AUSTIN, Texas -- Kia is counting on new styling and a 40-mpg highway rating to help its redesigned 2012 Rio five-door thrive in the increasingly competitive subcompact segment.
Kia also priced the least-expensive Rio five-door with automatic transmission $340 below the 2011 model, at $15,450 including shipping. And the 2012 has a revamped engine, a new gearbox and fresh interior and exterior designs.
The basics: Stylists at Kia Motors America's U.S. design studio in Irvine, Calif., gave the Rio a more muscular look than the outgoing model, which even Ralph Tjoa, Kia's manager of car product planning, called "pedestrian."
The 2012 Rio rides on a new platform and is longer, lower, wider and lighter than the 2011 model.
Under the hood is a 1.6-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine from Hyundai-Kia's Gamma family of small-displacement four-bangers. Power is increased from 110 hp on the 2011 Rio to 138 hp, and torque is up to 123 pounds-feet, from 107.
Now in its third generation, the 1.6-liter engine has a new aluminum block that, combined with other changes, cut engine weight by 29 pounds. New six-speed manual and automatic transmissions also are available.
Notable features: Kia added start-stop engine technology as an option on the Rio EX. The technology shuts down the engine when the vehicle is stopped and restarts it when the brake pedal is released. The feature improves city fuel economy by 1 mpg, to 31 mpg, Kia says.
Start-stop, branded as the "Eco Package," is listed as a $400 option. But the start-stop option actually will cost buyers $1,400 because it is only available on the Rio EX with the $1,000 convenience package. The convenience package includes 15-inch alloy rims, Kia's UVO voice-activated infotainment system, a 4.3-inch color touch screen, rear-view camera, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power folding side mirrors and other options.
A fully loaded Rio five-door SX with a navigation system, push-button start, leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats and a moonroof is priced at $20,450, including shipping. A sportier suspension and 17-inch rims are standard features on SX models.
The market: Tom Loveless, head of sales for Kia Motors America, expects the subcompact segment to double to 800,000 units per year and account for 5 percent of U.S. sales by 2015.
Loveless did not disclose a sales target for the Rio. Kia sold 24,619 Rios in 2010 and 13,792 units in the first nine months of 2011, down 34 percent from last year.
What Kia says: "By 2015, the subcompact segment is projected to be the sixth-largest segment in the U.S. market, so that's really an opportunity," Loveless said at a press event here.
The skinny: Attractive styling and loads of standard features have helped Kia's recent redesigns make inroads in their segments. The redesigned Rio five-door may be primed to do the same.