Kia Rio tops Consumer Reports ratings of subcompacts

2013 Kia Rio
Kia Motors America

(MoneyWatch) Consumer Reports rates the Kia Rio the top subcompact sedan, ahead of the Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic, in its road tests released Thursday.

CR test drivers praised the redesigned Rio for its nimble handling, smooth transmission and relatively low level of noise for a subcompact. The magazine also cited the Hyundai Elantra for top MPG and the Chevrolet Sonic for comfortable ride and good handling, but ranked them just below the Rio. The full results appear in the May issue or, for subscribers, online at the Consumer Reports web site.

The overall tests showed how much subcompacts have improved recently as auto makers work to meet consumer demand and federal regulations for higher gas mileage. "Subcompact cars were once collectively known as penalty boxes for their noisiness, rudimentary interiors, uncomfortable rides and weak performance," notes David Champion, head of the CR auto test center. "But now improved redesigns, combined with an affordable price and impressive fuel economy, make a number of subcompacts good choices for people looking to stretch their budget."

The one redesign that failed to impress the test drivers was the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan. The Versa dropped from the top of the rankings last year to the bottom with the new model. Toyota Yaris also continued its perennially low score in these subcompact tests.

For Korean auto maker Kia, the strong Rio rating comes on top of recent sales success. Kia sales in February were up 37% over a year earlier following a 36% gain for all of 2011.

Subaru tops Consumer Reports rankingsHow to beat rising gas prices
5 used cars NOT to buy

Here is closer look at what Consumer Reports had to say about the subcompacts in this road test:

--Kia Rio The Rio EX sedan, selling as a 2013 model, was priced at $17,275 with options as tested. It has a 138-horsepower, 1.6- liter, four- cylinder engine described as having decent power that registered 30 MPG in combined city and highway driving in the CR tests. Good handling, braking and lots of features for the price helped the Rio sedan top its rankings. CR also tested the hatchback version of the Rio, which finished third behind the previously-tested Honda Fit and (not yet redesigned) Nissan Versa hatchback.

--Hyundai Accent This model from Hyundai, Kia's corporate sibling, uses the same 138-horsepower engine as the Rio but squeezes out slightly better mileage, 31 MPG in CR's overall rating. The Accent GLS sedan ($16,050 as tested) was marked down vs. the Rio for a rougher ride over bumps and not as smooth cruising on the highway.

--Chevrolet Sonic The test drivers praise the Sonic -- a new model in 2012 -- for responsive handling, good brakes and a comfortable ride. But the Sonic's 138-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine produced overall CR test mileage of just 28 MPG -- not impressive in this company.

--Nissan Versa A loud whirring engine that sometimes generates offensive noise helped sour ratings for the redesigned Versa sedan. The Versa SL ($15,560 as tested) did manage 32 MPG overall with the loud 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. But the noise, just average performance and a drab interior pushed the Versa down the ratings. On the other hand, CR describes the not-yet redesigned Versa hatchback, previously tested, as "a much better all-around car."

--Toyota Yaris "Despite being redesigned, the Yaris is still bare-bones transportation," says the CR statement. The Yaris LE ($17,920 as tested) did get an overall 32 MPG with its 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. But the Yaris remained low in the ratings because of its noise, choppy ride and drab interior.

In other words, the Yaris does not live up to the much-improved comfortable features now available in its top subcompact competitors here, or in previously tested models such as the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2, which were both new as 2011 models.

  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.