2012 Kia Rio SX 5-door first drive review: Rio? Bravo!

2012 Kia Rio 5-door SX

2012 Kia Rio 5-door SX

People often say how much they envy auto writers being able to drive so many high-end automobiles, and they readily concede that they enjoy it…but then will also point out that next week’s ride might be, oh, a Kia Rio. To which the observer nods knowingly.

But because of the 2012 Kia Rio, that won’t work anymore.

There has been, as Ralph Tjoa, Kia’s product planning national manager calls it, “a complete transformation” of the Kia Rio. How complete? Only the name remains…but there even the font has changed.

The 2012 Kia Rio even has a brand new attitude. Instead of a “penalty box,” as Tjoa branded the typical B-segment (sub-compact) car, the Rio is now “a box suite”. Not only has styling changed along the lines of the Kia Optima, Kia developed a new platform designed for more side-impact crashworthiness, using more high-tensile-strength steel (now 63 percent of body), plus thicker steel in critical places that not only makes the Rio safer but more rigid for a quieter, smoother ride.

But oh, that design. The 2012 Kia Rio joins the recent trend to make the B-segment (subcompacts) sexy. The Rio gets the Kia family grille, of course, but the Rio five-door which is being introduced here first (having debuted at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show) has a large lower radiator opening, giving it a frontal appearance of a high-performance rally car. The design is strongly wedge-shaped, with a rising shoulder line and an overall teardrop shape, the high point just over the front seats. The windshield is raked enough to require little quarter windows ahead of the doors.

2012 Kia Rio 5-door SX interior

The 2012 Kia Rio 5-door SX steering wheel has switches for cruise control, audio and Bluetooth.

The top-of-the-line 2012 Kia Rio SX that we drove comes with standard LED “accent lights” under the headlights, and taillights are LEDs, both segment exclusive. The SX is also the only B-segment car on the market with standard projector headlamps. The SX, which tops a lineup that includes the base LX and mid-range EX trim levels, has 17-inch meat-slicer alloy wheels with 205/45R17 tires, dual chrome exhaust tips, fog lamps and power-folding (!) outside heated mirrors with turn signal indicators.

(The lesser Rio models come with 15-inch wheels, the EX adding chrome trim around the grille, keyless remote locking and more).

Overall, the 2012 Kia Rio is wider and lower, and it has a longer, 101.2-inch wheelbase while being shorter overall, pushing the wheels out further towards the corners while the greater room between axles helps with the ride as well as allows more interior room for passengers. The hatchback has a generous 15-cubic foot trunk, as large as many mid-size cars, and with the rear seatback folded, the five-door can swallow large objects. Folding the seatback forward is just that, however, and doesn’t make anything close to a flat load floor. Those looking for Honda Fit-like trick seats will have to look for the Honda Fit.

The interior of the 2012 Kia Rio is well turned out, however, and the rear seat roomy for a subcompact. The front seats are supportive and complaint-free. Kia has given the Kia lots of soft touch surfaces, including the dash and front part of the doors, and the steering wheel is fat and shaped to fit the driver’s hands. The steering wheel of the Rio SX, along with the shift knob, is leather-wrapped, though not of the softest leather. The EX and SX have steering-wheel mounted controls, more on the wheel in fact than cars at one time had altogether.

The dash features what Kia calls a “three-cylinder” instrument panel, with the speedometer in the middle, engine temp and fuel level on the right and the tachometer on the left. In the 2012 Rio SX, the speedometer houses an information center. The screen for the infotainment system and review camera is located on a panel in the center stack. The panel is an oddly plain black surface without graining or other surface embellishment, and it stands out in an otherwise well-finished interior.

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