The Kia Rio got sporty, nicely sculpted styling for 2012 and adds such things as automatic transmission shifter paddles for the top-line SX, a fuel-saving "idle stop-and-go" feature and extra storage space via a cargo floor tray for 2013.
The 2013 Rio looks like it's fun to drive, and the top-line SX model I tested is just that.
While small on the outside, the Rio has a fairly long (for a subcompact) 101.2-inch inch wheelbase, with wheels pulled to the far corners of the body to provide a roomy interior-although a tall person behind a driver will find he doesn't have a surplus of legroom.
But the middle of the rear seat is soft enough to be comfortable, which often isn't the case with cars.
The $13,600-$17,900 Rio comes as a front-drive four-door sedan or four-door hatchback in LX, EX and SX trim levels.
I tested the an SX hatchback, which is supposed to come only with a six-speed automatic transmission. So why did my test car have the six-speed manual that's supposed to be offered only for the entry LX?
"Some customers wanted the SX with the manual transmission, so we built just 500 with it," a Kia spokesman said. "You just happened to get an SX with the manual. We're not building any more than 500 manual SXs."
The Rio strikes me as being more fun with the manual, although the light clutch throw is long. The shifter generally worked well, but got balky a few times during fast shifts and left me groping for a gear.
The manual works with the Rio's sophisticated 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, and I assume the six-speed automatic, with all its gears, also does well with this engine. It has direct fuel injection, which helps it develop 138 horsepower-a class-leading figure.
The engine loves to rev, as it must to get the kind of power it delivers for its size, but is never annoyingly loud and is so quiet when idling that a driver should make sure it's turned off if he quickly walks away. That can happen if he's in a hurry and ignores or doesn't depress the available "stop engine" dashboard button. (He may not hear the buzzer that warns that the engine is running.)
I found third gear best for in-town quick moves, and that third and fourth gears provide the best 65-75 mph passing on highways, with third naturally offering the fastest time during that type of passing. Fifth is a moderately good highway passing gear, while sixth is strictly an overdrive gear.
Estimated fuel economy is 29 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on highways with the manual and 28 and 36 with the automatic. A $400 "Eco Package" engine idle stop-and-go package shuts off the engine for the EX when this automatic-transmission car is at rest. Estimated economy figures this package are 30 city and 36 highway.
The base Rio ($13,600 sedan) and ($13,800 hatchback) is moderately well-equipped. Standard are air conditioning, AM/FM/stereo/CD sound system, electric power steering, adjustable wheel with audio controls and heated power mirrors.
Buyers must move to the $16,500 EX (sedan) and $16,700 EX (hatchback) to get what most want-power door locks and windows, keyless entry and the six-speed automatic transmission.
My test SX ($17,700 sedan) and $17,900 (hatchback) had a sport-tuned suspension, wider tires on larger (17-inch) wheels, power mirrors, automatic headlights, leather-covered steering wheel and a back-up camera. Its other equipment was a push-button start, cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering column, metal-finish trim and metal pedals.
Options are somewhat pricey. For instance, a $2,350 Premium Package for the SX includes a navigation system with a 7-inch display, push-button start, leather seat trim, heated front seats and a power tilt/slide sunroof. Other packages include an $1,150 Convenience Package for the EX that contains a rear camera display, power folding mirrors with integrated turn signals and dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors.
All Rios have air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control system, electronic stability control and a vehicle stability management system.
The quick electric steering is light at lower speeds, but tightens up a bit at highway speeds for better control. The ride is supple, thanks partly to the long wheelbase, and handling of my SX test car was quite good.
The LX and EX lack the sports suspension and larger tires of the SX, so don't handle as adroitly. However, all Rio models are fairly light at approximately 2,400 pounds, and that helps agility. The brake pedal had a nice linear action.
My test car's interior was commendably quiet, except for some wind noise and during hard acceleration. Even then, the engine didn't make a racket, like some four-cylinder engines.
Front seats provide good side support in curves and during quick maneuvers. The backlit gauges can be quickly read during the day, and all controls are easy to reach and use.
Front cupholders are nicely placed, and the glove compartment is large. Front door pockets can hold beverage containers, but otherwise are too slim to be of much use except to hold thin objects. Each rear door pocket just holds a beverage container.
The hatchback's moderately large cargo opening is wide but rather high. But rear seatbacks easily flip forward and sit flat to provide extra cargo space.
The hood is held open by a prop rod. Most fluid filler areas are easy to reach, except one that is semi-concealed at the rear of the engine compartment.
My test Rio was nicely assembled and felt solid. Its powertrain is backed by a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.
The Kia Rio mixes utility with driving fun to make a good cocktail.