Both Kia and its larger sister brand Hyundai are firing with both barrels lately. The latest proof is the all-new 2012 Kia Rio, a stylish reinterpretation of the Korean brand's subcompact entry that joins the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, and its relative the Hyundai Accent at the top of the small-car rankings. Its good looks, lavish features, and fuel efficiency have got be making our longstanding favorite in this category, the now-aging Honda Fit, look nervously over its truncated tail.
Kia's wedgy styling works better on the five-door Rio hatchback than it does on the four-door sedan, but both carry off taut, European-inflected lines with grace. The nipped-in Kia grille and swept-back headlights are recognizable, with sculpting behind the front wheels leading back to the more rounded contours of the rear end. Inside, the dash is clean, functional, and nicely finished, with a large display screen and airplane-style rocker switches.
The 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine can be paired with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission. The powertrain EPA gas-mileage ratings of 30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 34 mpg with the manual but, oddly, 33 mpg with the automatic. There will also be a start-stop option, for $400, that shuts off the engine when the vehicle isn't moving. It restarts as soon as the driver starts to release the brake pedal, which will add 1 mpg to the city rating.
The 2012 Kia Rio may use a basic strut and torsion-beam suspension, but you'd never know it from the entertaining handling. It holds the road nicely, rides smoothly, and has very little of the crashing and bounding that used to define small cars. The electric power steering is predictably numb, but it's weighted nicely under tighter and tighter turns. The new Rio is simply miles ahead of the old one, and almost as fun as the cheerfully raucous turbocharged version of the Chevy Sonic. For sportier tuning, go for the SX model.
Inside, the 2012 Rio isn't quite as large as the hardly-a-subcompact Nissan Versa, nor does it have quite the volume of the Hyundai Accent or Honda Fit. Instead, the Kia Rio is about the same size as the Ford Fiesta, at about 160 inches long. The front seats have a remarkable long range of travel, and pleasantly substantial bottom cushions. But back-seat pasengers won't enjoy the room of some other subcompacts, with little spare room for knees or heads. The cargo bay holds 15 cubic feet in the hatch, with the sedan offering 13.7 cubic feet of trunk volume. The Rio has the usual array of airbags and electronic safety systems, but hasn't yet been rated for crash safety by the NHTSA or IIHS. A rear-view camera is optional, however, which is uncommon on cars this small.
The cheapest 2012 Kia Rio is the manual-transmission LX sedan, at $13,400, though you may be hard-pressed to find one at your local dealer, since Kia expects only 5 percent of buyers to go for the manual. Adding the automatic ups the price a hefty $1,100, and then the EX version starts at $16,300 and the SX at $17,500--both are offered only with the automatic. The hatchback is $200 more in every trim level.
Standard equipment on even the base Rio includes 15-inch wheels, tilt-adjustable steering, a rear spoiler, split-folding rear seats, and an AM-FM-CD player with a port for connecting satellite radio, a USB port, and audio controls built into the steering wheel. The mid-level EX version builds in power windows, locks, and mirrors, along with cruise control, air conditioning, telescoping adjustment for the steering wheel, and Bluetooth device pairing. At the top of the line, the SX model rolls on 17-inch alloy wheels, along with a sport-tuned suspension, larger front disc brakes, power-folding side mirrors that are heated, LED headlamp and tail lamp accents, and fog lamps. It also gets a Kia version of the Microsoft voice-command system Ford sells as Sync, although Kia's has fewer available commands for audio and phone. Options include a navigation system, pushbutton start, leather seats, front seat heaters, and a sunroof.