THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Best: Cheap and cheerful, stylish inside and out, doesn’t beat you up
- What’s Worst: Poor rearward visibility, oddly low passenger seat, failing ignition coils
- Typical used prices: 2012 – $9,500; 2015 – $13,500
It would take 55 years for Kia to plant a flag on our shores, though its cars were not entirely new to Canada when its first dealerships opened here in 1999.
In a progression that mirrored South Korea’s transformation from agrarian society to industrial powerhouse, Kia was established in 1944 as a humble bicycle-parts maker before graduating to entire bicycles, followed by motorcycles and then small cars and trucks assembled under licence from Mazda.
Few might remember Ford imported the Kia Pride to North America as the 1988 Festiva, a diminutive phone booth on casters that won over college students and devout couponers.
Ford updated its entry-level offering by marketing Kia’s Avella as the Aspire in 1994. The little hatchback offered soap-bar styling, dual airbags and zero street cred. Still, both Mazda-engineered cars held up reasonably well in our unforgiving climate.
The Festiva and Aspire amounted to a pre-emptive strike in North America, softening the ground for an eventual landing by the undisguised Kia brand.
Its smallest econobox, the Rio, was unveiled in 2000 to replace the unlamented Avella. Even its nameplate, consisting of three letters, showed a great reverence for economy.
When the third-generation Rio arrived for the 2012 model year, Kia challenged the notion that a budget car had to be homely. It wore fresh and fetching sheetmetal designed by Kia’s California studio under the supervision of ex-Audi stylist Peter Schreyer.
Despite being a little wider, longer, and lower than the outgoing model, the Rio employed the same old front-drive platform shared with the Hyundai Accent. As before, it was offered as a four-door sedan and five-door hatchback. The surprisingly roomy cabin was furnished to look pretty inviting.
The dashboard used soft, expensive plastic on the face, with a hard dash top where it didn’t matter. The instruments and the switchgear belied the car’s low-budget origins, as did the impressive array of options, including keyless entry and ignition, rearview camera, leather upholstery and power-folding side mirrors. The Rio can be surprisingly opulent and accommodating for a subcompact.
“I’m over six feet tall, and I can sit in the back seat (and front) very comfortably.” Some owners commented on the mounting position of the front passenger seat, which was unusually low. On the other hand, the driver’s seat could adjust six ways including height. The car’s restricted view out the back didn’t win many friends, making the optional rearview camera a virtual necessity.
Both the Rio sedan and hatchback offered good cargo capacity, though our American neighbours discovered the spare tire and jack they had come to expect had been replaced by a can of tire sealant and an air compressor. Given Canada’s vast and sometimes remote geography, Kia wisely tucked a standard spare tire in every Rio sold here.
The lone available engine was Hyundai’s “Gamma” 1.6-L DOHC four cylinder that migrated from the old car, but updated with the addition of direct injection, which helped the motor churn out 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque. Two six-speed transmissions, a manual and an automatic, were offered.
All automatic-equipped Rios came with an “Active ECO” button, which dulled the throttle response and changed the shift program to boost fuel economy. A clutched alternator and electric power steering helped reduce drag on the small engine. An optional Eco package added an engine stop/start system that killed the engine at every stop.
The Rio came with antilock disc brakes at all four corners, a great allocation of resources in a budget car. A full complement of airbags ringed the interior. The wee auto earned four stars (out of five) for frontal protection and five stars for side protection in U.S. government crash testing.
The Rio sedan and hatchback remained largely unchanged in subsequent model years until 2016, when the pair earned a restyled grille and taillights, improved interior materials and added sound insulation. Microsoft’s UVO infotainment system got an update to stay current with the latest digital media gear.
DRIVING THE RIO
Econoboxes are rarely quick, and the Rio is hardly an exception. It wheezes to 97 km/h in 9.5 seconds with the automatic transmission, while the manual transmission provides a more spirited performance, taking 8.2 seconds. Being a pipsqueak lends the Rio some handling prowess, since a small car is easier to thread along a curvy road.
“Wheels placed at the corners of the car really plants the car in the corners. Twisties are fun again. Great brakes, they will stop you in a heartbeat,” remarked one enthused driver online.
The electric power steering doesn’t hinder handling, but it delivers little feedback. And the Rio exhibits a Korean predilection for cushy suspension settings and unbecoming body roll.
Highway travel is a little noisy, though not bad for a subcompact. Some owners found a solution by replacing the factory rubber with quieter premium tires.
Fuel economy is reputed to be one of the Rio’s strong cards, although some owners beg to differ. The car scores very well in government fuel ratings – 6.8 litres/100 km in the city works out to 42 mpg – but in the real world expect mileage in the range of 30 to 35 mpg, owners say.
“If you need power leave the ECO button off. If you want great gas mileage leave the ECO button engaged,” advised one driver in a post.
Mechanically, the Rio has been a model citizen. There have been relatively few complaints regarding the car’s reliability since the third generation debuted almost six years ago. It’s worth noting that the South Korean-made Rio has scored well in J.D. Power quality studies.
Mechanically, the Rio has been a model citizen.
There are complaints registered by a small contingent of owners who have reported noisy engines. At fault is a defective timing chain and guide, which can produce a noticeable rattling sound under the hood.
In response Kia released a technical service bulletin (Service Action number SA141) that instructs dealers to replace the engine sub-assembly and long block. The work order is restricted to a batch of 2013 Rios built between August and October 2012.
Beyond engine clatter, drivers have noted a few issues with water dripping from the air conditioner onto the floor (requiring new insulation), and a small number of faulty electric power-steering units have been replaced.
Other issues outlined by owners include short-lived ignition coils, and prematurely worn clutches and slave cylinders on manual-transmission models. There have also been a few troubling reports of Rios catching fire, though it does not appear to be a systemic issue (it may be related to road debris contacting the hot exhaust).
Overall, the Rio is a solid automobile buy. Owners rave about the car’s inviting cabin, generous standard equipment and decent performance. Kia’s standard five-year/100,000 comprehensive warranty will benefit second-hand owners who buy in early enough. Don’t discount the Rio just because it’s cheap.
Read more “Buying Used” on Wheels.ca