2004 Kia Rio
2004 Kia Rio shown. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

If you want to know why so many established automakers are closely watching Korean-based car companies, take a quick look at the Buyer’s Alerts for the 2001-2003 Kia Rio. You’ll only need to take a quick look because there isn’t much there for a used car buyer to be overly concerned about. The great albatross hanging over Korean automakers since the Hyundai Pony went on sale in the mid-1980s has been quality, but the evidence – what you see in Buyer’s Alerts and elsewhere – suggests that bird may have flown. Or is at least about to take wing.

Consider the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study (IQS). Kia, with 168 problems per 100 vehicles finished below average, but not by such a great margin if you note that the industry average was 133 per 100. True, Kia does not have a single “recommended” model from Consumer Reports and all its rated vehicles come in below average.

But Hyundai which owns Kia has three of its models on the “recommended” list – Sante Fe, Sonata, XG350. Without question, the Korean automakers have made tremendous progress on the reliability front.

Now, if the established Japanese, North American and European automakers can no longer count on quality to be a great, big differentiator between them and the Koreans, then they’ll need to compete head-to-head with the Koreans on features, price and value. That’s a worry.

Ah, value. That’s been the Kio’s calling card since it arrived in the latter part of 2000 as a 2001 model. Back then I was fully prepared not to like the 2001 Kia Rio simply on Kia’s poor quality reputation alone. Then I test drove one and honest to goodness, I was pleasantly surprised.

Here we are in 2004 and the Rio, at $12,650 one of the least expensive small cars out there, seems worth a look for used buyers. A broken-in Rio stacks up very well as a runabout ride. There’s nothing at all fancy here, mind you.

Power for those early Rios comes from a standard 96-horsepower, 1.5-litre engine. It has reasonable get-up-and-go with the manual transmission. By 2003 the entry engine was a 1.6-litre four-banger rated at 104 hp. Better.

Truth is, the Rio’s power numbers argue for a five-speed manual transmission to better take advantage of what giddy-up there is even though the base Rio S in 2001 tipped the scales at a svelte 944 kilograms or 2,181 pounds.

Kia has also sold the Rio with a four-speed automatic transmission. But I’d be cautious here for two reasons. First, the performance isn’t much to shout about and, second, automatic transmissions are complicated and hold the potential for costly repairs. Kia has posted a couple of service bulletins related to issues with its Kia and Sephia autobox.

Also note that if you are shopping, the base Rio S is absolutely a stripper. No power steering, no anti-lock braking (dual front airbags are standard, tough), no air conditioning, no variable interval wipers, no tilt steering, only manual door locks/windows/side mirrors and the most basic AM/FM stereo radio. This is basic stuff.

But the starter model does give you height-adjustable front seatbelts with pre-tensioners that cinch you up tight in the event of a crash (not that you want to be in one, mind you). Tinted windows, vanity mirrors, a carpeted cargo floor, cargo tie downs, a cargo light, cloth seats, front and rear mud flaps and even cupholders.

If you’re looking at a more upscale version of the Rio, say the RS, you get power rack-and-pinion steering, tilt steering and a better cassette stereo. And Kia has sold Rios with power windows/door locks/mirrors, a more complete set of gauges (a tachometer) and even air conditioning. But keep in mind, the more toys you get, the greater potential of something going wrong. That’s not what you want in a used econobox.

The Rio is basic transportation, but its track record to date suggests it’s not an overly painful ride.

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