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2012 Kia Rio.

Ted Laturnus/The Globe and Mail

Overall Rating
8.5
Overall
Fairly priced, well-equipped, cheap to run, what’s not to like?
Looks Rating
7
Looks
Corporate front-end grille treatment a turn-off, but otherwise no complaints here.
Interior Rating
8
Interior
A pleasant surprise in every way. Luxurious, well-appointed, comfortable.
Ride Rating
8
Ride
Some NVH, but on par with this market segment.
Safety Rating
8
Safety
A full complement of airbags, plus hill assist, brake distribution, vehicle stability, etc.
Green Rating
8.5
Green
One of the thriftiest models in this segment.

When you think of the Kia Rio, you tend to picture a low-priced, cheap-to-operate econobox that comes with the bare minimum of features and extras. The emphasis is on function and thrift, as opposed to comfort and convenience.

And for the base model, that's true. You can pick up an LX sedan for less than $14,000 before taxes and extras, and that will get you a reasonably well-equipped, five-passenger runabout that will deliver good fuel economy. 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 model and be greeted by a leather interior, heated seats, a navi system, a rear-view camera, power sunroof, Bluetooth, and a heated steering wheel. An upscale compact sedan, in other words – not what I was expecting.

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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. My tester, a 2012 edition, is much the same as the 2013, with a few differences, mostly cosmetic.

Power is delivered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder that develops 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. My tester had a six-speed automatic transmission, which is the only choice with the SX version. This combo will net you 6.8 litres/100 km in town and 4.9 on the highway. By way of comparison, a comparably equipped Civic is good for 7.2 city/5.0 highway.

Where the Rio has made significant strides is in its drivetrain. While not yet as refined as its Japanese rival, it is on par with virtually anything else in this price range. Gone is engine roughness and excessive NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), and the SX is as driveable as a Civic, Toyota, Mazda2, Fiesta or anything else it competes against. In fact, it's actually a quieter automobile than the Civic and has a solid ambience about it. The Civic is still top banana when it comes to engine performance and refinement, 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 – more than $9,000 more expensive, in fact. Yes, you'll give away a bit in terms of performance, visual appeal and resale value, but the SX can match the ILX in virtually every department. It would take a compelling argument for me to choose the Acura over the Kia.

Kia has made huge strides in the past five years. It wasn't that long ago when Kia was on life support in Canada. Quality was awful, sales were dismal, and drivers took their chances when they 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 – need to break away from their copycat philosophy and start stepping out on their 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 car makers. For example, if Honda puts a navi system in their models, well then, they will, too. If everybody's building hybrids, oh, then they better, too. Nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to breaking new ground, European manufacturers are out front.

Nothing new about that, though. Years ago, at the Frankfurt Motor Show during the unveiling of the new S-class, I saw – literally – a mob of Japanese engineers and designers crawling over Mercedes' new luxury sedan, taking hundreds of pictures and scribbling down copious notes. They were from Lexus and taking careful note of what the Germans were doing. The hostility and contempt emanating from the Mercedes executives was almost palpable.

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But that doesn't detract from the attractiveness of the Rio SX. For less than $25,000, you're getting a fully appointed, nicely styled and very driveable upscale compact sedan. While it doesn't exactly get my blood pumping, there's nothing to quibble about with this one. Nice car, good value.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Kia Rio SX

Base Price: $21,695; as tested: $23,250

Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder

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Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/123 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with Steptronic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Acura ILX, Buick Verano, Hyundai Elantra Limited, Honda Civic EX, Ford Focus Titanium, Toyota Corolla S

Please note: The fuel economy numbers in this review have been changed to reflect new data released Nov. 2, 2012, by Hyundai and Kia. Please click here for more details.

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