Today we begin here at Navelgazing's "Ride Me" lot one in an occasional—and someday, perhaps, weekly—series on consumer vehicles powered by water, natural gas, electricity, hybrid motors, high-efficiency gasoline engines, my tears or other alternative sources.
Kicking things off is the peppy little 2012 Kia Rio Ex, an eye-opening 5-door compact that would do nicely for daily commutes and for anyone fuming over the recent price spikes at the pump.
Now, I have to admit a prejudice before I turned the key on this little silver charmer. Pep is not something I had associated with South Korea's Kia brand. I based that, unfairly I know now, on a single test drive while shopping for a sedan years ago. Whatever model I was in, it was gutless, especially when I took it on the freeway, especially when the salesman in the back seat was marveling over how much power it had when it didn't. The dent in the back of my neck from his erect Pinocchio nose cleared up only recently.
Tooling around town, and on Orange County's freeways, my Kia Rio Ex loaner provided all the get-up-and-go I needed to keep from being left in the dust bunnies. That's courtesy of a direct-injection, 138 hp, 1.6 liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine. The front wheel drive ride has a 6-speed automatic "with Active Eco System" and electric power steering.
It was only when I had the car filled with people and gear, merging onto a freeway in San Diego, did I detect some sluggishness. Must be something in the water down there. Yup, I'd loaded the little bugger with four adults and one toddler for a family trip to see relatives. Going there, driving to dinner in the shadow of the Del Mar racetrack and heading home presented no such un-pep-ness. And I'd forgetten about that one merger incident by the time I (quickly) caught up with the flow of traffic.
The bigger issue for me came while driving in the city. As with some hybrids, to save gas the engine essentially shuts off while you are stopped, quickly re-starting when you press the gas pedal. It's a sound and feeling that take some getting used to. Believe it or not, I could never work myself into a situation where there was constant stop-and-go traffic to truly gauge how annoying this might be. As it was, I got used to the sensation, especially when I realized I was saving petrol.
Those who have issues parallel parking, or just backing up in general, will appreciate the rear view on the dash's 7-inch screen, provided by a tiny camera on the back hatch. Those who have issues with braking will appreciate the traction, electronic stability and anti-lock braking systems.
The front half of the passenger compartment is plenty roomy. The back was fine for the adults sitting on either side of a baby seat, although it likely would have gotten old had we traveled more than 60 miles. Not that anyone should expect full-size comfort from a compact. Remove those free riders, push down the split rear seats, and you've got a nice amount of room for hauling or whatever it is you sickos do back there. Even with the rear seats up, there's decent cargo room (although see one knock related to this on the next page).
To make a pleasant ride more so, the Kia Rio Ex includes USB inputs, a trip computer, cruise control, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, power windows and locks, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth wireless technology, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, power heated outside windows—all standard. My model had such extras as alloy wheels, front fog lights, auto headlights, Microsoft's UVO in-vehicle infotainment system and illuminated vanity mirrors.
The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $16,500 without the extras, $17,995 with the aforementioned add-ons. You'll make up the grand and half at the pump—in one year. Fuel economy estimates from the EPA show the fully loaded model gets 30 mpg in the city, 40 on the highway. The California Air Resources Board gives it a global warming score of 9 (10 being cleanest) and a smog score of 5, the industry average.
Ride: 2012 Kia Rio 5-door Ex
Likes: Pick-up, Sirius, side mirrors, turning radius, rear-view camera, 100,000 mile warranty, 5-year roadside assist, multiple airbags, downhill braking control—hell, the braking/stability system in general, especially when quickly having to go from high to low speeds without the nuisance of killing someone.
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Knocks: The rear window shape; I'd prefer an inverted pyramid to better account for the view-blocking back headrests. Worse is the cargo cover held by black ropes. Mine kept getting stuck in the up position, making the already limited rear view even more limited for the driver.
Likes/knocks: The deal with the engine shutting on and off at stops. Screw the annoyance, I'll take the gas savings. While you're paying nearly half the price of the electric Chevy Volt, you might find economical compacts that are all-wheel drive as opposed to front-wheel for around the same price.