2012 Kia Rio EX 5-Door HD Video Review

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Americans have never embraced small cars.  We equate them to penalty boxes- small, spartan, and uncomfortable. Oh sure, small cars work in Europe and Asia.  They have astronomical fuel prices, narrow roads and cities with high density. Our gas costs less than bottled water, we drive on freeways, and suburban homes have lawns as large as parks.


However, with the economy and gas prices so fickle these days, consumers are downsizing to less expensive fuel-efficient vehicles.   Two things make that easier to move to the subcompact class- Fierce competition has improved overall quality and manufacturers are adding appealing luxury touches.

The 2012 Kia Rio is a perfect example.  This car has come a long way from the outgoing model.  It can be ordered up with heated leather seats and keyless ignition plus it benefits from Kia’s design renaissance.  Remember, three years ago this brand’s cars were as bland as dry toast on a paper plate.  Then Peter Schreyer and Co. dropped the edgy Soul.  After that, every vehicle they’ve launched has visual punch.  Optima and Sportage can be confused with cars costing twice the price.

I am attending the press launch outside of Austin, Texas.  While I did not spend my usual week in this car, a full day gives a pretty good idea of what it’s like.


Conceived in Cali

The only thing that remains from the old model is the name and even then the font style is changed.  Rio gets its family resemblance from Kia’s California design studio where it was given clean and simple lines with a hunkered down attitude. It’s especially sharp in SX trim with low profile tires (shown to the right).  I am driving an EX model.

This car is based on the same architecture as the Hyundai Accent but the two look nothing alike inside or out.  The upscale appearance is important because Kia feels that the subcompact market will double by 2015.  The age-old thinking is getting a customer into an appealing car makes them brand loyal for life.  This plan worked well for Honda and Toyota.



Power comes from a 1.6-liter direct-injected 4-cylinder making 138 horsepower @ 6,300 RPM and 123 lb-ft of torque @ 4,850 RPM.  Both manual (available only in the base model) and automatic transmissions have six gears I’m driving an automatic that offers manual shift mode on the console.  What?  You were expecting paddle shifters?  For max fuel economy the automatic’s transmission shift points can be changed by pushing the Active Eco button.

Power is decent, 0-60 takes around 8.5 seconds (Prius does 9.5).  Fuel economy is good too with an EPA rating of 30 city, 40 highway.  The event held a contest on who could get the best mileage throughout the day, the winning number was 42 MPG.  It certainly wasn’t me or my driving partner Ryan Douthit.  His review here.

Road Trip!

Rio addresses most American’s preconceptions about small cars.  It would be okay on a day-long road trip.  Kia could have sent us puttering around housing developments and shopping centers since Rio is an excellent urban runabout.  Instead they sent us out for hours of highway and country road cruising, conditions that subcompacts don’t always excel at.  It’s stable at very high speeds, relatively quiet and has a solid “on-center” feel.  Ryan and I didn’t have to raise our voices to hear each other so at the end of the day our vocal chords and bodies weren’t beat up by the end of the day.


Rio isn’t a sports car but the cornering and response is crisp in it’s class.  Not a lot of road feel though, which is very common with electric power steering.  Disc brakes all around have good modulation.  Of course electronic stability control is standard on all cars these days.  Uncle Sam demands it.

Stop!  In the Name Of Fuel Economy

Available early after the launch is an optional system called Idle Stop and Go.  Basically, it shuts the engine down when you’re completely stopped at an intersection, then automatically restarts when your foot lifts off the brake, much like a hybrid but without the electric motor propulsion.  To avoid being annoying in parking lots and traffic jams, the system won’t activate when crawling around under 5 miles an hour.

Kia outfits an ISG equipped car with a much beefier starter and battery.  They say the EPA fuel economy rating will not change but insist owners should see a seven percent increase in real world fuel economy.  ISG will cost $400.


What You See The Most Of

We all seem to be drawn to what a car’s sheetmetal looks like but the interior is what a buyer stares at day in and day out.  Inside the Rio, shapes are pleasant, materials look good, and with a rubberized coating on the door pulls, feel good too.  Apparently, tabs that operate the heat and AC are inspired by an aircraft cockpit.  There are touches of faux aluminum and piano black in the instrument panel.

