Contrary to popular belief, I actually like driving base models and variants. Unlike the top-level variants, you really get to know the car in it's base form, as it sports very few of the fancy features that manufacturers apply to a car, often diluting and possibly hiding inadequacies in engineering.
Judging by how the Kia Rio 1.2L LX performed, the (other) Koreans really have their bases well and truly covered.
For starters, there's the look. As we all know, the design of any car must be great to begin with, and the new Rio is really blessed with a great overall design. Kia has made remarkable progress in design over the years (Thank you, Herr Schreyer), as evidenced by cars like the Sorento, Sportage, Forte and Soul, and the Rio is the latest to join the Tiger Nose bunch. Being a base model, there are some obvious omissions like the front fog lamps and steel, hub-capped wheels instead of alloys but -unusually enough- I think this base sedan model looks better with the trunk compared to the 5-door hatch version, but that's just me.
The cabin was a bit of a surprise too, as it felt like you were one step higher in terms of class. There's not much of the drab gray and black that adorns most subcompacts (especially the basic models) as Kia opted for more beige to balance it out and create a better feel. The controls are great too, especially with that very modern steering wheel and the rather cool toggle-style switches for the aircon. I still maintain the Accent (from big bro Hyundai) has a great finish to the interior, but the Rio does come quite close, and doesn't have the plasticky feel the Fiesta does.
For room and features, well there's plenty of the former but -as expected- there isn't much as the latter. Passengers in the back will be kept happy with the amount of legroom provided, but do avoid putting plus-sized passengers -either by height or width- there. The trunk is quite generous too. For features, you've got electric power steering, power front windows (rear manual windows), power mirrors, height adjust for the driver's seat, a multi-info display (with fuel economy) and a JVC CD/MP3 head unit with an aux-in port for your iPod. No remote keyless entry, no central locking, no airbags and no anti-lock brakes; par for the course in a car that costs less than PhP 600k.
The engine in the new Rio LX is one of the smallest ones in its class: a 1248cc twin cam, 16-valve inline-4 that produces 87 horsepower and 120 Newton meters of torque. As a drive, there's a decent amount of power transferred to the road through a smooth 5-speed manual transmission. Don't expect much performance or perhaps challenging the previous gen Accent CRDI taxicabs on stoplight dashes, as the Rio is best kept at casual speeds for maximum fuel efficiency. Going by the multi-info computer, I was doing 10.2 kilometers per liter in the city (with moderate to heavy traffic) and 15.5 on the highway (light to moderate traffic, 80-100 cruising).
Where the Rio really shines is in the balanced, composed drive and ride that it presents to the customer. I half expected the Rio to ride like the new Accent (which has a rather bad rear suspension set up that hits the bump stop at every village hump), but actually it was far from it. Handling is quite good, as the Rio's steering and suspension gives the driver plenty to play with in the corners, but more remarkable is the ride quality over our far-less-than-standard roads. Rutted concrete? No problem. Tarmac? Great ride, without much engine, wind or tire noise. Potholes? No discernable creaks or offensive suspension noise or rattles. Overall, it's a solidly build little sedan with a good premium paid on NVH.
With the competitors in the econo car market raising their game, it was only logical that Kia would follow suit. Unlike the Sorento, Soul or Sportage, the Rio was a car they needed to be nothing less than a slam dunk. The Picanto -good car as it may be- was different, primarily because the Rio is competing in the subcompact class; the category of the all-dominating Toyota Vios. What Kia did, however, was come up with a base model that surpasses its PhP 598,000 pricetag so well that this will not only suit the needs of fleet operators, but more importantly, the average Juan as well.
Pride used to be just a name for Kia, nothing more. They may have retired that nameplate, but really, this new Rio, even in base trim, is a car that deserves it.