2012 Kia Rio - Wearing Copacabana wheels to the Tango

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One recent early morning we at "Drive... He Said" awoke to a phantasm of what we had long hoped for...Volkswagen's Polo hot hatchback. Once we rubbed the sleep from our eyes reality set in. Still no miniaturized version of the Golf here on Yankee shores. Instead we get a new Korean attempt at the sub-compact: the 2012 Kia Rio SX hatchback (and, in egalitarian fashion, sedan).

At the outset, here, we must confess we were smitten by another set of scrumptious Kia wheels. Memo to Kia upper management: give the wheel designers anything they want. Possibly even a first child. Because the emotion evoked by the 17" alloys fitted to our 2012 Kia Rio SX 5-door alone can sell these cars.

The trademark Kia high eyebrow headlights (featuring LED parking lights in the SX), straddled by the black honeycomb grill and lower front valance, smack of the Optima sedan.  A beltline rising towards a tall roof enhances cabin and cargo spaciousness. The benefit of the low front window cowl and glass in the sail panel is ample forward visibility. Gone for good is the 1970's Maytag styling of the previous Rio.

So you are a fan of Broadway bright lights, and all sorts of varying textures? Then the interior of the 2012 Kia Rio SX is for you. Driver's gauges are certainly legible, though they are prone to some wash out from the sun. The glaring red driver's trip info display was so hypnotic that we ignored another important gauge: the one that lit up yellow to warn we were down to the single reserve gallon of fuel in the 11.4 gallon tank.  Switching to the remaining range indicator showed 32 miles of range for a moment;  after some fuel sloshing the range display showed double-hyphens or what we feared was "zero." (Intrepid coasting saved the day!)

The toggle-style climate switches on the center stack are a clever break from traditional push buttons. In keeping with Kia's "high value contenting,"  I-pod compatibility and cable are standard kit even on the base $13,800 Kia Rio. As are the trip computer and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel.

Our $18,300 Rio SX tester had goodies like the UVO hands-free infotainment system which one of the simplest to pair phones and stream music with.  Urban parallel parkers will be endeared to the power retractable side view mirrors. Oh, and there is that friend to all the kids in the neighborhood: the back-up camera. Advertised soft-touch trim make it to the dash and door panels. But the door arm rests, where elbows go, are still hard as a rock. Metal trimmed pedals will surely reduce the number of barefoot drivers in Fairbanks and Phoenix.

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Whereas Kia seems to have a real "looker" on its hands with the 2012 Kia Rio, it can play the "dancer" role up to a point. The 138 hp and 123 lb-ft, courtesy of the gutsy 1.6 liter gas direct injected powerplant , endow this 2450 lb. lightweight sub-compact with plenty of thrust in most all driving situations. Look to hit 60 mph in under 9 seconds.  The 6 speed auto transmission that we sampled in both Rio sedan and hatchback was never overly eager to upshift, except in active ECO mode. Switch to manu-matic and downshifts can be deliberate. (For buyers who can wait, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters will grace the SX models in 2013.)

Given the inherent limitations of a torsion beam rear suspension, the 2012 Kia SX is tuned to reduce body roll and understeer near relatively high limits. Some ride compliance is lost in the process. Thanks are partly due the 205-45 series Kumho Optimo low profile tires, whose slap over expansion gaps approached annoying.

The electric steering boost feels more natural at speed than at neighborhood maneuvers. Yet a numb feel on-center requires constant minor corrections during interstate cruising. With the 2012 Kia Rio SX we are happy to report that braking is very "un-Kia-like." No  mushy pedal or hard to grab pads here. Instead, the standard four wheel discs, with an extra inch of front rotor size in the SX, exhibit good initial pad bite and linear braking, even when heated.

All this encouragement for enthusiastic driving in the 2012 Kia Rio SX and you would expect fuel economy to give. And you would be wrong. With the A/C cranked up, having off-ed traction control, and taken manumatic control of the gearbox, we tore through some canyon roads in Tonto National Park, outside sweltering Phoenix and still managed 33 miles per gallon of  regular unleaded gas.

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The serene-for-class Kia Rio cabin is  immune to most wind noise, but susceptible to a bit of tire roar and and the din which is part of the DNA of the direct injected engine. After a 3 hour flight in economy class, the 2012 Kia Rio driver's seat did wonders to relieve our recently acquired lower-back pain. Some front passengers found their fixed-height seat to be on the low side.

While the 2012 Kia Rio is advertised as a five-seater, and head-room is plenty, we advise to limit rear-seat occupancy to two adults of average dimensions.  Having replaced  the [soon to be extinct] space-saving spare tire with the even more space-conserving 12v tire sealer / inflator has resulted in a deep trunk in the Kia Rio sedan, where 2 full sized suitcases will fit. Stowage in both hatchback and sedan Kia Rio models can be increased thanks to split folding rear seatbacks.

Simply imagine the 2012 Kia Rio SX as a Tango dancer. While it might not trounce the competition at any professional event, we here at "Drive...He Said" assert that it would at least score  a second look on "Dancing With the Stars."

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