's still called the Kia Rio. But the five-door hatchback for 2012 is a notable new model with sporty appearance, well-laid-out interior, a more refined and quiet ride and a government fuel economy rating of 40 miles a gallon on the highway.
The revamped Rio also is wider and a bit longer than its predecessor, has more power and is one of the few in the segment whose four-cylinder engine is direct injected for powerful, efficient response.
The new Rio includes optional idle stop and go — a feature prominent on gasoline-hybrid cars that conserves gasoline by turning the engine off when the car is stopped, say, at a stoplight. The car automatically restarts when the brake pedal is released, such as when a traffic light turns green and a driver wants to move forward.
The Rio also is one of the few in the small-car class to offer a six-speed automatic, rather than a five-speed. Generally, more gears in a transmission helps engines get better gas mileage.
And despite adding what Kia officials estimate is $1,400 of equipment to the 2012 Rio hatchback compared with its more pedestrian 2011 predecessor, the new Rio five-door has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $14,350, which is some $300 less than the last year's base model.
This is for a 2012 LX with six-speed manual transmission, air conditioning and 138-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. An LX with automatic starts at $15,450.
By comparison, 2012 Ford Fiesta hatchback, with five-speed manual, 120-horsepower four cylinder and air conditioning, has a $16,465 starting retail price. The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback with 138-horsepower four cylinder, six-speed manual and air conditioning starts at $15,395.
The Rio is a sibling of the Hyundai Accent and uses the Accent's front-wheel drive platform as well as 1.6-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder with gasoline direct injection.
The starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $15,355 for the 2012 Accent hatchback, however, is higher than the Rio's.
Both hatchbacks are made by parent company Hyundai Motor Co. of South Korea and both have federal government fuel economy ratings of 30 mpg in city driving and 40 mpg at highway speed.
The rating applies to both manual and automatic transmission models, and there is no extra-cost "eco" package required to get the top fuel mileage rating, as there is in some small cars.
As a result, the Rio and Accent tie for second in fuel mileage ratings among all 2012 small cars that are non-hybrid and gasoline-powered. Only the diminutive 2012 Scion iQ with a smaller, less powerful engine and a continuously variable transmission has a better rating as a non-hybrid, gasoline model — 36/37 mpg.
The test Rio EX was the mid-range volume seller because it includes standard amenities such as Bluetooth telephone connectivity, tweeters for improved stereo sound, heated outside mirrors and a steering wheel that telescopes, not just tilts for comfortable driver positioning.
The EX also has standard automatic transmission, remote keyless entry and a center console with armrest that slides fore and aft to accommodate different-sized drivers.
The test EX handled with ease, remaining composed over road bumps and maintaining its line in long, sweeping curves, even at good speeds. I was surprised at how well road bumps were managed by the suspension, which uses McPherson struts in front and torsion beam in back. It wasn't a pillowy, soft ride, for sure — I felt sensations from the road, but it was never harsh.
The tester, by the way, had standard 15-inch tires, and while there was a bit of road noise, particularly on rough pavement, it was not overly intrusive. I barely noticed any wind noise, thanks to extra sound insulation that Kia engineers put into the pillars by the windows.
The engine powered the 2,483-pound test Rio commendably, and the 138 horses are up from the 110 that came with last year's model.
The quick response was pleasing, and torque peaks at 123 foot-pounds at 4,850 rpm rather than last year's 107 foot-pounds.
Power generated from the engine is only part of the reason the test Rio felt lively and competent.
The new engine block has high aluminum content compared with the heavy iron block of last year's engine, reducing engine weight by 29 pounds.
Shifts from the six-speed automatic were smooth and hardly perceptible, and I managed 36 mpg in highway and country-road driving.
The Rio five-door added 2.8 inches in wheelbase, but limited the growth in overall length, from bumper to bumper, to just 1.2 inches.
So the car fit well in parallel parking spots. The back-up camera that showed what was behind as I backed up was helpful, but it was part of a $1,000 optional convenience package on the EX.
Back seatbacks unlatched and flipped down easily, expanding cargo space from 15 cubic feet to nearly 50.
Just watch that the shoulder belts don't get stuck behind the seat latches when you return the seatbacks to their upright position.
Rear windows go down all the way in the Rio five-door, but rear-seat legroom is limited to 31.1 inches. This is about equal to the 31.2 inches in the back of the Fiesta hatchback, but it's less than the 33.3 inches in the Accent, which is longer.
Still, I found I could sit with toes tucked under the driver's seat, and my knees still were not pressed into the driver seatback.
Headroom of 37.6 inches in the back seat of the Rio hatchback is less than what's in the Accent but a tad more than the Fiesta's.