Kia Rio (2012) Review

For the last several days, I have had the opportunity to tool around in a 2012 Kia Rio. It’s a cute, sporty, very compact car, and it has been quite a difference from my usual car, a Toyota Prius, and Sarah’s car, a Volkswagen Jetta. It has a lot of impressive features, and a few things I found to be annoying.

Read on to learn more!

So, let’s start with the basics. This is what Kia calls an “entry-level” car, and it retails for around $18,000, making it very affordable. Now, to get the price that low, there are certain trade offs. To start, the body of the car feels very light, the seats are cloth and basic, and you can tell that much of the car is plastic. However, it has a pretty incredible sound and technology system, far above what you expect in a basic car. And despite how light it is, it feels very solid on the road.

My first car was a late ’90s Nissan Sentra, and I expected the Rio to be about the same, so it was a pleasant surprise that it handled so well. If you’ve never driven a Nissan Sentra, just take a sheet of tin foil from your kitchen and add wheels. Luckily, the Rio feels much nicer.

The Rio also looks great. I sometimes swap cars with Sarah, or borrow my parent’s Xterra, but no one really notices. However, I had neighbors, coworkers, even my dry cleaner asking about the Rio. How did it ride, was it a new car, did I rent it, was it fun to drive? There’s something irresistibly cute about the tiny hatchback, and the Rio just screams “fun”! Despite being a compact car, it definitely has some pickup too. I accidentally found myself going 80 on my commute home. Oops!

It’s not all rainbows and drag racing on the highway in the Rio though. For instance, the pickup from a dead stop was a big choppy. It definitely is not a smooth path to acceleration every time. Sarah also commented that she felt sharp turns much more in the Rio, and that made her a bit carsick. For tooling around town running errands, though, the Rio handled well,; as long as I didn’t stop too suddenly or turn too quickly, the ride was fine.

The Rio also has an “Eco” mode that supposedly improves gas mileage. I tried it, and for short trips it didn’t feel any different, but I do not recommend trying it on the highway during rush hour. It definitely impacted the speed and handling in that situation. I did not have the car long enough to see if it made a difference on shorter trips, but below 40 miles per hour it felt the same, so if there is a mileage boost that’s a nice bonus. I did find cruise control to be easy to use and nice and smooth, which can also improve mileage on the highway, so between Eco mode and cruise control you can definitely leverage more efficient driving. I filled the tank once, and put around 7 gallons in after 225 miles, or roughly 32 miles per gallon. My commute is very, very stop and go at times, so that explains the low-end of the 30 city/40 highway Kia says the Rio can get.

There are some things I love about the body of the Rio, especially the hatchback. I am very partial to that style, and it works well here. The trunk is not super roomy, though you can fit a fair amount in it (as pictured above, by our very helpful intern Will), and you can drop the back seats to add more space as well. However, the Rio is not a big car, so your cargo space is somewhat limited. You probably would have a hard time fitting luggage for more than two people in the trunk, but it was more than enough space for a Home Depot run for some flowers and for some basic grocery shopping.

Before we cover the media and technology portion of the Rio, I need to address just how small it is. I keep saying it is a compact car, but it is really, really small. Sarah’s brother Luke is over 6 ft tall, and he was kind enough to sit in the driver’s seat and demonstrate how far back the seat needed to go to accommodate him. Basically he was in the backseat; if he was driving he would not be able to have passengers back there at all!

Luke and Will also sat in the backseat and gave me some feedback on space. They both commented it was a bit tight, and there was no way a third person could fit in the middle seat. So if you look at the Rio as a two-seater with the potential to sometimes seat four if needed, it works well, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a traditional 4-5 seat car. Unless everyone you know is fairly short. Or limber.

Now, as I said above, the media features on the Rio are impressive. New cars benefit from a trickle down effect of features; what was a luxury feature three years ago is standard today. So the Rio has an impressive technological pedigree, with a backup camera, Bluetooth for both phone calls and streaming music, a solid speaker system, hard drive, Sirius Satellite Radio, and a voice recognition program powered by Microsoft. The voice recognition and the backup camera are really the standout features in my opinion, especially based on my experiences in my Toyota and in my dad’s Nissan Maxima.

Let’s start with voice recognition. The most important use for this is phone calls. While the Rio isn’t a Siri-style conversationalist, the voice recognition works extremely well for natural instructions. When you are driving, you don’t want to take your eyes off the road to scroll through your phone book. My dad’s Nissan handles this by making you go through a menu of options, and you have what amounts to a 1-2 minute conversation of “Phone. Yes. Contacts. Yes. Call Person X. No. Yes. On their mobile phone. Yes.” It is a huge pain. My Toyota is similar, except I have to program in the people I want to voice dial, and it confirms them by repeating my voice back to me. On the Rio, I just say “Call Sarah on her cell phone”, and it pulls up her number and dials her. Just one button and one sentence. No long argument with the computer, no game of 20 questions, just a natural statement and the call is going. I can’t emphasize enough how easy this was, and how much safer it is to use if you’re going to talk on the phone.

I was also really impressed with the backup camera. The picture was clear, and even though the LCD is small, it is still sharp and easy to read. There are also guidelines that appear when you put the car in reverse; red, yellow, and green sections show you how far or close objects are. My Prius has this feature, but without the guiding lines, and my dad’s Maxima has similar lines to the Rio. Personally, I think backup cameras are awesome. They make it easier to parallel park, pull out of tight driveways, and just be more aware of your surroundings when in reverse. The Rio’s is top-notch, and one that wouldn’t surprise me on a car twice as expensive, so to see it in a more affordable car is a really nice perk.

Overall, the whole media system is great. Sound quality was excellent, and I liked that I could play music through Bluetooth, the auxiliary cable, and even over USB. I have a Lifeproof case on my iPhone, and it was great to be able to play Pandora on my iPhone without having to unscrew the headphone cap and screw in the adaptor plug. The Rio connected quickly to my iPhone over Bluetooth, brought over my contacts, and even offered to sync all non-DRM mp3s to the jukebox whenever it was connected over USB. One touch I really liked was that the LCD displayed album information from Pandora and the music app. It is a minor luxury, but I enjoyed how easy it was to see what song was playing. Basically, the entire media hub worked perfectly every time, and the various radio/satellite/device options were clear and automatic, perfect for driving!

Here’s a video overview of the media features of the Rio:

Mitchell Oke also put together a video for the Australian Kia Rio launch which shows lots of shiny angles and enticing details …

I have to admit, I was sad to give the Kia Rio back. Yes, it’s a small car, and not really great for a family (or a couple with a 95lb Labrador), but for tooling around town, commuting, and just having fun driving, it’s a great car. It handles well on highways and stop and go traffic, the technology package is top-notch, and the fact that the car I tested clocked in at $18,345 is a jaw dropping bargain!

MSRP: $18,345 as configured; check for your local dealer

What I Like: Car rides very nicely, even on busy highways; technology package is top-notch; style is eye-catching; very affordable!

What Needs Improvement: Not a lot of leg room; tight fit in the backseat.

Categories: Autos, Reviews

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