The cloth seats in my EX tester look good and support nicely. There are details such as a sliding middle armrest and covered console storage that often get left off in budget cars.

For those claiming they would pay extra for an interior upgrade, Kia calls your bluff.  My EX car has the “Convenience Package” which adds more than a leather wrapped steering wheel, back up camera and Uvo voice control.  The instrument panel gains a soft touch material, side mirrors get power folding operation and LED signal lights.  The wheels change to alloys too.  All this and more is a bargain at 1,000 bucks.


Allow Me To Get Picky

The gauge needles (that sweep upon start up) are a bit overdone, looking like the nose of a Star Wars X-Wing fighter.  The small LCD display for the odometer and trip computer is hard to read in bright sunlight.  Audiophiles will need to hit the aftermarket to improve the sound system, the standard system is quite, well, standard. That’s about it though, in all other aspects Rio is an over achiever in class.

Trading in a Cadillac?  Probably not on this car but if you were, Rio offers upscale features like heated leather seats, navigation and keyless ignition as options to make the switch easier.  The EX gets standard Bluetooth and iPod integration.


The back seat has belts for three, but really, room for two full sized adults.  Legroom is fine as long as you’re not an NBA star (talking to you Kia spokesman Blake Griffin).  Put your Coke in the door mounted holders (don’t slam the doors though) and small stuff in the dual seatback pockets.  It’s rare to find a power port, or folding armrest in budget cars and that doesn’t change here.  Rio doesn’t have a head restraint for the center passenger either.

Hatchback Versatility

With the back seats usable I’ll guestimate the cargo hold can swallow 5 bundles of TP (remember, I’m in Texas so I’m far away from my bath tissue supply).  Drop the 60/40 split seatbacks and it would be easy to throw a bike in back.  There are a couple small cubbies to stash things and storage under the floor where a spare tire would normally be, but isn’t.  Spare tires are becoming a thing of the past.

There’s a sedan version of Rio that should be in showrooms by January 2012.  These days Kia’s biggest problem is making enough cars.  Apparently their design led transformation is working, they’ve doubled their market share in the US in just three years.

Kia’s warrantee is pretty solid- 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain, 5 years or 50,000 miles basic coverage and 5 years of roadside assistance (hmmm, maybe you don’t need that spare tire after all).  Kelly Blue Book recently announced Kia is #1 in cost of ownership besting Hyundai and Honda in the non-luxury category.


The EX model I’m driving represents the sweet spot of the line up.  As tested it’s $18,345.  Rio LX starts at $14,350 with a manual transmission.  If you’re shopping Accent, Fiesta, Mazda2, Sonic, Yaris or Versa it would be a wise idea to check Rio out.  18K may not be a huge chunk of change for a car, but it represents a significant investment to the Rio’s target market.  Spend a few extra hours of test drive time to find the vehicle that’s right for you.

For people who haven’t shopped the segment in a decade, the subcompact segment is a different world that now allows buyers to order up fancy touches, meaning the ownership experience isn’t purgatory.  Offering up economy, comfort and expressive design that Kia’s becoming known for, small car shoppers should head to Rio for a test drive.

Full Gallery Below.  All Still Photos Provided By Kia.  Red Car is SE Model Tested, White Car is SX Model.


  1. Elliot says:

    What a difference paint color makes. To my eye the red car picture looks bland but the white looks very nice. One thing in the article I thought funny was the Prius’ 9.5 second 0-60 time. It may be capable of that but doubt it often tried. I could accelerate faster in a sailboat than most of the Prius drivers I’ve had the pleasure of being stuck behind. At least there’s usually some nice bumper stickers to read while I wait.

  2. kenwenzel says:

    Hope you enjoyed visiting the Austin area. I live about 2 hours away and love the place. You probably missed the NW rain though.

