An economical subcompact in a stylish package

The Kia brand has made tremendous strides in recent years in styling, design, performance, and perceived build quality yet remains an affordable option. Since 2009, Kia has achieved record sales and continued market share growth as they continue to evolve. Especially in a tough economy and rising fuel costs, the Rio has become even more important to the company’s success. The new 2012 Rio is the smallest and most affordable vehicle in Kia’s lineup. They believe that this car is one of their most important because the subcompact market is expected double in the next three years.

The Rio was completely redesigned for 2012. The only thing that was carried over from the previous Rio is its name. It’s longer, lower and wider than before. There’s also new styling, a new engine, and some optional upscale features brought down to this vehicle from more expensive segments.

Our Rio is the mid-line EX and came with the convenience package. It’s a $1,000 option that includes alloy wheels, infotainment system with 4.3” color touchscreen display, rear camera display, auto on/off headlights, leather wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob, outside mirrors with turn signal indicators, fog lights, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, dual map lights, and a soft touch dash.


The 2012 Rio is made in Korea, but was designed in Kia’s design studios in Irvine, California. The overall look is clean, youthful and sporty. The front of the Rio contains a slimmed down version of Kia’s signature grill that connects the front headlight, and a large air intake underneath for a hint of aggression. The side profile is wedge shaped and includes sculpted front doors and character lines that run through the door handles all the way to the rear of the vehicle. The wheels on our car are 15” alloys with P185/65R15 tires. Larger 17” wheels are standard on the sportier SX model. All Rio 5-door Rios come standard with a rear spoiler to improve aerodynamics.


The look of the cabin is modern and clean. The speedometer, odometer and fuel gauges are large and easy to read. The controls are simple, and well organized. There are large knobs for the climate control, and toggle switches that were apparently inspired by an aircraft cockpit.

The UVO (short for Your Voice) Infotainment System is powered by Microsoft and allows you to make calls and play music via voice commands. The audio system sounds pretty nice overall for a factory unit with clear high notes and a pleasant bass sound. I wouldn’t have the desire to swap the unit out for an aftermarket one. When not using voice commands, you can control the system via the 4.3” color LCD touch screen. Although the screen is small, it’s very clear and easy to use. This touchscreen also houses the view for the rear camera that automatically turns on when the car is in reverse. This feature is great since rear visibility would otherwise be hindered by a short rear window. Unfortunately the infotainment system doesn’t come with an integrated GPS navigation system in our EX trim, but one is available as an option in the SX trim.

The other interior details are hit or miss. The tilt and telescopic leather wrapped steering wheel provides good grip and houses some audio and cruise control functions. The front surface of the dashboard is a soft touch material, but the top of the dash is all hard plastic. We were a bit disappointed with the feel of what Kia calls the “premium knit” cloth seat fabric, which doesn’t have a premium feel to it. It also made us wonder what the other non-premium cloth seats are like. On the plus side, the front seats are pretty comfortable support-wise and adjust easily via manual controls to a comfortable driving position for both tall and short drivers. There’s also plenty of seat travel to adjust for longer and shorter legs, and a height adjustment on the driver’s side allows for plenty of headroom.

Although the Rio has three seat belts in the rear, it will only seat two adults comfortably. This is due to the lack of shoulder room for the middle seat occupant, which is the norm in the subcompact segment. Headroom in the rear is good, and legroom is better than expected. With the driver’s seat comfortably positioned for me (I’m 6’1”), I had enough legroom in the rear to not feel cramped.

Forward and front side visibility is good. The A-pillars are not too thick and have a small window right behind them to aid front corner visibility. Dashboard glare is kept to a minimum due to the large black dashboard top. Rear visibility is hindered by a narrow rear window and thick C-pillars. Thankfully, our car came with the optional rear camera.


The 2012 Rio is significantly more powerful and more fun to drive than the model it replaces, but it’s still not quite as fun as we hoped it would be. It is powered by a 1.6 liter 138 horsepower (up 28 horsepower from the previous model) 4-cylinder engine with direct injection, and is the only engine available in the Rio. The new model also receives two new transmissions; a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. Our Rio EX is only available in the automatic; but you do have the option to change gears manually. For a more engaging driving experience, Kia will be adding steering wheel mounted paddle shifters as standard equipment in SX models for 2013.  Our car managed to take us from 0 – 60 mph in a leisurely 9.1 seconds, which doesn’t feel all that fast, but then again shoppers in this segment don’t expect a car that throws them back into their seat when they floor it although it would be nice. Potential buyers are looking for a car that takes them where they need to go without breaking the bank; and this car delivers in that respect. Fuel economy is outstanding at 30 MPG in the city and 40 MPG on the highway.

While accelerating hard, the engine is noisy, and it doesn’t have that sweet sound of a powerful or ultra-smooth engine. It’s the sound of a small engine working hard to do its job and get the car up to speed. Once up to speed though, the engine quiets down nicely providing a pleasant highway cruising experience that’s not typically associated with subcompact cars. The power band seems almost linear from a stop all the way to its 6,500 rpm redline. The transmission shifts smoothly and fairly quickly. To get our best acceleration times, we had to turn off the electronic stability control which is designed to reduce engine power when it detects slippage.

