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2012 Kia Rio New Car Test Drive by Martha Hindes

2012 Kia Rio Road Test Review

by Martha Hindes

2012 Compact Car Buyer's Guide - Top 10 Picks

Chevy Sonic


Fiat 500 C

Mini Cooper

Nissan Versa

Honda Civic Si

Hyundai Accent

Welcome to the five-door car wars. Where hatchbacks once were denigrated, they -- surprise -- are surfacing in greater numbers in the most logical place of all, a subcompact automobile. And one of the most illustrious of them all, and most fitted to do damage to its foes, is the newly arrived 2012 Kia Rio. Fresh, fitted to a tee, quite frankly it's prepared to thrash some comparably sized competitors on the road.

With that said, maybe you'd like a little confirmation as to why. Well, the 2012 Kia Rio is a really small car with a hatchback. For starters, despite its diminutive size wears style with the authority of a big brother crossover. It's low and lean and beautifully balanced in shaping and rearward sweep, even as it noticeably cramps the style of rear seat passengers searching for stretch room after climbing inside through a rear (correct) door. From the nose rearward it has the sense of a cat with the wind in its face peeling its ears back that gives it a rather ornery appearance, maybe ready for a fight. (Cat people know those animals detest wind in their faces so watch out for the claws.) Five spoke, 17-inch sport wheels on the upscale version glom onto the road with just a shred of space between tire rubber and the wheel wells up top. Tiny fog lamps threaten to spit out an intense light beam when on.

A little on the cutesy side are a couple of stationary tiny opera windows or whatever you want to call them that tuck up to the A pillar right near the windshield. They add some visibility advantage so maybe there's a sensible reason they are there. We wish the same could be said for the rear hatch's window that's curved almost into an elongated oval shape. Great for styling impact; less usable for visibility unless one is in an up-market model with backup camera.

We discovered upon getting inside that this little puddle jumper really has a good looking interior. There are some little flat tabs front and center to play with when testing out different functions such as AC, rear defogger and air intakes. Nothing tacky, really well done. The interior treatment and materials are better than one might expect in a budget priced auto, and a $14K base price is definitely a bargain. Hatchback models naturally allow for more carrying space and the Rio's does just that. A companion sedan version will be more limited.

We expected the Rio to have the swagger and verve that can come naturally to a very small, front-drive auto with properly done underpinnings. With Kia's 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter inline four at its heart, we started out running and found it handled easily, with a taut, controlled feeling no matter how we pushed it, although well short of track time. We missed the chance to try a standard transmission that only comes on the entry level LX trim. Other models only come with a six-speed automatic.

One can add a couple of thousand for the mid-range EX and qualify for an optional, ECO package with stop/start technology that turns the engine off during idle, normally a more premium offering. Go a shade under $20K for the top level EX with those 17-inch wheels, sport-tuned suspension and technology upgrades including optional navigation and standard back up camera. All versions are expected to be in the attention-getting 30/40 MPG range for fuel economy.

On a personal note, and weighing in on the stick shift argument, we've heard several complaints from people who really "drive" (AKA pedal to the metal, two-tired turns and blastoffs from stop signs as essential hazing rites) that the new Rio limits its six-speed standard transmission to the base LX. We can relate to that. When it came time to do some car shopping, the only non-negotiable item was the shifter. Try to unload an automatic? Where's the door. It took a three-state search to find one without regard to an acceptable color, and when one finally was located it turned out to be an agreeable shade of blue.

We've never regretted digging in our heels that way, and appreciate the need to actually engage the left foot on a REAL clutch pedal to start up. There's no fidgeting with a pseudo manual version locked into a rigid chrome post to up-shift. Or those two awkward steering wheel paddle shifters that change positions every time the wheel is turned to the left or to the right.

So here it is Rio. On behalf of those frustrated critics, we think you should get your act together. Remember there are women out there (actually some men do too) who like to have "FUN" when they drive. And you're teasing them like crazy with an auto that just looks like it wants to run flat out and that won't break the bank in the process, even in tonier guise. You already have the mechanicals but you're keeping them just out of reach. Maybe your 2013 hatchback or even the sedan model can have a little stick shift frosting on an up-model Rio cake. We know some rather diehard car gals who would rather fight than switch.

Visit the Kia website, click here.