“Hey, what is that?” a guy in a parking lot stopped to ask me.
The Kia badge wasn’t giving the game away, hidden from our profile view.
And, let’s admit that, seen from a side angle, most subcompacts look pretty much the same - Ford Fiestas, Hyundai Accents, Toyota Yaris, Honda Fits, whatever.
But this Rio 5-Door hatchback did seem to be turning heads wherever I went.
We can probably credit the eye-catching Chili Red exterior lustre, the coupe-like sleek roofline, the edgy accent lines and funky big upgraded alloy wheels for that.
“VW GTI?” he guessed.
Hmm, the wheels were really fooling him.
“Nope,” I answered, figuring I’d left him hanging long enough. “Kia Rio”.
Which, as usual, led to raised eyebrows and a somewhat surprised reaction.
Now, along with the hot colour, we should also credit Peter Schreyer, a Kia-kidnapped designer who left his Audi chores to champion a new “tiger nose” familial look for the Korean brand, also adding other styling touches to a previously nondescript lineup of wanna-bes.
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This latest, third generation version of the Kia Rio was introduced for the 2012 model year and, here in North America, it anchors Kia’s collection of vehicles as the entry-level econo car, although in upper trim levels it can approach near-lux levels of sporty refinement.
Globally, the Rio offers a variety of smallish gasoline-powered or diesel-powered engine choices but, as is usually the case, our North American versions get the largest engine option, a 1.6-litre GDI four-cylinder motor that makes 138 hp and 123 lb/ft of torque.
That workhorse is willing enough to chirp the tires but there’s not really enough oomph to qualify this Kia as a hot hatch, unlike the GTI it was mistaken for. All in all though, the qualities of subcompact size and mass, blended with more than adequate power makes for enough nimble driving satisfaction to please the average driver.
The one-choice 1.6-litre four-banger is mated to either the standard six-speed manual transmission or, as tested here, an optional six-speed automatic, putting power to the road through a front-wheel-drive system.
This powertrain has a fuel economy rating of 8.8/6.3L/100km (city/hwy) bolstered in this case by an Active Eco System with Idle Stop & Go. My real-world mix of highway, city and occasional paddle-shifting giddiness averaged out to a more realistic 9L/100km (comb).
Although the Kia Rio shares its powertrain with the Hyundai Accent, the two vehicles are more like related cousins rather than close siblings, with distinctive exterior and interior styling cues with Kia priding itself on more of a sport-oriented design theme.
The Rio comes in two model choices - four-door sedan or, tested here, as a five-door hatchback.
The 2015 Kia Rio five-door starts at $14,495, basically outfitted with 15-inch steel wheels, no air conditioning and with the standard manual six-speed. But it also comes fairly well-equipped, even at that entry-level, with six airbags, four-wheel ABS disc brakes with brake assist system (BAS) and electronic brake distribution (EBD), electronic stability control (ESC), vehicle stability management (VSM), hill-start assist control (HSC), a standard rooftop spoiler, tilt steering with audio controls, a six-way adjustable driver’s seat, power door locks, power windows, power heated side mirrors and with a four-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3/Satellite stereo system with AUX and USB inputs.
The Kia Rio’s content bumps up through nine different LX, EX and SX trim level steps.
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Our 2015 Rio SX Auto tester, listing for $20,795, sits about eight steps up that trim level ladder, coming complete with a long list that includes automatic projection headlights, foglights and LED daytime running lamps up front and LED taillights in back.
Heated seats, a heated steering wheel, a cooling glovebox for drinks, fully automatic climate control, rain sensing windshield and a six-speaker audio upgrade round off the content list.
The SX trim rating hints at this model’s sport accent so it also includes 17-inch alloy wheels, bigger front brakes, a sport-tuned suspension, shift paddles on the steering wheel, a supervision gauge cluster, alloy pedals and twin-tipped exhaust. You might not technically go any faster in this same-powered sport version but you might at least look and feel a little quicker in it.
The content list goes on beyond expectations in this subcompact with Microsoft’s UVO hands-free communication and infotainment system with rear camera display. And black leather upholstery and appointments offset with metallic trim pieces help accent a cabin that is snug but comfortable for four, occasionally do-able for five. A standard 60/40 rear seat flops forward to maximize cargo capacity from 425 litres to a useful 1,410 litres.
I mentioned that this SX model was near the top of the trim ladder. There’s only one step further and that would add a navigation system and power sunroof to the package ($2,200).
Our test was done in a 2015 model but this fall’s newest 2016 Kia Rio versions carry over relatively unchanged except for minor tweaks to the front and rear styling treatments.
Of course, those tweaks might be enough to engender even more comments and questions from the occasional passerby in a parking lot somewhere.
“Hey, what is that anyway?”
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2015 Kia Rio 5-Door SX AT at a glance
Subcompact five-door hatchback
Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, six-speed automatic transmission
1.6-litre GDI four-cylinder motor (138 hp, 123 lb/ft)
(Regular) 8.8/6.3L/100km (city/hwy); as tested 9L/100km (comb).
425 litres behind back seat, 1,410 litres back seat folded