If the subcompact category were a movie, the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent would be the stars; soaking up the highly sought-after screen time, each exuding their own unique talents to draw in the audience. But what about the Kia Rio? Well, it would probably be that one guy in that one scene with that one line that no one really remembers. Until now. For 2012, the Kia Rio has been revamped and restyled in an attempt to gain more notoriety in the sub-compact ranks. Like Matt Damon going from Good Will Hunting to The Bourne Identity, it might be a little weird at first, but its audience will be more accepting in time. And maybe a short time at that, thanks to the 2012 Rio's new talents and eccentric styling. 

We recently had the chance to sample this small-car competitor in its homeland of Korea, and while we were impressed at how much better the kimchi tastes over there, we were even more impressed with the new 2012 Kia Rio.

Dressed for Success

Our time with the Rio was isolated to the five-door variant, which shares the same features and mechanical details with its four-door sibling but just looks better, in our opinion. Kia's design engineers went back to the drawing board and wedged the edges, sloped the shoulder lines and sculpted a new look for the Rio using design elements from its Optima and Sportage brethren. The Rio incorporates Kia's signature grille flanked by slanted headlights and a large air dam. Sweeping side character lines slope up towards the high-placed taillights and steeply raked rear window. The Rio rolls on 15-inch steel or alloy wheels, according to trim, but stepping to the up-level SX equates to more stylish 17-inch alloys. All things said, it looks like the product of some serious Optima and Sportage canoodling.

It's what's on the inside...

Aesthetics aside, what really sets the Kia Rio apart from the competition is its lavish interior and impressive list of standard and available features. The Rio incorporates a three-cylinder instrument panel and wraparound dash design that is simple and user-friendly. Some of the more notable available features include Bluetooth, a seven-inch navigation system with a rear-view camera, push-button start, UVO voice-activated infotainment system and leather seating surfaces for a more upscale feel. Some of these features are only available in a handful of cars - at most - in the category.

What's its motivation?

Looking at the car inside and out, we thought that it couldn't impress us anymore. Looking at the spec sheet, the Kia Rio's sole motivator is the same 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine that powers it Hyundai Accent cousin. It even garners the same projected gas mileage numbers of 30 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway (29/39 for the Rio5). At play is one of the aces up the Rio's sleeve in the form of ISG technology. The acronym stands for "Idle Stop and Go," which is a fuel-saving system that turns off the engine when the car is stopped and seamlessly turns it on again when the brake pedal is released.  This eco-smart mechanism is good for approximately one more mpg across the board, according to Kia.

How does it drive?

With all the information at hand, we set off to drive the Kia Rio through the crowded streets of Seoul and on to the tunnel-laden highways to get a feel of what the sub-compact has to offer; and it didn't disappoint. The eager 1.6-liter has more than enough power for passing slower trucks although most of the power can be felt in the higher rpm range. We were surprised in how comfortable the car rides considering its small size. But the soft ride doesn't compromise its handling abilities. In sorting out the suspension, Kia's engineers used the Ford Fiesta as their benchmark to ensure some sporty footwork, and while we can say they got pretty close, they didn't get all the way there. The 2012 Kia Rio is agile and confident in turns, but overall it doesn't have the same athletic feel as the Ford Fiesta or MAZDA2. As for its highway cruising abilities, we're happy to report that after two straight hours of driving the Rio was just as pleasant as when we first stepped foot inside. The seats are comfortable and the cabin is quiet for sub-compact standards.

When will we see it?

The 2012 Kia Rio will arrive stateside in early October but official pricing is yet to be announced. Whenever it shows up, there's a good chance the 2012 Kia Rio will surprise the masses just as much as it surprised us. And soon enough, like Matt Damon, it will be highly regarded as a formidable player in the genre.

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