Kia Rio surprises with an upscale SX sedan
Think of the Kia Rio, and you tend to picture a low-priced, cheap-to-operate econobox that comes with the bare minimum of features and extras. The emphasis is usually on function and thrift, as opposed to comfort and convenience.
And for the base models, that’s true. These days, you can pick up an LX for under $14,000 before taxes and extras, and that’ll get you a reasonably well-equipped, five-passenger runabout that will deliver less than five litres per 100 kilometres on the highway and about 6.5 in town. In its base form, the Rio sedan will provide everything you can ask for from a built-to-a-price economy car, but with no frills or trimmings. Enough for A to B transport.
Imagine my surprise, then, to slip behind the wheel of the SX sedan and be greeted by a leather interior, heated seats, a navi system, a rear-view camera, a power sunroof, Bluetooth, and, if you can believe it, a heated steering wheel. An upscale compact sedan, in other words—not what I was expecting.
Featuring the same architecture as the Hyundai Accent, the Rio is Kia’s entry-level model, and the SX is the top of the range. Power is delivered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder that develops 138 horsepower and 123 foot-pounds of torque. My tester had a six-speed automatic transmission, which is the only choice with the SX version. This combo will net you 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres in town and 5.5 on the highway. By way of comparison, a comparably equipped Civic is good for 7.2 and 5, respectively.
Where the Rio has made significant strides is in its drive train. While not yet as refined as its Japanese rival, this is easily on par with virtually anything else in this price range. Gone are engine roughness and excessive noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH), and the SX is as drivable as a Civic, Toyota, Mazda, Focus, or anything else it competes against. In fact, as far as road noise is concerned, it’s actually a quieter automobile than the Civic and has a nice, solid ambiance about it. The Civic is still top banana when it comes to engine performance, but then, no one builds a better small-displacement four-cylinder than Honda.
Acura’s ILX is probably the SX’s major rival. Based on the Civic, the ILX has the same basic marketing philosophy: take a nicely designed economy model, bump up the equipment level and creature comforts, and you’ve got a luxo-econobox. In this case, the ILX is significantly more expensive than the Rio SX—over $9,000 more expensive, in fact. Yes, you’ll give away a bit in terms of performance, visual appeal, and most likely resale, but the SX can match the ILX in virtually every department. Were I in the market for this type of car, it would take a pretty compelling argument for me to choose the Acura over the Kia.
A couple of other things occurred to me while I was driving the Rio SX. First of all, the obvious: this company has made huge strides in the past five years. It wasn’t so long ago that Kia was on life support in Canada. Quality was pretty awful, sales were dismal, and you really took your chances when you signed on the dotted line for a Kia product. Then Hyundai entered the picture and everything changed. Yes, you’ll still encounter a comparatively stiff ride, harsher NVH, and the odd rough edge, but that’s par for the course in this corner of the market. For the most part, the Rio can run with the best of them.
That said, Kia—and Hyundai, for that matter—needs to break away from its copycat philosophy and start stepping out on its own. The Kia Soul and Hyundai Veloster are steps in this direction—albeit incredibly ugly steps—but when it comes to engineering and design, these two are still taking a page from other carmakers. For example, if Honda puts a navi system in its models, well then, they will too. If everybody’s building hybrids, oh, then they’d better too. Nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to breaking new ground, European manufacturers still seem to be out front.
There’s nothing new about that, though. Years ago, at the Frankfurt Auto Show during the unveiling of the new S-Class, I saw a mob of Japanese engineers and designers literally crawling over Mercedes’ new luxury sedan, taking hundreds of pictures and scribbling down copious notes. Apparently, they were from Lexus and taking very careful note of what the Germans were doing. The hostility and contempt emanating from the Mercedes executives was almost palpable.
My tester was a 2012 model, but aside from a slight price jump and a few cosmetic details, there are no differences between it and a 2013 model. Whichever you choose, for well under $25,000, you’re getting a fully appointed, nicely styled, and very drivable upscale compact sedan. Nice car, good value.