one step toward a hybrid vehicle,” explained Kia’s powertrain engineer, Kevin Gasperini. “And the fuel economy ratings with this feature will differ between, let’s say, Vancouver and Toronto, simply because of the different terrain.”

As a result, the company will be keeping a close eye on buyers’ reactions in Canada. If people like it, we may see this feature on more Kia products in the future, and a full hybrid version is not out of the question. ISG is presently offered as an option with the Eco model, and will be available with the automatic transmission only.

And let’s not forget another slick little feature in the form of Kia’s hill start assist, which holds the car immobile for a couple of seconds while it’s stopped on a hill. Unusual to find this in an economy car.

Speaking of models, there will be two to choose from: LX and EX. Within these two are a range of extras and options, such as fog lights, heated steering wheel, leather interior, Bluetooth, rear-view camera, full entertainment connectivity and so on.

As well, you can opt for the aforementioned ISG, and an Eco feature that, at the press of a switch, electronically recalibrates the automatic transmission and increases fuel economy (while decreasing performance).

Many of these extras come in the form of packages. The LX-Plus version, for example, includes air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise control and keyless entry, among other things, and will run you an additional $1,500.

Behind the wheel, the new Rio is not quite a road-scorcher. But it is as comfortable as anything else in this segment and, with a few creature comforts thrown in, makes a decent little city car. The EX model, in particular, can be had with the kinds of options we normally find on upper-end vehicles.

This is a shrewd move on the part of Kia: equipping an econo-box with luxury modcons. Smart.

The new Rio is available right about now and starts at just over $14,000.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Kia Rio

Type: Subcompact four-door hatchback

Price Range: $14,095-$20,795

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/123 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual/six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.6 city/4.9 highway (manual); regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Hyundai Veloster, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Chevrolet Sonic, Fiat 500, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Scion xD

Kia Soul gets a facelift, too

Kia has also breathed on the new Soul, giving it a bit of a tweak for 2012.

Among other things, it gets new front- and rear-end treatments, restyled interior bits, some new colours and a pair of new engines.

Base powerplant is now the same Gamma 1.6-litre found in the Rio, and optional is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that has some 26 additional horsepower, with approximately the same fuel economy. Like the Rio, the Soul will come with two six-speed transmissions – manual and automatic, and shares many of the same mechanical feature as its hatchback stablemate. This includes the ISG option.

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