Last Fall, things got a little more interesting in the sub-compact market. In addition to a flurry of new models entering the fray Hyundai Veloster, Chev Sonic, Scion iQ, Mini Cooper Coupe, etc Kia unveiled its latest remake of the Rio hatchback. It joins a slightly revamped Soul in Kia’s 2012 entry-level stable.
But before we get into it, a word about Kia’s fortunes in Canada. In a nutshell, it was a very good year last year. Sales in 2011 were up 20 per cent over 2010, and in an industry beset with falling profits and disappointing sales, the Korean carmaker has been a bit of a beacon of light. It is currently posting better numbers than manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Chrysler, and even Hyundai, and this past August was its best month ever, sales-wise, in the company’s history in Canada. Most satisfyingly, perhaps, it is out-pacing its Japanese rivals, most of whom were in the red during 2011. Kia is moving the iron.
And it’s thanks in no small measure to a German executive. Kia hired Peter Schreyer as its chief designer in 2006, and his touch is seen throughout the company’s line-up.including the new Rio. Schreyer was formerly with Volkswagen and Audi, and if Kias are better looking than they used to be, he’s one of the reasons why. With a marked resemblance to the new VW Golf, the 2012 Rio is longer, wider, and lower than its predecessor. It has a nice athletic look to it and, to my eyes, is very European in flavour.
Like its kissing cousin, the Hyundai Accent, the new Rio utilizes the corporate 1.6 litre Gamma four cylinder as its base engine. Also found in the Veloster and Soul, in this configuration, it develops 138 horsepower. Transmission choices are either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. This engine could use a bit more power, in my opinion, and if you want to get the most out of it, you’ll be using every gear you’ve got, particularly when it comes to climbing mountain grades. Decent fuel economy though; in the city, it’s thriftier than most of the competition, and on the highway, with the exception of the Accent GL, it leads the pack.
But what makes the new Rio intriguing is not its power or fuel economy so much, but a little gizmo called Idle Stop and Go (ISG). In a nutshell, this turns the car off at stoplights and re-starts it when you take your foot off the brake. GM has been utilizing a similar system on some of its models for years, but in this case, it also temporarily shuts down the vehicle’s alternator when climbing long hills, to squeeze every drop of power out of the engine. To keep everything kosher, ISG features a more powerful battery, beefed-up starter motor, and a smart alternator. And it doesn’t continually re-start the engine over and over again – in bumper to bumper traffic, for example – until the vehicle has been driven up to at least 5 km/h. It’s one step toward a hybrid vehicle, explained Kia’s powertrain engineer, Kevin Gasperini. and the fuel economy ratings with this feature will differ between, let’s say, Vancouver and Toronto, simply because of the different terrain. As a result, the company will be keeping a close eye on buyer’s reactions in Canada. If people like it, we’re likely to see this feature on more Kia products in the future.
We will likely see a version of ISG on other Kias in the future and a full hybrid version is not out of the question. ISG is presently offered as an option with the Eco model, and will be available with the automatic transmission only.
Speaking of models, there will be two to choose from: LX and EX. Within these two are a range of extras and options, such as fog lights, heated steering wheel, leather interior, Bluetooth, rearview camera, full entertainment connectivity, and so on. As well, you can opt for the aforementioned ISG, and/or an Eco’ feature that, at the press of a switch, electronically re-calibrates the automatic transmission and increases fuel economy (while decreasing performance). Many of these extras come in the form of packages. The LX-Plus version, for example, includes air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise control, and keyless entry, among other things, and will run you an additional $1500.
Behind the wheel, the new Rio is not quite a road-scorcher. But it is as comfortable as anything else in this segment, and, with a few creature comforts thrown in, makes a decent little city car. The Ex model, in particular, can be had with the kinds of options we normally find on upper-end models. This is a shrewd move on the part of Kia: equipping an econobox with luxury modcons. Smart. One slick little feature is Kia’s hill start assist feature that holds the car immobile for a couple of seconds while it’s stopped on a hill. Unusual to find this in an economy car.
The 2012 Rio starts at just over $14,000.
AT A GLANCE
Type: Sub-compact four-door hatchback
Price Range: $14,095 – $20,795
Engine: 1.6 litre four cylinder
Horsepower: 138 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 123 ft. lb. @ 4850 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual / six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: (litres/100 km): 6.6 city/4.9 highway (manual trans.) regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Fit, Hyundai Veloster, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Chev Sonic, Fiat 500, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Scion xD.