2016 Kia Rio Sedan 1.6 EX (USA)

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America really never has embraced the hatchback in the way that Europe has. That always seems strange, as you only have to see how much luggage its citizens all seem to bring with them on a plane to assume that extra load carrying capacity and versatility would be something that they would appreciate in their cars. I guess the answer is that they do, and for that reason, they favour vehicles that are much bigger than those which Europeans buy, often of the SUV type. What this means for manufacturers who wish to develop a product that they will sell on both sides of the Atlantic is that they need to develop both bodystyles to maximise their chances of success. Where both styles are offered, the saloon will outsell the hatch by a huge number in America (as much as 10:1 for VW’s Jetta against the Golf) whereas it can be the other way around in Europe. Hatches are typically promoted as something that is more up-market than the regular saloon, and priced accordingly, whereas in Europe, again, it is the other way around. Of course some of the saloon models are not offered to Europeans, as it is believed that sales volumes would not justify the additional costs of having such a version on offer, and so this does mean that you see some cars where the front looks familiar, but as you walk around it, the back end is not what you were expecting. The third generation Kia Rio is just such an example. In this case, Kia took the decision only to offer hatch models in Europe, having offered both saloon types for the first two generations of the car, whereas American continued to be offered both. You can decide for yourselves which you think looks better.

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I’ve driven a third generation Rio in the UK, back in 2013, when I received one as courtesy car whilst my Abarth was being serviced, and in the short time I had it, was decently impressed. It was a significant improvement on its predecessor, which had always struggled to hide its roots as a cheap economy car. Although there were would be much that would be the same about an American spec car, there were also important differences. The four door saloon body being one of them, but also the engine. Whilst Europe gets a choice of 1.25 and 1.4 litre petrols and a 1.4 diesel, most of which will be connected to a manual gearbox, in America, the Rio has a lusty 138 bhp 1.6 litre petrol engine, and all bar the entry level LX model have a standard automatic gearbox. Trim and equipment levels are different, too, of course. In America, the Rio is positioned very much as an economy car, competing with the Nissan Versa, and there’s a low price point for the entry level model, to try to grab the headlines. It is an economy car in the eyes of the rental car companies, too. The saloon model is placed in Group A, the category for their cheapest most basic cars, though, in accordance with the statement about the hatch being perceived as more up-market, the 5 door car is a group higher, certainly at Hertz. In the interests of variety, and because I thought the rather striking Digital Yellow of this car would be a great contrast against the clear blue Arizona skies, I decided to take one for a day to see what economy-style motoring US-style is like in 2017. It turned out to be a 2016 model year car, nearly two years old and to have just over 40,000 miles showing, though unlike many a rental car which looks tatty with a tenth of that mileage, this one was in almost pristine condition.

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Open the door, and look inside, and it certainly does not look bad at all. There is a decent finish to everything, and whilst the plastics are quite hard when you touch them, they have a texture to them that is no worse than you would find in a considerably more costly vehicle. There was a gunmetal coloured inlay around the gearlever and there are metal rings around the instrument dials so the cabin does not feel unduly monochrome. Everything in here looked familiar, and when I compared it with photos of the 2013 UK test car, it proved to be the case that the two were indeed the same, albeit a mirror image for the switch from right to left hand drive, with just one exception which as the absence in the US car of a small cubby hole alongside the audio unit. The steering wheel is a plastic moulding, but it was not unpleasant to hold. A single cowl covers the three dials, which are traditional analogue instruments. These are in separate recesses and their respective shapes overlap each other slightly. The speedo is the largest of them, and is in the middle, with a rev counter to one side and a pairing of fuel level and water temperature on the other side. They are clearly marked and proved easy to read. The centre of the dash contains a pair of air vents and below this a small screen for the audio unit, which is just that: an audio unit. It did include XM Satellite radio, and – surprisingly, given the age of the car – it was working. Repeater controls are to be found on the steering wheel boss. Beneath this are the controls for the air conditioning. Indicators, wipers and lights operate from a pair of column stalks, and that is about it. There is no cruise control in this car, the one obvious omission, perhaps, but it was not something I was going to use on my test, so I did not rue its absence.

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I got in, and twisted the old style key to start the engine. This is a 138 bhp 1.6 litre unit, which sounds like a lot for a car of this size, when you consider that Euro spec models are sold with as little as half that, but in fact this is about the sort of power that you will find in some other cars of this size in America. It is a willing unit, and it makes the Rio feel quite peppy. You can rev it hard, though it does get noisier if you do so, but in general motoring, you don’t need to thrash it to make sufficient progress. There is a muted thrum to its sound at around 60 mph which is not unlike that which you get in a three cylinder car, but I did double check and there are definitely four cylinders in this one. There is a six speed automatic gearbox, and it did a good job at making the car feel lively by ensuring it was in the right gear at the time. I drove the little Kia a distance of 164 miles in the day, and needed to put 4.5 gallons of 87 octane regular in it before returning it which works out at 36.44 mpg US, or 43.54 mpg Imperial, a commendable figure even for a small car. And this was without setting the Eco mode, which you do with a button over the driver’s left knee, which makes adjustments to the way the car changes gear, in the name of better economy.

