Nobody asked me, but . . .

Whenever I have a particularly vexing automotive market research issue, I typically turn to my long-time friend, George Peterson, of Auto Pacific for an answer.  Such was the case recently after I spent a week in a 2012 Kia Rio SX GDI 5-door hatchback.

My question to George was simple and direct: Define “entry level vehicle.”

His response was quick and concise: “Cheap and cheerful.”

But then he muddied the waters a bit by adding, “four passengers, trunk or 5-doors, comfortable on the highway or for city driving.”

There was a time when my definition would have included: “The smallest, least expensive car a manufacturer builds. Essentially a tin box on wheels.  Minimal standard equipment and a short option list.  Include ear plugs if you plan on driving faster than 55 mph.”

Then I threw George the curve ball he wasn’t looking for.  “Okay, so define for me the 2012 Kia Rio.”

And that resulted in a 20-minute conversation that included everything except who the Republican candidate for President will be.  In other words, it ain’t easy quantifying a Kia Rio these days.  Fact: It is the smallest, lightest and least expensive Kia model.  But it isn’t a tin box, and it’s loaded with more standard features than you’d typically find on an entry-level luxury car.  A real dichotomy this Rio . . . ying and yang.

And when I add that not only is it loaded with comfort and convenience features but also with a Sport Tuned Suspension, maybe what I should really be saying is the the Rio SE model is feng without the sway!

It wasn’t too long ago that entry level meant power windows, door locks and mirrors plus manual air conditioning.  Just to emphasize how the world has changed, here’s a partial list of what’s standard on the Rio SX: 17-in tires with alloy wheels; sport-tuned suspension; electric power steering; disc brakes front and rear; 6-speed automatic transmission; traction control; electronic stability control; vehicle stability management; hill assist control; dual, body-color, power folding and heated outside mirrors with turn-signal indicators; rear spoiler; projection-beam headlights; front fog lights; LED taillights; variable intermittent windshield wipers; rear wiper/washer; UVO infotainment system; rear camera display; AM/FM/MP3/SiriusXM audio system; USB jack; Bluetooth; steering-wheel-mounted audio/Bluetooth/cruise control buttons; keyless remote locking; power windows with driver’s one-touch auto up/down; air conditioning, tilt/telescope steering column; trip computer; dual, illuminated visor vanity mirrors; leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob.  This is Lexus territory, not entry level . . .

Many of these features are either not available or optional on competitors such as the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Chevy Sonic.

And, hold onto your wallet, all this has an MSRP of only $17,700.

But as the chicken pluckers will tell you, “parts is parts.”  So a more relevant question would be: Is the Rio as a whole better than the sum of its parts?  In other words, does this Kia have soul?

Let’s have a look.  Starting from the outside, I have to admit that the styling renaissance at Kia has done good thinks for the Rio.  It’s not quite mini skirt sexy but it’s left its frumpy predecessors far behind.  Four doors and a hatchback really work for me.  Fold down the 60/40 split rear seat backs and you’ve got a small wagon.  Style with function.  Nice.

Inside it’s even more of a success story with material matching and graining, excellent fit and finish and an overall look and feel of style and quality.  Mostly, the design and placement of the various controls and switches is well thought out.  The white on black gauges are easy to read.  Beverage holders in all four doors plus two cupholders on the center console mean this is a Kia that won’t drive its occupants to drink.

But the UVO infotainment system will.  UVO is Kia’s answer to Ford’s SYNC and others of a similar ilk.  You can tell me it’s not complicated and confusing.  But four separate publications—UVO System Quick Reference Guide, UVO System Quick Start Guide, UVO System User’s Manual plus 40 pages in the Rio Owner’s Manual—speak volumes for the complexity.  SYNC or swim?  No, it’s more like drowning in a sea of verbiage.  Sorry, but when the user interface requires me to memorize about a hundred voice commands, the only one I really want is the one that says “Shut Up!”  It’s from Microsoft, and someone should lock the Gates on this system until its designers can translate the words “user friendly” into English.

Kia engineers are really pushing the powertrain envelope these days. A 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder with continuously variable valve timing, an 11.0:1 compression ratio and direct gas injection (DGI) provide surprising performance. And this power and torque are running through a 6-speed automatic transmission. Six speeds?  Entry level?

Okay, the engine is a little noisy—mostly the DGI, I believe—but smooth and eager to rev.  The tranny offers automatic and manual shifting.  I’d opt for a more aggressive first gear or initial throttle tip-in that doesn’t feel “delayed.”  When you accelerate, the revs pick up and then slow down around 2500 rpm. Then they pick up aggressively around 3000 and the engine pulls strongly to its 6500 redline.  In manual mode, the automatic sometimes had a mind of its own, upshifting from 2-3 or from 3-4 without the engine at redline or the shifter being pushed forward.  I played with the ECO mode, which is supposed to provide lower shift points and less aggressive acceleration to assist fuel economy.  I couldn’t detect any differences.  Maybe a tranny issue in this car?  And some Rios offer idle stop for improved city mpg.  My SE didn’t have this feature.

My week with the Rio included a trip to Vegas and back. I won’t go into all the details, but it’s a round trip of nearly 600 miles during which the Rio averaged 73 mph door-to-door with no stops and returned 33 mpg.  The SE is an excellent high-speed cruiser.  My passenger, a notoriously Nervous Nelly, never realized the Rio was motoring along effortlessly at 90+ mph . . .

Except when we encountered some 20-30 feet sections of I-15 pavement, which were undergoing repair.  The reaction of the SE to these inputs was immediate, harsh and abrupt.  Rather nasty.  And in sharp contrast to a Mazda3 I had driven over this same stretch of road only two weeks before.  Overall the ride is choppy and bumpy on anything but smooth surfaces.  Methinks Kia may have tried too hard to make this a Rio for all seasons.   It’s a case of the Ying of comfort, convenience and luxury not being in harmony with the Yang of the sport-tuned suspension.

Concentrate only on the handling virtues and you will immediately appreciate the grip provided by the Hankook 205/45R17s when cornering.  And you’ll love the sense of stability and control in double lane-change maneuvers.  The brakes, featuring larger front discs for the SX models, are strong and linear in their response.   They make you find the ABS, which I prefer.

The steering is okay.  Decent feedback.  But nothing special.  Not having driven any of the Rios with smaller wheels and tires, my guess is that the low-profile Hankooks deserve most of the credit for the steering feedback and feel.

There is one other area of the Rio where Kia designers and engineers have made enormous strides: structure.  It used to be easy to describe entry-level models as tin boxes on wheels.  The Rio is vault-like in its rigidity.  The suspension tuning might be lacking in finesse, but the platform on which the Rio rides is excellent in torsion and bending.  No squeaks.  No rattles.  World class.  These characteristics will allow an engineer with a calibrated butt to tweak the spring, damper and bushing rates to remove the unwanted ride choppiness.  And to improve the steering and handling response.  A win-win.  Maybe next year.

With the Rio, Kia has created an all-new definition for entry-level vehicle.  The bar has been raised several notches.  I can guarantee the rest of the auto world is looking over its collective shoulder:  Don’t look back.  Someone just passed you!

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