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Like Ford’s Fiesta, the Rio comes in hatch and sedan forms, each with four doors, and aimed at buyers starting their adult life.

The direct-injected 1.6-liter is shared with Hyundai, as are the six- speed transmissions. Most of the platform, however, is unique.

Designed in California at Kia’s U.S. headquarters, the Rio uses clean, crisp shapes inside and out for a more upscale look and feel.

Kia’s Latest Rio

Kia’s redesigned B-segment car is so close to the mark it should cause worry among the world’s top tier automakers.
Kia, like every other car company in the world, is in the midst of a “design-led transformation.” Only this transformation is being led by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, who has whipped the Optima, Sportage and Sorento into visual shape. The 2012 Rio is the latest design he has overseen (a new Forte coupe and sedan come next). It looks nothing like the Hyundai Accent (autofieldguide.com/products/looking-the-2012-hyundai-accent) on which it’s based, and for good reason.*
 
That’s because the Rio and Accent share very little beyond the powertrain. Unlike most carmakers, who create a platform and plop new top hats over the same mechanicals, Hyundai and Kia do things a little differently. After agreeing on the general outline of the vehicle, Hyundai takes the engineering lead. Kia works to make certain its needs are considered, then modifies what it gets from Hyundai to fit those assumptions. This can mean wholesale changes to everything but the general dimensions of the car and how it “looks” to the assembly machinery (even though, for example, the Accent and the Rio are built in separate plants). Beyond that, everything is up for grabs.
 
So the Rio only uses the Accent’s front strut towers, front-of-dash lower panel, rear suspension kick-up panel, and the basic attachment points for the rear suspension. Everything else is different. Everything. Ask a Kia person about why this is, and the answer is simple and direct: “We treat Hyundai like we treat Honda, Toyota, Ford, or anyone else. They are the competition.” Tough words from a company that depends on said owner for its livelihood.
 

Powertrain

Under the hood of the Rio sits Hyundai’s third-generation 1.6-liter Gamma four-cylinder. It features an aluminum block and heads, continuously variable intake and exhaust valve timing, high-pressure direct injection, a roller timing chain, and a diamond-like carbon low-friction coating on the pistons. It’s obvious Hyundai and Kia have caught up to the rest of the world when it comes to small four-cylinder engine technology.
 
Proof of this comes when you look at the numbers. The 1.6 Gamma engine is rated at 138 hp @ 6,300 rpm and 123 lb-ft @ 4,850. That’s 28 hp and 16 lb-ft more than the iron block 1.6-liter it replaces. It’s also 18 more horsepower and 11 more lb-ft of torque than the same-sized engine in Ford’s Fiesta, a prime competitor. Both the Ford and Kia engines run an 11.0:1 compression ratio, but the Gamma has a slightly longer stroke that contributes to its torque advantage. Further, gasoline is injected directly into the combustion chamber at 150 bar (2,172 lb-in2), making the engine more fuel efficient (almost every Rio is rated at 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway) and more powerful. To further its fuel economy lead, Kia will add Idle Stop and Go (ISG) to the Rio later in the production cycle. This consists of a heavy duty starter that has been tested for 350,000 starts (10 times normal), an uprated battery and a 130-amp alternator. Come to a stop, the engine shuts off. Lift your foot off the brake, it restarts. The 2012 Rio promises to be the first B-segment vehicle sold in the U.S. with this technology. Kia will fit an ISG off button to each Rio with the Eco option as there may be some situations in which the driver doesn’t want it enabled. With 14 minutes on the L.A. test cycle spent with the vehicle stopped, Kia engineers believe the ISG system will give them an advantage, especially if they can lobby the EPA to recognize the benefits of this technology in terms of a vehicle’s mileage rating. If it can, look for it to be used on more Kia models to help reach the 2016-2025 CAFE targets. As far as the average customer is concerned, Kia expects ISG to add 10% to 20% to real-world, in-town fuel economy, and up to 1 mpg to its 30 mpg city rating.
 
