When it was redesigned last year as a 2012 model, a highlight of the Kia Rio subcompact car was its class-leading EPA fuel economy estimates of 30 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, for a combined total of 33 mpg in mixed driving. That 40-mpg figure in particular represents a magic number in today’s small-car market.
But that selling point took a big hit earlier this month, when the Environmental Protection Agency determined that most current Hyundai and Kia models had been improperly tested by the Korean automaker’s shared laboratory. Following correct EPA procedures, the cars are instead rated at 31 miles per gallon in mixed driving, 28 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway – far off that magic number, and now trailing some competitors instead of leading the class.
Based in part on the inaccurate EPA figures, a Kia Rio hatchback placed second out of 10 subcompact five-doors in a Cars rootshed.comparison earlier this year, trailing only its Hyundai Accent corporate twin (which saw similar fuel economy ratings drops). But a more recent weeklong test of a Rio four-door sedan highlighted the little Kia’s remaining advantages against the competition, including a premium-quality interior and lots of available features. Even with the lower fuel economy ratings, Kia dealers still struggle to keep the Rio in stock – and there are plenty of good reasons.
The Rio isn’t perfect. Its steering feels unnatural, the ride is a little bumpy – especially on the tested sport-tuned SX model – and the seats aren’t especially comfortable. But it continues to bring an upscale ambiance to its class that eludes most competitors, while retaining traditional small-car value. And although its fuel economy no longer a standout spec, 31 mpg in mixed driving is still highly competitive, and this reviewer observed 32.5 miles per gallon during the weeklong test (in unscientific, non-repeatable conditions.)
To be sure, the Rio isn’t dirt-cheap. Prices start at roughly $14,000 for an LX model with crank windows and manual locks and a manual transmission, or north of $15,000 with an automatic. A midlevel EX has a sticker price of around $17,000, adding power windows and locks, cruise control, a Bluetooth cell phone connection, and a standard automatic transmission. A $1,000 package adds alloy wheels, upgraded interior trim, power-folding mirrors, Kia’s UVO infotainment system and a backup camera.
The SX model has those options standard at a similar price, plus larger wheels and a stiffer suspension. The tested model adds the $2,000 “premium package” – leather seats, a navigation system, a sunroof, and a proximity key system – at $20,545. Dealers aren’t budging too much on the price, either, and scarce inventory means you may not get to choose which Rio you want.
Even so, if you’re looking for an affordable car that doesn’t feel too cheap, the Rio might be a good fit for you. Shop the Ford Fiesta for more sophisticated driving dynamics, the Chevrolet Sonic for a more comfortable interior, the Honda Fit for more versatility, and the Hyundai Accent – mechanically the same car as the Rio – for better steering feel and increased availability. (For more information on the Rio’s competitors, see the comparison review of subcompact cars.)
Other subcompact cars, including the Accent, have a chintzier feel to their interiors that reminds you of their price point every time you try to turn up the heat. The Rio’s also has a respectable maturity to its interior layout that sets it apart from the goofy-fun vibe some competitors seek to impart. If that’s what you seek – along with excellent gas mileage and a long warranty – and are okay with merely acceptable seat comfort and driving dynamics, the Rio should serve you quite well.
If you do decide on the Rio, though, the tested SX sedan isn’t the one to get. The five-door hatchback packs more versatility into a smaller footprint, and has better rear visibility, with little tradeoff. And unless you’re sold on the big wheels or the SX-only “premium package,” you can get better ride quality from an EX.
More photos of the 2012 Kia Rio SX sedan
All Cars Examiner car reviews
Comparison review: 10 subcompact hatchbacks
Review: 2012 Kia Rio five-door
Review: 2011 Kia Forte SX hatchback
Review: 2011 Kia Sportage SX
Hyundai, Kia fuel economy ratings were inflated
Vehicle tested: 2012 Kia Rio
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $13,400
Version tested: SX sedan
Version base price (MSRP): $17,500
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $20,545
Estimated transaction price as tested*: $19,943
Test vehicle provided by: Kia Motors America
Length: 171.9 inches
Width: 67.7 inches
Height: 57.3 inches
Wheelbase: 101.2 inches
Weight: 2,480 pounds
Trunk volume: 13.7 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.6 feet
Engine: 1.6-liter I4 with 138 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 28 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 36 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 31 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 32.5 miles per gallon
Assembly location: South Korea
For more information: Kia website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.