Whatever gasoline costs in your neighborhood today, the only sure bet is that in the long run it’s going up.
That’s true for the carbon content of Earth’s atmosphere, too. Some of us consider the latter to be a political statement, but we stand united against the impact on our wallets.
As it happens, there’s a solution to all petroleum-based “challenges,” and that is simply to burn less of the stuff. So, with a healthy shove from behind by new fuel-economy standards, carmakers are slowly sending us ever-more-efficient vehicles.
In Europe, where a gallon of fuel sells for the equivalent of $8 to $10, the likes of Jaguar and Audi sell luxury sedans that squeeze 40 miles out of a gallon of diesel. Eventually they’ll be available here too, but for now we have to look downmarket for numbers like that. In the front-wheel-drive subcompact arena, the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Chevy Sonic and Ford Fiesta are slugging it out for mileage supremacy, but the current fuel-economy kinglet seems to be this 2013 Kia Rio, which is EPA-rated for 40 MPG, at least on the highway. That’s what many gas-electric cars get, but the Rio does it on junk gas and without the cost, weight and complexity of batteries and a hybrid drivetrain. Rio prices start at about $14,000.
On paper, it’s not hard to jack up fuel efficiency: Just jack down size, weight and power. But then we’re left with a buzzy tin can that has the structural integrity of a hang glider with none of the swoopy fun. Somewhere there’s a sweet spot where performance, comfort, utility, economy, safety, government mandates and even pride of ownership intersect—at a niche-appropriate price, of course. This new “sport-tuned” Kia Rio SX is circling that sweet spot like a vulture homing in on road kill.
Kia re-created the Rio for 2012, and erased most of the former car’s negatives. Inside, the acres of black plastic can still be a bit depressing, but the details are now quite good: businesslike toggle switches for heating & cooling, easy-to-use stereo and cruise-control switches in the tilt & telescope steering wheel, and a suite of digital doodads such as Bluetooth, Sirius, Jukebox and a USB port. (A Premium Package adds satnav, along with leather trim, seat heaters and so on.) The backup camera is an especially nice touch in this price class. Even the rear seats are comfy. The cargo bay is short, but it’s deep. The liftback is easy to . . . lift. It’s noisier inside than a Rolls-Royce, but then there’s a couple tons less mass to soak up the acoustics. A Rio weighs just a bit more than 2,500 pounds—it’s a flyweight by automotive standards.
Less weight certainly helps the fuel-sipping. So does Gasoline Direct Injection, which makes this 138-horsepower 4-banger run more tidily. (GDI just won a technology award from MIT and NEMPA, the New England Motor Press Association.) The 6-speed auto-manual transmission with overdrive helps too. The Rio EX is available with ISG, Idle Stop & Go, but even without that—and without engaging the fun-killing ECO mode—we averaged 33 MPG around town in the SX, well above the EPA rating of 30 city MPG.
Speaking of fun, also missing from the Rio’s high-efficiency portfolio are the deplorable driving peculiarities of so many hybrids. These brakes work in linear fashion and the steering is reasonably sensitive. There’s neither wallowing nor teetering on this suspension, and the tires aren’t high-mileage ice skates. It’s no hot hatch, but there’s proper grip and the Rio SX is not unsatisfying to drive. And then there’s the newly handsome styling, especially of the 5-door Rio. At about $18,500, this SX doesn’t make me feel like I’m slumming or I’ve had to borrow one of my kids’ cars.
In fact, as I review the sticker, I’m struck by how many of the features here could be found only on cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class 15 years ago.