We enjoy hatchbacks for their good looks and real-world practicality. We’re especially fond of hot hatches with their added power and driver involvement. This Spring we’ve driven a wide variety of hatchbacks, from the Kia’s hot hatch cousin, the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, to the efficient and stylish Lexus CT200h F Sport. We even tried our hand at a practical city car in Chevrolet’s Spark. The Kia Rio wraps up our flurry of hatchback reviews. But is it hot enough to earn hot hatch street cred?
Arriving in Signal Red with elegant two-tone 17″ alloy wheels, the Kia Rio 5 SX certainly looked the part of a hot hatchback. The spec sheet also showed encouraging signs with a 6-speed manual transmission and sport-tuned suspension. As mentioned, the Rio is a cousin of the Hyundai Veloster. They both share the 1.6L four cylinder engine and 6-speed manual transmission. The keen eye will note that the Rio 5 and Veloster Turbo we tested share the same gear lever.
The Rio 5 SX also gets a host of top-tier features. Dual chrome exhaust tips, LED lighting, and smart key make the Kia feel well above its pay-grade. Inside, the heated cloth seats are supportive and comfortable. Our tester also included the Premium Package, which brought navigation, satellite radio, and a top-notch backup camera. As a whole, you’ll be hard pressed to find a car with more features at this price, which brings up a bit of a problem. You can’t get a Kia Rio 5 SX like this today.
As it turns out, our tester was one of 500 special edition cars inspired by Kia’s motorsport efforts and to celebrate the release of the Rio Spec-B race car. Kia sees this special edition as a car that, “satisfies enthusiasts’ desires for a more engaging drive experience without sacrificing the comfort and convenience offered by the subcompact model’s highest trim level.” We applaud this effort to build enthusiast-focused models, but we’d love to see the 6-speed become available across all trim lines, rather than just on the entry LX. It would take $21,050 to option a Kia Rio 5 SX like the one we drove, and you wouldn’t even have the joy of a third pedal. When asked, Kia noted that future production of SX models with manual transmissions is still up for discussion.
We were impressed with the dynamics of the Rio 5. Unlike the Veloster, the Rio 5 has a solid chassis that is predictable in all situations. Application of all 138hp and 123 ft lbs torque through the front tires is smooth, but falls short of the hot hatch category. The steering itself is precise, if a bit vague on feedback. The SX gets upgraded 11″ front ventilated discs, nearly an inch larger than other trim lines, and it shows. They bite firmly and provide superb feel and stopping power. Unfortunately, the SX’s sport-tuned suspension is too hard. Road imperfections are amplified and the car slams over expansion joints and pot holes. Even if you can get over the stiff ride, it ruins any sense of fun. Allow us to explain.
The sport-tuned suspension doesn’t allow for any body roll. This would be perfect in a hot hatch with sticky summer tiers, but the Rio 5 SX is fitted with all-season tires. Without any body roll there’s no reward for driving quickly, even when the tires lose grip. It’s an easy car to drive, but it’s not an easy car to have fun in. Sometimes, the most fun comes from managing the car though the corner. The SX takes that away. Softer suspension would let the driver shift the weight of the car around, or at least feel the change in balance. It goes without saying that the ride comfort would equally benefit.
The Kia Rio 5 SX is a lot of car. It manages to take the features of a $30k car and wrap them up into a sleekly styled hatchback. The Rio 5 is also efficient, averaging nearly 31mpg during our tests. But it can’t qualify as a hot hatch because of the stiff ride and missing feeling of involvement. It’s also disappointing that the version we tested is no longer available, and there’s not a direct alternative available. However, the SX M/T Special Edition does prove to enthusiasts that Kia is paying attention to them. This is an encouraging sign and will hopefully be repeated in the future. Until then, the new 2013 Kia Rio 5 is on the edge of attaining hot hatch status.
|2013 Kia Rio 5-Door SX
|6-Speed Manual Transmission||N/C|
|As Tested MSRP||$18,650|