The transversely mounted Gamma motor drives the front wheels through a choice of six-speed transmissions, manual and automatic. The manual is available in the LX model—assuming it isn’t optioned with the Power Package (power windows with driver’s window automatic up/down, power door locks and keyless entry) because then it is the automatic, which is also used for the EX and SX models. (It makes you wonder why Kia went to the time, trouble and cost of certifying the manual transmission at all. Could it be that it worried a sporty Rio SX might step on the toes of the larger Forte Koup, but felt the need to have a manual for the price conscious?)
 

Chassis

The Rio, which is also sold in Europe and Asia, was designed to be one of the roomiest cars in the B segment. Accomplishing this meant holding the rear seat room nearly constant while also making the cargo area deeper, wider and more regularly shaped. That required ditching the Accent’s full-size torsion beam rear axle for a more compact “coupled torsion beam” design and redesigning the rear floorpan. Unfortunately, this compact unit forced engineers to lay the rear dampers over (one canted forward and one facing rearward). This had a number of knock-on effects, including reduced suspension travel and introduction of some slight ride and handling anomalies.
 
The chassis rails use 150 kg of hot-stamped steel to increase rigidity. Fully 63% of the body is made from high-strength steels, steel thickness is up by 33%, and the B-pillar and the five-door’s tailgate opening have an integral steel ring reinforcement. Plus, there is 90 feet of adhesive bonds in the body-in-white. Unsurprisingly, torsional rigidity is up 31%.
 
The front brakes on the LX and EX are 10.1-in. vented discs, while the sportier SX gets 11.0-in. vented front discs and a 2-mm larger (at 22 mm) front anti-roll bar. All models use 10.3-in. solid discs in the rear, and have column-driven electrically assisted power steering. Four-wheel ABS, electronic stability control and hill-start assist are standard on all models. 
 
To make sure no unwanted noise gets into the passenger compartment, the Rio has a triple-layer dash isolation pad, expandable foam in the A- and C-pillars and lightweight formed 3M Thinsulate acoustic insulation panels 
in the A- and B-pillars. It also boasts seat foam made from plant-based castor oil. Even the rear wheel liners are produced using recycled bumper covers.
 

Interior

However, passengers will be too busy luxuriating in a cabin that feels roomier and better appointed to notice what they now can’t hear. That’s because the design staff in California, where the Rio was penned, pushed the base of the windshield forward two inches for increased rake of the front glass with no loss in interior room. In addition, the new platform is slightly wider, lower and stretched over a 2.8-in. longer wheelbase than its predecessor. To counteract this growth, the front and rear overhangs were shrunk, and the beltline sloped five degrees to reduce visual bulk.
 
The inside is crisply styled and highlighted by soft-touch materials on the dash top and door centers. A row of large, black plastic toggle switches at the lower edge of the instrument panel’s center section control the secondary functions of the HVAC system. Kia could have easily fit these functions (A/C, recirculation, fresh air, rear defrost) in the three larger, round dials above, but used the opportunity to house the rocker switches in a lower frame that provides a lower edge for the center stack. You often don’t see that level of design integration in a B-class car. And, if that wasn’t enough, by carefully positioning the items located behind the instrument panel, the engineers made room in the lower right quadrant for a 15-liter glovebox. That’s an amazing 9.5 liters larger than the glovebox in the outgoing car. The Rio designers and product planners were determined to make sure the interior was as aesthetically pleasing and flexible as the rest of the vehicle.
 
That statement that pretty much sums up the 2012 Rio. It is slightly roomier than its predecessor, and more mature and luxurious. It is marginally lighter, more rigid, more effi-cient and more powerful. The design is globally sophisticated. Though not perfect, the new Rio should make everyone in the auto industry sit up and take notice, if for no other reason than to gauge just how far and fast Kia is progressing. 
 
*Kia is part of the Hyundai Kia Motor Group.