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Review: 2013 Kia Rio LX

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On: Fri, Oct 4, 2013 at 9:10AM | By: Nick Bakewell

Review: 2013 Kia Rio LX

As a novitiate writer, I have not yet been offered the keys to a set of wheels, so for lack of options I reviewed my own car.

When I was chasing this job (many thanks to my editor, Clay Ritchings, for giving me the opportunity), I spent hours daydreaming about the sorts of things I’d get to do. I imagined myself screaming around Texas hill country backroads in the new Jaguar F-Type, roaring grandiose similes and hyperbole into a camera like a shorter, thinner Jeremy Clarkson. I entertained visions of VIP access to auto shows and hobnobbing with celebrities in the McLaren garage at Circuit of the Americas. Being paid to write about cars was quite literally a dream come true for me; to my mind, it’s the best job in the world, and I’m a very, very lucky man in that I get to do it.

Reality, however, quickly set in, and I realized that while such things might someday be within my purview, no one’s yet taken leave of their senses long enough to give me a car to review. So, left with few options, I decided that instead of stealing a car, I’d just review the one I already own. But first, some history:

I've never been a huge fan of the "new car smell". It always put me in mind of industrial cleaning products, something you'd use to wipe up a foul-smelling brown stain. Likewise, the appeal of owning a new car didn't make sense to me. In this country, we don't get the experience of having a bespoke car made for us when we hand over a big check to the dealer; often it's whatever's on the lot that's closest to what we're asking for. So when I was offered the opportunity to purchase a new set of wheels to replace my aging Jeep (a 2000 Cherokee Sport, if you're curious), I wasn't initially that enthused. While the Jeep was certainly costing me more money than it was worth, both in gas and upkeep, I didn't see the point of exchanging a car that was fully bought and paid off for a monthly car payment. Bills vs no bills. Easy, right?

After a survey of my options, I was even less sanguine about it. One stipulation of my purchase was that it be a brand new car, so almost everything I wanted was out of my price range; the Ford Focus is no longer a cheap car, and neither is the Mazda3. After a cursory perusal of the companies’ websites, it became apparent that my only real options were a Mazda2, a Toyota iQ, or the Kia Rio. In fact, if you compare prices for new cars, the Kia is the least expensive car (on paper, anyway) that you can buy in the US right now. Closer inspection revealed that the Kia was by far the most practical; it was available with a manual gearbox (my preference), and came with Kia’s titanic seven-year warranty… I bet you can see where this is going.

So, I purchased a Kia Rio 5 LX (which stands for Least eXpensive, I’ve decided). I’ve been living with it for about six months now, and I absolutely adore it. I get this strange sense of satisfaction from having a thoroughly basic car, something so simple that it just works really well. There’s a distinct absence of electronic fripperies, no complex web of interlocking computers like you find in more expensive vehicles these days. The Rio doesn’t even have electric windows or locks. The only really obvious bit of software apparent on it is the traction control, which is federally mandated, so it doesn’t count. To my mind, this is all a plus; the fewer gadgets and gizmos, the fewer things go wrong with it.

This simplicity doesn’t equate to a lack of quality, however; the inside is very tastefully finished. While there’s a fair amount of that awful, scratchy plastic (with the texture of dried mud; you know the one), all of the points you’d touch are finished in a much nicer, sort of satin-y plastic composite. The switchgear is pleasantly chunky and tactile, fitted with some nice chromed accents. In comparison with the equivalent Ford, it feels pleasantly sparse. In contemporary Focuses (Foci?) and Fiestas, there’s so much going on in the “driver zone” that you almost feel overwhelmed, as if the dash is thrusting up at you, smothering you with a profusion of switches and information. By contrast, the Kia’s simplicity makes the dash feel smaller and lends a sense of space and airiness to the cabin, which is crucial in a small car.

The exterior is similarly pleasant, sporting Kia’s new “Tiger Nose” grille and design themes. The oversize headlamp arrays coupled with the thin grille and slightly hawkish character lines that run downwards from the rear arches give the car an aggressive, forward-leaning stance. It looks purposeful and eager without being mean. A small hatchback should never look mean, but rather excitable, like a small, earnest dog. From the back it’s even better, as you can really see how all the car’s lines lunge downwards towards the nose, giving it a really distinct stance. Mine’s red, which is the best compromise I could find for living in Texas (the other two options are black or white).

The engine is a 1.6L straight four that puts out a surprisingly peppy 138 horsepower. It’s not… fast, by any stretch of the imagination (my girlfriend’s Mazda3 would clobber it in a drag race), but because it’s so basic, it doesn’t really weigh anything. As a result of this, and perhaps most crucially, it feels fast. You can hit 60 in second gear if you really rev it, and if you turn the traction control off you can get it to smoke the hell out of the front tires. The gearbox is a 6-speed manual (available only on the LX model), which is happy to let you cruise around town at 30mph in 6th gear as the car takes tiny, frugal sips of fuel. My only issue with it is that 3rd is so short that I almost never use it, and it doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere in the car’s day-to-day mandate. The shift action is nice, particularly while executing a languorous throw from 1st to 2nd as you pull away, and the clutch is light but fairly long, like deflating a soccer ball by stepping on it. The only fly in the ointment is the steering, which is electrically assisted and thus pretty lacking in feel. But this is something that almost no one who buys a Kia is ever going to care about, so I’ll let it slide.

As far as amenities and toys go, well, it’s hardly a Mercedes S-class. You get satellite radio, iPod connectivity (Kia will sell you a special dongle for about $30, or you can do what I did and just ask the salesman for one), and… that’s about it. If you spec it with an automatic gearbox, it has something called “Eco mode”, which alters the throttle mapping and gearshifts to maximize economy. On the manual ‘box, this manifests as a readout on the dash that tells you what gear it thinks you should be in. I find this offensively sanctimonious, but, alas, you can’t disable it.

So far, so good, but this car has a party piece, and a pretty magnificent one at that: value. All the aforementioned can be yours for a meager $13,500, and that’s almost criminally cheap. We’re not talking Tata Nano here, this is a lot of car for your money, almost everything you could need day-to-day. If you get the hatchback (which you should, it’s better looking, has a lot more space, and is the same price), I’m happy to report that you can fit a Marshall half stack in the back, or enough lighting equipment for a medium-sized photo shoot. Coupled with Kia’s 7-year/100,000-mile warranty, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot if you went with one of the other options. The Ford Fiesta starts at $14k, the Toyota Yaris at $14.4k, and the Honda Fit at a whopping $15.5k. Granted, the Kia isn’t quite as fun to drive as the Ford, quite as reliable as the Toyota, nor quite as clever as the Fit. But it’s a hair’s breadth from all three, and that’s why it’s the best cheap, small car you can buy right now.


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