2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Review

Looks, fuel economy and a relaxing ride, the new Rio is a compelling sub-compact

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Review

There once was a time when SUVs and crossovers ruled our land. Everyone was into the thinking that the biggest is best. Then the bubble popped and the economy took a nose dive.


1. Powered by a direct-injection 1.6L 4-cylinder the Rio makes 138-hp and gets 30/40-mpg.

2. Models equipped with Kia’s Idle, Stop and Go (ISG) start-stop system will get a 1-mpg improvement in city driving.

3. Pricing starts at just $13,600 with $14,700 for automatic transmission models.

Nowadays, with job cuts, pay cuts and a rise in food and gas prices, people are having a rethink, and those who can still afford a new car are looking more and more towards smaller, more fuel-efficient models. However, going small does not mean you have to sacrifice on luxuries, at least not anymore.


Take the 2012 Kia Rio 5-door hatchback for example. It has four-wheel disc brakes, power windows, a driver’s seat height adjuster, map lights, illuminated vanity mirrors, a trip computer, sliding centre console armrest and 60/40 split folding rear seats as standard.

Spend some extra dollars and you can get an upgraded sound system with satellite radio, rearview camera, power folding mirrors, rain sensing wipers, a push button start, heated seats and even a heated steering wheel. Yes folks, this little car is the first sub-compact to offer a heated steering wheel. It should be safe also, as it has 6 airbags standard.

So it’s a small car that has a big list of standard and optional equipment. But to find out what it’s really like, we attended its launch in Seattle, WA., to get a real sense of what this model has to offer and if it poses a real threat to its competition.


2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Exhaust

From a styling point of view, it might not be a clear winner in its segment, but it certainly is pretty enough for people to notice. Designed by the talented Peter Schreyer, the Rio does seem to mimic the work he did while he was designing Seats, a subsidiary of Volkswagen.

One feature many car companies (and customers) spend time designing is the exhaust pipe. On the Rio, it is completely hidden. This gives the back a uniformed and clean appearance. But it you do prefer chrome exhaust tips, Kia will do that for you.

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door

If you want an econo-car with a luxury car interior, then this is the one to look at. It’s excellently designed, the interior looks clean and high-tech, and the quality of the fit and finish is easily well above average. Over all it’s well above what anyone expects from this category of car and we applaud Kia for raising the bar.

The Korean automaker has also raised the bar on gadgets. You can have a reversing camera, a UVO infotainment system (think of a newer and better version of the Ford SYNC system) developed specifically for Kia by Microsoft to play your music through any medium you like, and power folding rearview mirrors (an industry first in this segment for North America). However, the feature most people will truly welcome are the heated seats, and a heated steering wheel, which is also a first for this segment.

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Interior

All these gadgets would be useless if you’re not comfortable. The Rio sports decent seats with good head and legroom both front and back, plus the trunk is huge. We spent a very long day driving around in this car and came out of it feeling fresher than we imagined. So it is a comfortable cruiser, but what’s it like to drive?


In short, it is fine. It is not going set the road on fire nor will it make your heart beat faster, but then cars in this category aren’t meant to be aimed at enthusiast buyers anyway. What it is suppose to do – ie. transport you and your family with groceries – it does well.

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door GDi Engine

Powering the new Rio is a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder unit that benefits from direct fuel-injection (they like to call it GDI). It is the same unit as found in a Hyundai Accent and makes an identical 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque – which is plenty. The engine can be mated to either a 6-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual gearbox. The manual also comes with hill assist, which holds the car in place for two seconds either on hills to prevent rolling. Anyone who drives a manual on a daily basis will appreciate this feature.


A unique feature for Kia on this engine is the Idle, Stop and Go (ISG) system, which in theory would shut the engine off at traffic lights to conserve fuel. The engine would then fire up as soon as you touch the gas pedal. ISG is an optional feature on the Rio, and sadly all the test cars at the launch did not have this system for us to test. Perhaps the system is still being refined. However, the Rio is the first sub-compact to offer a stop and go system.

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door Rear

What we were able to test is the new “active ECO” system. This feature is engaged by pressing a button located on the left side of the dash, behind the steering wheel. Once activated, the active ECO cuts down on revs and shifts gears earlier to conserve fuel. EPA rates the Rio’s fuel economy at 30-mpg in the city and 40-mpg on the highway – 31-mpg with the ISG system. We averaged around 37 mpg on our run, which means these figures are quite honest.
On the hilly roads around Mount Rainier, the active ECO system was quite obvious. The car takes on a calmer demeanor, and since we were on a twisty mountain road, we quickly got out of the eco-mode and tried to have some fun.

This engine might produce a decent enough amount of grunt, but it does not sound happy being worked. For most, it is a non-issue, but enthusiasts will be hoping and praying for an optional engine, hopefully one with a turbo.


Handling wise the Rio is fine. It features an electric power steering system, which does have a luxury car feel to it. On the downside, it is not the most communicative steering we have ever come across. You don’t get much of a sense what the front wheels are doing and how much grip is available. The reality is, most people who buy such cars, aren’t looking for sportiness. Kia then seems to know its customers well.

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door

Kia also knows how to price its cars competitively. The new Rio in its base LX trim starts at $14,350 (including shipping charge of $750). The ISG system is part of an Eco Package priced at $400. The top of the line SX trim is yours from $17,750 (including shipping). There is an EX model that sits in the middle of the range on equipment and pricing as well. Kia’s pricing puts the Rio in direct firing line of the Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and the new Chevrolet Sonic, its arch nemesis.


So what’s the verdict? The new Kia Rio is a great contender in the sub compact category. Its style is alluring enough to bring people into the showrooms, and once they sit inside, most will be won over by its truly excellent interior. Its drivetrain and driving dynamics might not be ahead of the game, but it certainly competes head on with its competition – especially in regards to fuel economy. If you’re in the market for a sub-compact, you owe it to your income to check this one out.

Related Reading
2012 Hyundai Accent Review
2012 Chevrolet Sonic Review
2011 Ford Fiesta Review
2010 Honda Fit Review
2011 Mazda2 Review
2012 Nissan Versa Review

  • Kimbclar12

    Love my 2012 Kia Rio EX. The active eco system really helps with the fuel economy and with gas prices flirting with $4.00 gallon in my area every little bit of savings helps.