Bargain-priced Kia Rio conquers the winter’s worst |

Bargain-priced Kia Rio conquers the winter’s worst


Good looks and a bag of fancy tricks are a fine commodity for autos destined for use in the High Country, but when it really comes down to it, when you live where the winter is long (and, this year, record-setting) and the drives to and from work and play can be treacherous, you want a vehicle that cruises with both safety and style in effect.

That’s why a pure econo-machine such as the $13,000 Kia Rio might not be a first immediate choice for mountain residents looking for an inexpensive but adaptable year-round vehicle. Frankly, the entry-level Kia probably wouldn’t have topped my list of rides to buy for those living in the Central Rockies, with the possible exception of those out on the Western Slope.

But here’s my story: when a recent round of auto test vehicle changeovers left me trading in the keys for a new Subaru Outback – the ultimate winter machine – for a Rio, I was at first a little concerned. That was mostly because I’d suffered the poor choice of stepping into the Rio just as I’d scheduled an unpleasant but necessary same-day transit of I-70 from my home in Golden all the way to Gypsum, a very snowy, icy, slushy and generally miserable mission for any vehicle.

Remarkably, the little Kia, outfitted with all-season tires, held up like a champ and got me to and from my destination with nary a problem, even up the partially snow-packed approach to the Eisenhower Tunnel as I made may way home that night.

Front-wheel drive and a good sense of balance were the biggest parts of the Kia’s safety equation – while I certainly would have enjoyed some grippier rubber than the standard Hankook Optimo 185/65R14s – and, by gosh, they got me through my trip with only a couple of touchy moments on pure ice as snow squalls dropped in during the journey. I drove through deep slush, snow and mixed conditions and kept up with regular traffic. And that alone sold me on the experience.

The Rio is, admittedly, as basic as they come, separated by only a few degrees of Korean heritage from the just-a-little-too-basic Chevrolet Aveo we drove this summer. But the Rio is also far from the worst car ever.

If you’re hoping to place an emphasis on a cheap entry point to the automotive world, plus outstanding gas mileage (up to 35 on the highway) and a package that’s peppy enough to tackle the passes and cruise along at 75 on the open stretches, the Rio is worth a second look.

The bargain basement price does mean a few auto issues normally taken for granted nowadays aren’t: there’s no central locking (door locks are all manual), no power windows, the wheel caps are plastic and mounted on black metal wheels, and nearly everything else is about as manual and basic as you get.

Still, even that wasn’t a complete turn-off. The Rio’s an attractive little car, with smooth styling, bright and oversized headlamps, body-colored mirrors, and a decent sized trunk with a 60/40 split back seat for loading snowboards and such. Even those plastic wheel covers were attractive, truth be told.

A broad black body line helps set off the entire vehicle and general impressions are cheery and inviting.

Power from the 1.6 liter four-cylinder was not mind-blowing (there’s just 110 horsepower under the hood and the vehicle weighs only 2,365 pounds) but the little engine did the trick on three or four of the most difficult highway climbs in the state, so chalk one up for Rio.

The small engine revs pretty loud and you’ll experience substantial engine noise when traveling flat out on the freeway. Braking seemed adequate; handling was a little light but when mired in the worst slush and frozen stuff, she still pulled through. And when I got home, $7 got me a half-tank of gas. I haven’t had that happen in any car I’ve driven in the past two years.

A basic, functional and mostly comfortable interior offered a cozy spot during the chilly storms outside, although plastic is the name of the game in Rio styling. Supportive seating was controlled by manual front and back seat-height knobs on the driver’s side; the small right-hand armrest does get in the way of reaching the emergency brake and is a bit of a poor design detail.

Large, easy-to-read gauges offered easy information, although I’d suggest different numbering and lettering on the speedometer as I could never quite see where 65 mph was supposed to be.

I enjoyed ample heat with fast front and rear defrosting and the single-CD stereo system, while very basic, made the long trip a little more easy to take.

The cabin’s full of otherwise pleasant looks and decent offerings, just a bit heavy on the plastic.

While I can’t imagine that my efforts alone will see the High Country suddenly flush with an explosion of Kia Rios, here’s to considering the little vehicle that could when looking for a bountiful bargain.

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