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2012 Kia Rio SX

bob english The Globe and Mail

Overall Rating
Attractive, nice inside, drives well and, in SX form, it’s loaded with features not usually expected in this category. You’ll like this car if: you think small, but like lots of stuff.
Looks Rating
Rio styling goes from dull and dowdy to smart and sophisticated with this new generation.
Interior Rating
Smart-looking and comfortable, plus leather and high-end features.
Ride Rating
Generally composed, but the low-profile tires react sharply to pavement irregularities.
Safety Rating
All the equipment to make it as safe as most in this small-car class.
Green Rating
Engage the Active Eco system and mileage gets even better for a slight slippage in performance.

Kia's new high-roller Rio SX sedan makes the case that just because small-size and self-sacrifice start with the same letter, they aren't necessarily directly related any longer in automotive terms.

The top-drawer SX edition of Kia's size-small sedan, introduced earlier this year, is proof that just because you opt for a subcompact doesn't mean you have to live with styling that resembles a fast food takeout container, badly screwed together cheap and nasty materials, a level of equipment that doesn't rise above the low tide mark, or an overall level of performance that makes you regret your purchase decision every time you turn on the ignition.

This new Rio sedan gains 125 mm in length and is a little wider but, more importantly, dumps the former model's frump in favour of a smoothly formed and interestingly detailed skin, drawn in Kia's California studios, that wraps tightly around a cabin that provides reasonable room for four, with 389 litres of trunk space.

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It is also surprisingly nicely done inside in terms of style, ergonomics and materials (hard plastic doorcaps aside) in a two-tone colour scheme highlighted with some neat detail touches and chrome and aluminum-look trim. A three-pod "Supervision" instrument layout, a logically laid out centre stack with switchgear that operates with a nice touch, a good-looking and -feeling wheel and adequately bolstered seats make driving chores pleasant. And it's quiet enough at highway speeds to enjoy the audio system.

But it's the "Standard Features" heading on the Rio SX's window sticker that really impresses, as under it is listed equipment that, not that long ago, would have only been found in cars costing more than twice the $21,695 Kia is asking for this one. And mostly unheard of in this size category, where cars have traditionally (in North America anyway) been designed and configured to cater strictly to the impecunious.

There's a $13,795 LX version of the Rio sedan that still answers that need, but the SX is aimed at those who want, rather than can only afford, a small car, and don't wish to live without amenities that were once only generally available in larger vehicles.

Heading the SX equipment roster are items such as a basic navigation system, heated steering wheel and seats trimmed in leather, alloy-trimmed pedals, Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, cooling glove box, UVO infotainment system, rear-view camera, smart key entry, automatic climate control and power sunroof. That's backed up by "basics" that include a 138-hp engine with six-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch wheels, fog lamps, six airbags, stability and cruise control and four-wheel disc brakes.

This generational remake of the Kia once again shares much of its underpinnings and mechanicals with parent Hyundai's new Accent, and like it, is built on a shared platform that remains essentially unchanged.

Which means the usual for this class: MacPherson strut front and twist-beam axle rear suspensions are retained, although in the SX's case firmed up a bit and fitted with 205/45R17 tires to produce an improved level of handling.

These low-profile tires undoubtedly contribute a lot to the agile response to input experienced through the electric power steering system – and certainly look cool on the alloy rims. But, in practical terms, nobody's buying this car to thrash it around corners and a tire with a somewhat taller sidewall would improve the ride – they deal quite sharply with tar strips – and make those fancy rims less susceptible to damage from potholes. They also tend to follow pavement irregularities creating a slight weaving sensation at times.

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Under the Rio's hood is a new 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with direct gasoline injection and a number of other clever techy touches that improve performance and particularly economy.

This smooth-idling and quick-to-spin-up little power-producer is rated at 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque and in the SX comes with a six-speed automatic transmission with responsive Steptronic manual shifting.

A low first gear and quick throttle tip-in give the Rio a strong initial accelerative surge and the other five help give it a good overall drivability rating, although it doesn't feel quite as strong as the horsepower number suggests. Still, getting to 100 km/h in 10.5 seconds is better than many in the class.

You'll hear this motor around town but, at highway speeds, it's unobtrusive and pulls most highway hills in top gear while delivering on its fuel economy rating promises of 6.8 litres/100 km city and 4.9 highway. It was indicating an average of 6.9 litres/100 km after the test week, and a highway cruise of 5.6 litres/100 km. The previous 110-hp Rio with four-speed automatic's official government ratings, incidentally, were 7.6 city/5.5 highway.

With this generation of its Rio sedan, Kia has stepped up its game and is a worthy competitor for anything in the subcompact category.

Tech specs: 2012 Kia Rio SX

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Type: Subcompact sedan

Base Price: $21,695; as tested, $23,450

Engine: 1.6-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/123 lb-ft

Drive: Front-wheel

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Sonic, Mazda2, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa

Please note: The fuel economy numbers in this review have been changed to reflect new data released Nov. 2, 2012, by Hyundai and Kia. Please click here for more details.

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