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If there were an award for “most improved” vehicle for 2012, there’s no doubt the Kia Rio would be receiving a good percentage of the votes.

Haven’t heard of the Kia Rio? Stayed tuned, you will.

For people shopping for a reliable subcompact that possesses some style, is good on gas, and comes with an inexpensive sticker price, the Rio should be on the must-see list. The base model starts at $13,400 the most expensive of the three trims goes for $17,500.

2012 Kia Rio

  • Performance: 1.6-liter, four-cylinder, 138 horsepower
  • Mileage estimate: 30-40 mpg
  • Price: $13,400 to $17,500
  • Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles; drivetrain 10 years/100,000 miles; roadside assistance 5 years/60,000; corrosion 5 years/100,000 miles

Introduced in the U.S. in 2006, the Rio was a relative unknown in the subcompact class prior to this year’s major redesign. There was previously nothing memorable about this under-powered, under-performing subcompact that had people clamoring to buy it.

So what’s changed that now makes the Rio a smart buy? Plenty. The Rio has improved in practically every way, starting with its sleeker exterior appearance, which features wraparound headlights and a chrome-ringed grille. Some of the exterior changes were borrowed from the Optima, Kia’s popular midsize sedan.

The new Rio may be sleek, yet it’s also larger overall and features an improved interior as well. Even taller drivers will experience comfort in the Rio. But more surprising is the roomy backseat, a trait that’s a rarity among subcompacts.

Comfortable seating is another plus, along with generous trunk space and the ease in which the backseats can be flipped down to create more room – 49.8 cubic feet. However, the Rio’s backseats don’t fold flat.

We’re not a big fan of the amount of hard plastic in the Rio, but most people will applaud the ease and accessibility of the audio and climate controls. The interior has a sliding center console and cupholders are available for both front and back seat occupants.

All three Rio trims feature a 1.6-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder with 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. The upper end SX with six-speed automatic transmission goes 0-60 mph in a respectable 9.7 seconds. For those interested in purchasing the base model, note that it comes standard with the six-speed manual transmission, a downside for drivers who don’t know or don’t want to learn how to shift gears.

The new Rio comes with a firmer suspension and offers a nice ride for a subcompact. The steering is responsive and gives the driver a connected feeling. Like most of the competition, which includes the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, and the Hyundai Accent, the Rio’s engine is a bit noisy at higher speeds.

While the Rio is advertised as getting between 30-40 mpg, it’s noted here and other places that the higher number seems a bit inflated. A better estimate is the higher figure is 35 mpg.

What car shoppers can expect from the latest version of the Rio is a very well-rounded vehicle that features plenty of upside. Expect it to become one of the prime players in the subcompact class.

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