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Test Drive--2013 Kia Rio

The week of Thanksgiving, my oldest son emerged unhurt from a rather severe accident which destroyed the car he was driving. Regular Car Lust readers probably recognized that unfortunate car as the third generation Hyundai Accent I wrote a "test drive" post about back in the summer of 2009. The car we've replaced it with is a Kia Rio, the platform-mate of the new (as of 2011) fourth generation Accent.

"Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand...."It turns out that in the space of four model years, the term "base trim level" has acquired a rather more expansive meaning than it once had.

As I did with the Accent, I sought out a no-frills Rio. The car I ended up buying is as close to bare bones as I could get, with an automatic transmission the only option. I mean that "only option" bit literally: my friends Chad Emerson and Rick Brubaker, who work at the dealership that sold us the car, undertook an epic seventeen state inventory search and could not find an unsold Rio with a manual transmission anywhere, period. It was the slushbox or nothing.

The Rio now comes as either a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback; there's no longer a "three-door" version like there was in the previous iterations of the Accent and Rio. We got the sedan.

"Just like that river twisting through a dusty land...."The styling is firmly in the modern idiom, with a sharply rising beltline, high tail, arched roofline, and complex curves embossed into the sides. Based on the comments of friends and co-workers, this style is popular with the public at large, though I don't particularly care for it. (Not the first time my tastes have been out of step with the mainstream, for whatever that's worth.) Still, it's not a bad-looking little car by any means.

Despite the upswept beltline, outward visibility from the driver's seat is very good, though the A-pillars are a little too fat (a common problem these days) and the wide C-pillar and high tail cut into your vision when backing into a parallel parking space. In the back seat, it feels a bit closed in. The bottom of the rear door's window frame is at or above the shoulders of whoever is sitting in the back seat, the top of the frame is not very much above eye level, and the arched roofline contributes to the closed-in feeling even though rear headroom is actually pretty good. Rear hip and legroom are adequate for full-grown adults, but if confined spaces make you anxious, you should probably still try to sit in the front row.

The Rio is built on a 101-inch wheelbase FWD platform with MacPherson struts forward and a beam axle aft. It has quick-ratio (2.8 turns lock to lock) rack and pinion steering with electric power assist, ABS, and a full suite of stability-control gadgetry. The tires are low rolling resistance all season radials on 15-inch steelies with pseudo-alloy wheel covers.

The prime mover is Hyundai's new 1.6L Gamma four-cylinder, a DOHC direct injection engine with sixteen valves making 138 HP at 6,300 RPM and 123 pounds of torque at 4,850 RPM. This is a thoroughly modern engine design, as shown in this video:

The version of the Gamma engine installed in US-market Accents and Rios also boasts continuously variable valve timing:

All this engineering nerdery results in a definite improvement over the previous-generation power plant's output and fuel efficiency. Nevertheless, it's still a fairly "peaky" engine that's lighter on low-RPM torque than I would prefer.

A Rio in base trim is available with a six-speed manual--good luck finding one!--or a close-ratio six-speed computer controlled automatic. Upper trim levels come with the automatic only. The autobox is itself a marvel of the modern age. In even the base-model Rio, there's an "Eco" mode (selected with the touch of a dashboard button) which changes the upshift timings to keep the RPMs down and the MPGs up. In the upper trim levels, Eco mode also shuts the engine off at stoplights for further fuel savings.

"And when she shines she really shows you all she can....."I very much like the "beige" interior, which is really a beige/black two-tone. Just having a lighter second color is an improvement over the coal-mine-at-midnight-during-a-power-outage ambiance of many other low-end (and higher-end) interiors. In the Rio's case the design of the two-tone pattern is particularly well executed. The dash and most touch points are covered in a rather nice grade of textured soft plastic. The only things that truly look and feel lowball are the interior door latches, which are silvery-colored thermoplastic pretending to be metal.

The driver's seat is adjustable six ways, and there's a rather generous allotment of "comfort and convenience" features. Air conditioning is standard. There's a tilt wheel with volume control buttons, a trip computer, remote trunk release, illuminated map pockets, and power-adjustable outside mirrors.

"Now there was a time when you loved me so/I could have been wrong, but now you needed to know/See, I've been a bad, bad, bad, bad man and I'm in deep, yes I am/I found a brand new love for this man and I can't wait till you see/I can't wait/So how you like me now?...."The "AM/FM/CD/MP3/SiriusXM audio system," as the Kia catalog calls it, comes with a USB port. Plug your iPod in, and it gets a Kia logo on its screen and plays through the stereo and recharges at the same time. Alternatively, insert a flash drive full of MP3s, and browse them on the dashboard screen. There are "only" four speakers, but the sound quality is better than you'd expect at this price point.

Let me remind you, we're talking about the base model of the entry-level subcompact of a "value for money" car company.

Just think about that for a second. The Pennypincher McSkinflint Designer Edition for miserly cheapskates like me is trimmed and equipped to a standard at least equal to what you'd've found in some optioned-up premium brand family sedans and "personal luxury" cars of not that many years ago--and it's an order of magnitude ritzier than the radio-free no-AC '09 Accent it replaces. Truly, these are the days of miracles and wonders.

