2012 Kia Rio
Engine: 1.6 liter DOHC 4-Cylinder
Power: 138hp, 123 lb-ft.
Fuel Economy: 30 city/40 hwy
Price as tested: $18,250
I’m not exactly a follower of the green movement. I leave lights on because I feel like it. My groceries exit the store in plastic. And the day my car plugs into the wall is the day I’ll have a biomechanical socket embedded in my neck. But hey, I’m not a total jerk; I do recycle. Maybe that’s why I gave the 2012 Kia Rio—a quirky little hatchback being touted for its eco-friendly footprint—more than an admiring glance. With a 1.6-liter four cylinder dropped under its stubby bonnet, the completely refreshed Rio doesn’t come with a cord. There are no batteries other than the one required to keep it firing up each morning. So where’s the greenery come in? Aside from the fact that it pulls 30mpg city and 40 highway, this funky five-door boasts a stat not many others can stand up to: it’s 85 percent recyclable.
Truth told, not many individuals weigh how efficiently their car will dispose when they’re at the dealer signing papers. But as I slid into the driver’s seat and hit the back roads of Texas Hill Country, I thought maybe they (er, we) should. Aside from a few barren stretches where it was just myself, some steer, and the Rio Grand, I don’t know if a mile passed where I didn’t see at least one fallen legend of a car—from the ’70s or earlier—rusting away, taking up just as much space as the day it rolled off the assembly line. Eighty-five percent, huh? Granted, the Kia was miniscule in comparison to its American ancestors that littered the countryside. But to think its leftovers could probably fit into a suitcase is rather astonishing. And a touch refreshing, even for a traditionalist like myself.
All that means nothing if it drives like compost, though, right? Without further planetary contemplation, I’ll tell you that it does not. Constant and stable, the Rio does not pretend to be anything it isn’t. There are no huge spoilers or oversized brakes to keep it balanced through speeds you’ll never hit. There is, however, a solid “thud” when you close the door, something that had been missing from Kias of yore. No, being recyclable does not mean the car’s a road-prepped tuna can. Its body structure is solid and safe, thanks in part to six standard airbags and a well-engineered, smartly reinforced frame. Sitting in its cabin, I found more than enough elbowroom for daily driver status and controls that were well-placed and minimalist in design. The car’s unique climate switches—inspired by aircraft cockpits—represent the type of no-brainer idea that could make keeping yourself comfortable just as instinctive a motion as flipping on your blinkers or wipers. And though it won’t wow on its length or girth, the in-dash music interface plays nice with iPods and will keep you safe in the parking lot, thanks to an integrated back-up camera.
Pedal pinned, the naturally aspirated four-banger was clearly not designed to deliver staggering G-forces, but it still pulls at a respectable level for an engine its size. When I threw it into the curves, it was also apparent to me that it’s no carver—though body roll was minimal and at no point did I feel like its handsome alloy wheels wouldn’t stay planted on terra firma. Thinking in my red-blooded brain that the Rio could actually be a blast with some sway bars, mild suspension tuning and even a turbo, I should mention here that the car will be extensively involved in Kia’s growing race program and presence. Whether any of that tuning will trickle down to the consumer level remains to be seen, but we can remain hopeful.
Exiting the largely reusable ride, I noticed the Rio also has something others in its sub-compact segment lack: character. Another grateful recipient of Kia’s double-take-inducing new design language, the car exudes a fun, sporty, and youthful vibe that may have the less informed in your life asking, “That’s a Kia?” From the front, its gaping bumper ducts and linear grille are a bit GTI in nature. Peep the profile, and the car’s bubbly back echoes a Civic Si. Yet, despite similarities to other brands, a full walk-around proves the Rio is indeed its own car. And though it may lack power and tuning in comparison, it’s still arguably deserving of the “hot hatch” label.
Back to the whole eco-friendly angle, the 2012 Rio practices what it preaches. Not only can the majority of its structure be reused, but a notable amount of its construction—largely plastic elements such as bumpers and wheel well liners—are already crafted of recycled materials, allowing a dash of Kia’s progressive DNA to literally live within each model. No, there’s no cord, fuel cell, or other eco-du-jour gimmick powering its punch. But if you deem yourself and the Rio a character match, you can still rest assured that you’re doing a good thing for the planet, if you care about that sort of thing.