The 2012 Rio manages to provide a comfortable ride while providing agile and crisp handling. The front suspension consists of MacPherson struts with gas shocks and the rear consists of a coupled torsion beam axle with rear shocks. The electric power steering is well weighted and works fine under normal driving conditions, but doesn’t provide much road feel in fast turns. There is some body lean when changing direction quickly at higher speeds but it’s not bad. Maneuverability is great since the Rio has a short turning circle. Kia quotes this at 33.5 ft. The 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) work well in normal use and provides short stops.  However, during panic stops the ABS activates eagerly causing a noticable pulsation in the brake pedal. 


The Rio has 15 cubic feet of trunk space behind the rear seats, which is pretty good considering the cars subcompact dimensions. The trunk is expandable by folding the 60/40 split rear seats, however they don’t fold flat. The cargo floor is thin and lightweight so it removes easily, but it feels cheap and didn’t secure tightly. Kia says the 2013 Rio hatchback will receive a new standard cargo under-floor tray which improves cargo area appearance, provides a flatter load floor when the rear seats are folded down, and reduces noise and vibration. Other storage includes cup-holders in each door as well as between the front seats, a large and deep glove box, a center console storage bin which can be used as an armrest (it’s even cushioned), and an open storage tray in front of the shifter conveniently placed beneath two 12V sockets, auxiliary and USB ports that can be used as a place to hold your smart phone. Unfortunately, there is no spare tire beneath the floor of the trunk; only an air compressor and a can of sealant to repair a flat.

Rio in Racing

For those of you who plan on racing the Rio, Kia teamed up with Kinetic Motorsports, their racing partner, to develop a track ready B-Spec Rio. B-Spec is a newly established showroom stock racing class and provides a relatively affordable avenue for auto enthusiasts to participate in the excitement of competitive motorsports at professional venues. After purchasing a 2012 Rio 5-door (I would choose the least expensive model if I were to do this), a B-Spec kit that costs $14,000 can be purchased from Kinetic Motorsports. This kit includes everything you’ll need to transform the 2012 Rio into a proper racecar: roll cage kit, racing seat, quick-release steering wheel, racing harness, race shocks, lightweight wheels, spec-series tires, oil sump pan expansion kit and complete build instructions. For an additional $6,000 Kinetic Motorsports can assemble the B-Spec Rio at their shop in Buford, Georgia. Of course if you don’t want to go to these extremes, you can take the Rio out to your local autocross or high performance driving event.


As of the time this article was written, the IIHS had not released crash test results for the 2012 Rio. However, it is equipped with many standard safety features including a body construction designed to help protect occupants in certain side impact and roll-over collisions. Additional standard safety features worth noting include six airbags in the front and side, Electronic Stability Control (ESC), four-wheel Anti-lock Brakes (ABS), and Vehicle Stability Management which coordinates the car’s ESC and ABS to help the driver stay in control of the vehicle.


The Rio is available in both sedan and hatchback. Each one comes in LX, EX or SX trim. Only the LX is available in manual transmission. Base prices for the hatchback are $200 more than the sedan and range from $13,400 for the LX sedan with Manual transmission to $17,700 for the SX hatchback. All models come with the same engine that gets a frugal 30/40 mpg city/highway.


Although it’s not the enthusiast’s choice in this segment, we feel the 2012 Kia Rio is a good value with its low entry price, comfortable ride, nimble handling, great fuel economy, and 10 year 100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty. The car does not shine in any one particular area, some parts do feel inexpensive, and you definitely won’t feel special driving it, but it does get you where you need to go fairly comfortably without breaking the bank.

RealWorldRoadTests Second Opinion – Dave Gran

When I think about the Rio, I think of it as a inexpensive vehicle that also brings along some positive surprises. For someone whose looking for an economical car that gets good gas mileage, it’s something worth considering. While it’s far from being a fast car, I didn’t feel like it was a huge struggle to keep up with traffic.

If you’re looking to make it more sporty, you can achieve this with a few modifications to the exhaust (gain a nice tone and some power), better gripping tires, and possibly improved suspension. With it coming with such a low price tag, it makes it more viable to make some of these aftermarket purchases. Overall considering what the Kia Rio is intended to be, it’s a good bang for the buck.

Vehicle type: Front Engine, FWD, 5 passenger, 5-door
Base price: $16,500
Price as tested (including destination): $18,345
Horsepower: Direct Injected 1.6 Liter 4 Cylinder 138 hp @ 6,300 RPM
Torque: 123 lb ft @ 4,850 rpm
Redline: 6,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic
RWRT’s 0 – 60 MPH: 9.1 Seconds
EPA Rating MPG (city/hwy/comb): 30/40/33
Required Fuel: Regular unleaded

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