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2012 Kia Rio5 (Kia/Kia)
2012 Kia Rio5 (Kia/Kia)

KIA RIO

Feeling young at heart? Blame it on Rio Add to ...

There are days in a reporter’s life when it’s tough to keep a lid on bubbling cynicism and when it’s massively difficult to hold back the guffaws and the eye-rolling. Consider this quote: “Design gives a soul to the product and reaches the hearts of people.”

I’d like to be 18 or 25 or six again – well, not 18 or six, but certainly in my late-20s – and just drink in those words from Kia design boss Peter Schreyer. And I’d love to believe Schreyer’s sentiments here: “We remain true to our commitment to quality, and our journey continues to be an evolutionary process of excellence in design surpassed only by excellence in product and service quality.”

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Maybe I can. Of course, there’s no turning back the hourglass to a time without aches and pains in the morning, erasing 30 years of the reporter’s life – giant roller coasters of spin and disinformation, calculated hype and downright untruthfulness. But the thing is, the facts bolster Schreyer’s case, therefore I feel younger by decades.

Take design. The five-door version of the 2012 Kia Rio has just won a Red Dot award for product design. This is a big deal in the design world, the kind of honour even the BMWs of the world get all worked up about. The smaller Kia Picanto also won for 2012. This brings to six the number of Red Dot awards that Kia has won since 2009 – including wins for the Soul small car, Sportage compact SUV and Optima mid-size sedan.

People who know something about design love what Kia is doing. As for quality, Kia has yet to climb above average in J.D. Power’s long-term Vehicle Dependability Study. But in ALG’s most recent Perceived Quality Study released last December, Kia was ranked seventh among mainstream brands – ahead of Subaru, Ford, Chevrolet, Honda and Nissan to name five – and in a Consumer Reports comparison test of small cars, the new Rio sedan topped a list of small cars, including the Ford Fiesta.

Okay, the five-door Rio landed at No. 3 on CR’s list of small hatchbacks, behind Honda’s Fit and the hatchback version of the Versa. That’s still good, however.

What this means is that Kia’s styling may have a nose on quality in the economy car sprint. There is still work to be done, but among the very real and highly important parts that have been fixed so far are the Rio’s handling, which is quite nimble, and the simple design of the radio and climate controls. The Rio’s automatic transmission is smooth, too.

All of these improvements and accomplishments are showing up where Kia wants them to show up most – in sales. Last month, Kia Canada had its best March ever, with sales up 23 per cent. If you’re counting, that’s 39 straight months of sales growth for Kia Canada. Kia’s designs do seem to be reaching the hearts of Canadians – that and attractive pricing and sales incentives.

Ah, the numbers: The Rio5 starts at $14,095, which is less than the cheapest versions of these hatchbacks: Ford Fiesta ($15,999), Chevrolet Sonic ($15,495), Nissan Versa ($14,678) and Honda Fit ($14,480). The Hyundai Accent five-door, which shares basic mechanical components with the Rio, has a base sticker of $13,599.

If nothing else, that list shows just how competitive the subcompact segment has become.

To stand out from the pack, Kia’s stylists gave the Rio a more muscular look for 2012; we can see that. Less obvious but just as important, the 2012 Rio rides on a new platform – shared with the Accent – that makes the Rio longer, lower, wider and lighter than the 2011 model. That means more room for people and stuff inside, not to mention excellent fuel economy from the 138-horsepower, 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine: 6.6 litres/100 km city and 4.9 highway.

If you’re nuts about saving gas, you can get this Rio with the start-stop option, branded as the $800 “Eco Package” on certain models. Here, the engine turns off when the vehicle is not in motion, such as at a stop light or in traffic. The engine restarts when the driver releases the brake pedal. Stop-start does not negatively affect the 1.6-litre, direct-injection engine, though. Here we have a very nice powerplant, one with good power and responsiveness.

The full Rio5 lineup has four trim levels: LX, LX +, EX and SX. The latter is the priciest of the lot at $20,795. But even the basic car has power windows, driver’s-seat height adjuster, map lights, illuminated vanity mirrors, trip computer, sliding centre console armrest and 60/40-split folding rear seats. If you want to add air conditioning, the LX+ trim ($15,595) also adds heated front seats, cruise control, keyless entry, fog lights and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity with steering-wheel-mounted voice activation controls.

No question, this Rio has a terrific drivetrain – strong for the segment and thrifty, too. The longer wheelbase not only makes for a reasonably roomy cabin, it also helps with the overhauled suspension to deliver ride quality that feels quite refined. The cabin, too, looks and feels like something more expensive than your basic city runabout.

After taking in this package, then, I’ve stored away my guffaws and the eye-rolling for some future occasion – and, boy, do I feel young again!

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door EX Luxury

Type: Subcompact four-door hatchback

Price: $20,795 (freight $1,455)

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/123 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.8 city/4.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent

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