If you pony up the nearly three Gs necessary to gain admission to the upscale "EX" trim level, your rewards are a chrome grille surround, power door locks, power windows, cruise control, a telescoping tilt wheel, an added pair of tweeters in the A-pilars, a nicer grade of cloth upholstery, and a broader selection of paint colors to choose from. You also earn the right to spend even more money on extra-cost goodies like alloy wheels, a backup camera, and the "Optional UVO Powered by Microsoft Infotainment System," which is about as close as you can get to having HAL-9000 in your dashboard without wearing a spacesuit. Go whole hog and splurge for the factory-weaponized "SX," priced about four grand above the base model, and you get 17" alloy rims, a "sport tuned" (i.e. more aggressive) suspension, a leather steering wheel with paddle shifters, and the HAL 9000 UVO as standard equipment, with a navagation system optional.

(That name, "UVO Powered by Microsoft Infotainment System," it's ... I dunno, it seems like this whole co-branding thing is just getting way out of control. What's next? "The Sinclair Dino Supreme Gas Gauge & Low Oil Pressure Warning Light"? "Space Saver Spare Tire Powered by Goodyear"? "Makeup Mirrors by L'Oreal"? "Cupholders sponsored by Archer-Daniels-Midland, Supermarket to the Worldtm"?)

The driving dynamics are rather good for an economy car in base trim. The ride is remarkably smooth on sub-optimal pavement, the brakes are very good, and I can further attest from recent experience that the Rio handles lake effect snow admirably. There's actual tactile feedback in the steering--not a lot, not nearly as much as I'd like, but at least it's there--and while the Rio is no corner-carver, as long as you respect its limits you can hustle it through the squiggly parts without embarassing yourself or the car. It isn't as entertaining as, oh, say, the GTI, but there is something of a fun factor.

As with its predecessor, acceleration is the soft spot. The autobox is biased toward keeping the tach needle down around two thousand, well below the powerband, and lighting up the "Eco" button makes the upshifts come even sooner. For occasions when you need to add to your forward vector in a hurry, such as merging into heavy freeway traffic, you need to take it out of "Eco" and stomp the gas pedal to get the tach up around five grand. Once you do that, the acceleration still isn't in sports sedan territory, but it's good enough for any situation short of a stoplight drag race.

The trade-off for the modest acceleration is impressive fuel economy. The EPA rates the car at 28 city, 36 highway, 31 combined. That probably understates things a bit, at least in our experience. We've been getting about 35-36 MPG in mixed city and highway driving, and on long freeway trips you can easily get to 40 without hypermiling or otherwise trying very hard. Switch off the "Eco" button and drive like a fleeing felon, and you'll still probably get 30 MPG.

The overwhelming impression this car gives you is class. It's pretty classy for a basic transportation appliance that stickers under $15k. Even in stripped-down Pennypincher McSkinflint trim, it looks and feels much more expensive than it actually is; so much so that I actually find myself asking if the upper trim levels would be worth the added cost. Power windows and remote door locks and such are nice things to have, but do you really need them?

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

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I've said for years that if we could take ANY post-2000 model-year car back to the 1970s, everybody would think we were in a spaceship. To me, the improvements are astounding in EVERY way. Whereas back then an average car was worn out at 100,000 miles, today they might need a tune up.

They hardly rust. They handle better than probably anything on the road back then. They are safer (provided the driver pays attention), and much better assembled (I remember stories of cars arriving at the dealers with the dashboards in the back seat).

But the downside of newer cars is that they have less personality as they aspire to do all things well. Many are appliances that trudge along and stir little or no excitement in style or function.

But 'Hooray!' for today's entry level car. They are so much better than the junk we had to drive 40 years ago. And it seems that they are just going to get better as time goes on.

What happened to the other 1/4 of the car?

One of these days I'm going to do a Test Drive on my old Mustang II, although I suppose it wouldn't be fair with the new engine.

"The driver's seat is 4-way adjustable, the passenger seat half of that. "

What made you go for this, and not, say, I dunno, a Dart, or Focus?

@Al: Why did I not consider the Dart or Focus? Part of it was knowing people at the Kia dealership, but most of it was the price difference. The base models of the Dart and Focus sticker about $2-3,000 above the base Rio, and in the Dart's case, at least, a/c would be an extra-cost option.

We did cross-shop it against the Nissan Versa, but the Versa didn't feel as solid and lacked a tachometer--an unforgivable omission in a modern manual transmission car.

I'll note that the Alpha II that preceded the Gamma also had CVVT.

I also agree with your assessment of its gas mileage - my '08 Rio gets 28 city/33 highway with a four speed auto and 130,000 miles on it. Between the six speed, the increased efficiency of the Gamma, and the Eco button, I'd say they might have understated some of their gas mileage numbers a bit. Then again, Hyundai did recently get in trouble for overstating things, so they might just be overcompensating.

Did you consider a Fiesta? Corolla? based on price and size, I think the Fiesta is more in the Rio's league.
Not that I'm in the market, but I was recently impressed with a Corolla...even a nice one..with sunroof etc... is about $200 a month.

Based on quick look a tthe Focus (while getting service done at a Ford dealership), and looking at the Dart online, I'd prefer the Focus...but then I haven't looked...virtually or otherwise...at the "value"/bargain basement Asian brands.

Fantastic blog post. It's true that standard features have grown tremendously, but that's what our audience has come to expect these days.

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