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Review: 2012 Kia Rio

I’ve never been more excited about a minivan.

No, the pictures associated with this review are not wrong, it is about the Kia Rio subcompact, as the title suggests. But what the car suggests are glorious things to come in the world of people carriers.

You see, the new Rio lineup represents the penultimate step in the transformation of the once dowdiest of all automakers. Thanks to the good work of former Audi designer, Peter Schreyer, Hyundai’s not-so-little sister now builds cars with a style that is on par and often surpasses that of its competitors. From the sleek mid-size Optima sedan to the moon buggy-like compact Sportage CUV, Kia's cars very likely look better than your cars.

The only blight that remains in Kia showrooms is the Sedona minivan, which is about two generations behind the times. Unlike Hyundai, which abandoned this segment a few years ago, Kia is reportedly set to double-down and replace its entry next year. If the all-new lowly Rio (not to mention the KV7 concept shown at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show) is any indication, Kia will surely hit it out of the ballpark that the new Sedona is destined to be parked outside of.

As for the $14,350 Rio five-door, Kia has succeeded where many have failed and has created an affordable subcompact hatchback that ably deflects the use of the words “cute” or “juvenile” or “joke” in descriptions of it. The $14,415 four-door sedan works just as well in its respective category.

Here’s a do it yourself test: Park a Rio between a Ford Fiesta and a Toyota Yaris; find someone who is A) an adult, B) gainfully employed and C) wearing a suit not complimented by a pair of Converse All-Stars; ask them to choose a car they would use to pick up their boss in.

Feel free to drive yourself home in the Ford or Toyota, just don’t forget to call a tow truck for the other.

Nothing against either of those fine automobiles, the Rio just happens to be the only car in its class that really has any. Inside the story is (nearly) the same.

No distracting complex geometric shapes here to hide a low-rent fit and finish, just a neatly-executed dash from the VW school of smart design constructed from a surprising amount of soft-touch plastic, the Kia family three-gauge instrument cluster, and a steering wheel that’s better than one in the company’s $24G Sorento crossover. The standard cloth upholstery is still from the budget bin, but the seats themselves are pillowy soft.

Go for a trim level that offers the six-speaker stereo and you’re rewarded with a thicker, richer sound than half a dozen little cones have any right to produce. Standard iPod integration is flawless and doesn’t require a special cable to use. Kia’s Uvo voice control system is an option and works just like Ford’s Sync (they were both designed by Microsoft,) perhaps better.

“Play Rob Dickinson.”

Never heard of him? You have now, he's already playing. First try, too.

The in-dash monitor that controls the stereo comes also services a backup camera, which seems somewhat ridiculous in a car as small as this until you realize that you can fit into a lot more parking spaces than even you thought you can, and without playing bumper cars. Urban dwellers can count on a 25 percent decrease in aggravation (estimate pending official Annoyance Protection Agency results,) and in-dash navigation is available for everyone else to enjoy.

Size-wise the Rio is a perpetrator of what’s known a segment creep, and much larger inside than subcompacts used to be. It’s fully usable by four, if not five adults and the five-door has a deep cargo hold, plus a little extra stash space underneath it where a fix a flat kit is all that resides in what used to be known as the “spare tire well.”

The donut delete is a weight-saving effort to improve fuel economy, which is 30 mpg city, 40 mpg hwy with either a manual or automatic transmission, each with six speeds. Both come mated to a 1.6-liter four cylinder engine with direct fuel injection that delivers pretty much the same power output as the base version of the Chevy Sonic, 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque. However, the Rio seems to make much better use of its allotment.

Is it a fast car? She’s fast enough for you, frugal millennial, but doesn’t try to be something she’s not. The gearing is well matched to what’s on tap and feels optimized for around town toddling and passing on the highway, but spirited drives are not encouraged.

It’s all for the better. The suspension is plush by class standards and the seats offer less lateral support than that deflated yoga ball that’s been sitting underneath your officemate’s desk for the past three years. Still, the combo is comfy.

All told, the Rio is as far from the stereotypical economy car that the old Rio epitomized and a winner on all counts, except one.

Kia also sells the uber-funky Soul crossover, which is larger, gets nearly as good fuel economy and costs roughly the same as the Rio. On my advice an acquaintance recently picked one up for his family of five, which includes three single digit-age children, and aren’t they the happy little family.

Soon, however, 1s will appear in front of the kiddie’s ages, their soccer balls will grow from size 3 to 5 and one of them may even choose to take up the tuba. At that point, a slightly larger vehicle might be in order. I don’t know, perhaps something along the lines of a minivan?

I don’t think they’ll have a problem finding one.

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2012 Kia Rio Five-Door

Base Price: $14,350

Type: 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback

Engine: 1.6-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 138 hp, 123 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 30 city/40 hwy