    • TV says:

      There was a trace amount of rain the day before I arrived and everyone was marveling about how green it was. It was the most brown green I’ve ever seen. Didn’t really get to see Austin though, i might get back in a month or so if I go see the new Malibu.

  3. Ted says:

    The rear part reminds me of the Fiat Brava from the ’90s.
    Front and interior look great, then again the 3-door hatch sold in Europe looks way better to me.

  4. [...] 2012 Kia Rio EX 5-Door HD Video Review … – Driven Car Reviews [...]

  5. crash says:

    I had to laugh about the MB folks giving you a bit of grief on the comparison test…you just gotta shake you head – tongue and cheek folks…sigh.

    There is actually a veloster in our work parking garage…neat design – but I see it getting old real soon. Also – I have to imagine seeing out the back would be brutal. If I were looking at that brand – go w/ the Elantra – I don’t see it aging as poorly; it actually reminds me of the 1992 Civic SI coupe

  6. jcamalari says:

    I loved the look of this since the news of the upgrade/update a while back. Though not my desired size of vehicle, what a looker. This, the Forte, Optima and Elantra are real eye candy. Sad the Camry took an even more conservative look from years previous. (love the front end of the 07-11 Camry)

  7. [...] Oct 23 – US video review on the all new Rio 5 2012 Kia Rio EX 5-Door HD Video Review drivencarreviews.com [...]

  8. augaug says:

    Ok Tom.

    Assuming the money difference doesn’t matter. (if there is any) And you only carry 1 or 2 people max. Which car do you choose? A loaded Veloster, or a loaded Rio SX? Just curious to know your preference, seeing as both these cars have the same engine. Does one car stand out as a “nicer” car to you? Or is it purely the design differences that causes your preference?

    • TV says:

      I’m very reluctant to recommend one car over another for so many reasons. I’d highly suggest you drive then both.

      That said, Veloster tends to be more polarizing as far as styling and of course the third door is a glass half full / empty proposition. I like the interior and the large LCD display. I’d really like to see the turbo engine that everyone is anticipating but then I wonder about torque steer.

      The Rio’s exterior design looks great though it’s more mainstream. The interior is more conservative than the Hyundai. The back seat is more useful. For some reason, it’s power feels okay in this car, maybe because it’s not overtly trying to be a performance car like Veloster.

      Also, there is always the competition. Car and Driver has a comparison this month between a bunch in this segment and in their test Rio came in toward the back of the pack though I forgot to look at the score numbers. These days they seem to bunch up pretty tight making them more subjective that nailing a clear winner. Plus they didn’t include Fiesta. FYI, I read it last night after I posted my review since I do my best to not read other reviews until mine is done.

      In their test, 0-60 was slower than mine. Their biggest gripe seems to be acceleration and numb steering feel (plus probably the fact that the SX is NOT available with a manual which is a little odd). I suggest reading it though to get some insight.

      • augaug says:

        My heart loves the uniqueness of the Veloster, my head says the Rio offers better practicality… which of course means that I’ll probably end up with a Soul. :)

        • TV says:

          Yeah, Soul has personality and practicality. The 2012 is a nice upgrade, I’ll have a piece on it sometime in November.

  9. JF says:

    I’m glad manufacturers have realized that stamping an ugly panel costs the same price as stamping an attractive, well-designed panel! Design is key in this industry, and this car has very attractive design. I predict a huge hit for Kia, especially where hatchbacks are popular (Canada, Europe).

    Nice review by the way, Tom. Any chance we could have access to your archive? That Merc/Kia comparison looked interesting :)

  10. Ken says:

    Good design sells, I think out of all the new cars, I think KIA is the best lookwise, balanced proportion, detail attentions, carried on design themes (tiger nose shape through out), and choice of material for the price range. Another 5 to 8 years, Hyundai/Kia will over take Toyota for sure, maybe even sooner.

  11. FinalBlue says:

    Oh boy…this is exactly the type of review I was hoping wouldn’t show up with the Rio, at least not from this site.

    It’s far too late for me to go into detail on it now, but I definitely have a few things to say about this.

  12. faceless_el says:

    will we see a comparative review of the rio and the accent in the future?