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After driving three varieties of the Kia Rio on highways and freeways around Seattle, we came away impressed.
We spent time in an LX automatic and a Rio5 SX manual. We enjoyed shifting the manual as it definitely makes for a more sporty experience. However, the LX with the automatic transmission was no slouch. Cars in this class traditionally suffer a big performance and fuel economy hit with an automatic, but the new Rio confirms that modern transmissions have largely addressed these deficiencies. In fact, the automatic Rio rates slightly better EPA mileage on the highway, with 38mpg against the manual's 35. EPA estimates for city driving are more what you might expect, at 29 mpg for the automatic and 32 for the manual.
Kia claims it is making its cars more sporty and athletic than the Hyundai Accent, the Rio's sibling. There's nothing exceptional about Rio's MacPherson strut front suspension or twist-beam rear axle, but Kia says they both designed for long wheel travel, a characteristic long favored by European automakers for combining a comfortable ride with responsive handling. The Rio is far from being a sporty car, but the SX handled nimbly without too much body lean or sloppy motion. The LX, with its skinner 14-inch tires, was not quite as secure, although most drivers would not complain.
The power steering, which stiffens up as the engine speed increases, felt taught with just the right amount of feel dialed in. We did not try a base model, which comes without power steering.
Standard-issue brakes are 10.1-inch discs up front and 8.0-inch drums in the rear. Order the optional ABS and, in addition to the four-channel anti-lock system, rear brakes upgrade to 10.3-inch solid discs.