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My review of the Euro spec Rio noted that the steering was rather over-assisted and lacking in feel. The same did not seem to be the case here, and whilst this was not a sporty car to drive in any way, and I am sure that the Fiesta Sedan, if I ever get to drive one, would better it, I actually thought the set up was OK. The Rio feels suitably nimble, a consequence of its compact dimensions, and it goes round bends quite willingly and tidily. It handles well, with little in the way of roll and plenty of grip from its 186/65 R15 tyres. These also help it to ride quite well, so this is far from an economy special when it comes to longer journeys, with a level of comfort for passengers that they would expect from a larger car, and no great punishment for the driver. The brake pedal did need quite a firm push before anything much happened, but once biting point was reached, the disc/drum set up brought the Kia to halt without issue. There is a conventional pull-up handbrake fitted between the seats. You don’t get much in the way of help in manoeuvering and parking the Rio, as there are no sensors, and no rear-view camera. But there are no real issues. The field of view from the door mirrors is good, there is a generous glass area and although you cannot see exactly where the tail is, you can judge it quite well.

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Cheap cars used to feel so from their seats, with a shape that made it obvious where cost had been saved and material that really reminded you of the fact, but that is not the case here. There is a decent sort of cloth covering that is no worse than you will find in cars costing $10,000 more, and the seat adjusted in all the important ways so the driver could get comfortable. This is done manually, of course, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft and ratchet levers on the side of the seat for backrest angle and seat height. The steering column does only go up/down, lacking a telescoping function, but this was not a problem, and I was pleased to find that the seat belt mounting was height adjustable, so I was easily able to get the driving position I wanted. Those in the rear of the Kia should have little to complain about, either. Space here is generous, even with the front seats set well back. here’s not much of a central transmission tunnel to trouble a potential middle seat occupant would not be troubled by the lack of space for their legs. Headroom is plentiful. Occupants here get bins on the doors and nets on the back of the front seats for odds and ends.

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The real benefit of the saloon, of course, is the large boot, or trunk, as the Americans call it, stuck on the back of the car, and that of this Rio is commodious. There is no external boot release, so you will need to pull a lever on the floor by the driver’s seat or press the button on the key fob to gain access, but when you do, you will find a large and regular shaped space that is long from front to back and deep. There is space under the boot floor around the spacesaver tyre for a few more bits and pieces. The rear seat backrests are split, and can fold forward to give even more cargo capacity. Inside the cabin, there are bins on all four doors, which are shaped to hold bottles and a huge glovebox. There are various recesses moulded into the centre console, which include a pair of cupholders, though there is no central armrest and hence no lidded cubby under it. But there is a deep recessed cubby in front of the gearlever which contains the USB and AUX ports in it.

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In case you were wondering that this does not sound like the bare bones model, indeed it was not. That car is the LX which has a starting price of $14,165, but even that comes with a four-speaker audio system, satellite radio, a USB port, and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, whilst a six-speed automatic will cost you an extra $1,230. There’s quite a big price jump to the EX trim, as this costs $17,755. EX trim adds a six-speed automatic transmission, remote keyless entry, power windows, power door locks, a six-speaker stereo, and Bluetooth phone connectivity. Most buyers will probably consider this is the version they really want, as those additional features are ones which pretty much everyone expects these days, and as this was the spec of the test car, clearly Hertz thought that, too. For an extra $600, the ECO package comes with the UVO infotainment system, a rearview camera, and an engine stop-start system. For $750, you get those features, plus leather-trimmed upholstery and a 4.3″ colour touch-screen display. The hatch models cost more, with the LX hatchback listed at $15,495 and with the same features as the Rio LX sedan. The Rio 5-door EX is priced at $17,905, and also has the same features as the Rio EX sedan. Top of the US range is the Rio 5-door SX, complete with a sport-tuned suspension, and costing $20,905. It adds a standard rearview camera, an infotainment system with a 7″ touch-screen and voice-controlled navigation, push-button start, steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, power-folding mirrors, and a power sunroof. There had been an SX Sedan model, but this was deleted for 2017.

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Although this was a much cheaper and less powerful car than the ones I had driven immediately prior, it did not feel like the sort of automotive punishment that economy-priced motoring used to entail. Indeed, as I told the Hertz return agents when I took the car back this is a perfectly acceptable car (though whether you would want on in yellow will be a matter of personal taste!), and for those on a budget, they will not feel unduly hard done-by. There’s plenty of competition at this point in the market, with not just the Nissan Versa, but also the Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Sonic, Toyota Yaris (including the iA version which is really a Mazda 2 with an ugly snout and a boot grafted on) and the Ford Fiesta Sedan. I’ve driven most of these, and would pick the Rio in preference to the Nissan and Chevrolet without question. It drives well, is quite spritely, and has an interior which looks far less cheap than its purchase price would suggest. It is roomy and well finished and in EX trim, all the essentials are there. The stakes will be raised for 2018, though, with an all-new model just launched In due course, I am sure I will get the chance to see how economy style motoring has advanced again, but even in 2017, it need not be as grim as it used to be. Not, on the evidence of this Rio, by a long way.

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