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Posted: April 20, 2012

Executive wheels: Three spiffy little choices

Some great choices in the smaller end of the market

Jeff Rundles

2012 SUBARU IMPREZA
2012 KIA RIO
2012 MAZDA 3

For the first time in all my years as a car reviewer there really are no bad cars on the market. Buying anything today available in the American marketplace will be far more than basic transportation and, I am happy to say, that applies in spades for the lower end of the market.

Here are three examples: the 2012 Subaru Impreza, the 2012 Kia Rio and the 2012 Mazda 3. I chose these three together because they are about the same size and roughly the same price, give or take the trim, so if one is inclined to go smaller and more economical these are three that should be viewed. I was impressed with all three vehicles for different reasons, but perhaps most impressed with the Kio Rio, so I’ll begin there.

2102 Kia Rio SX 5 Door

This is the 3rd generation of the Rio, as of the 2011 model year, and this is a vehicle from the Korean automaker that debuted with the 2000 model year.

When the Rio first came out and in the subsequent years it was a better-than-average econo-box hatchback, but nothing really to write home about.

Lately, however, that has changed. The 2012 Kia Rio 5-door is very sharp looking, very sporty, and it had the most beautiful 17” alloy wheels that just added to the appeal. Unlike its predecessors, this new Rio looks fast and even a little mean, and I got quite a few stares and comments during my test drive.

It has a very handsome and sporty interior as well, and one that is amazingly roomy for a car of this size. This thing has pretty much all of the luxury items you’d expect on a much more expensive car – keyless entry, Bluetooth, power everything, rear camera – and driving it is like driving a sports car. It handles well, corners beautifully, and is so comfortable in a driver’s-drive sort of way, that it’s like having a superior car at an economy price and operation.

Powered by a 1.6-liter I4 engine3 with 138 horsepower, the Rio felt more powerful than that would suggest, even with the 6-speed automatic transmission. This is more than a zippy car, but rather one with some guts. And it’s rated at 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway – amazing.

So the Kia Rio impressed me more than the others from a look point of view, and a feel point of view, but also on price: This top-of-the-line trim, the SX carries a base price of $17,700 and all they added was $95 for floor mats and $750 in freight and handling; the bottom line here is $18,545 and I can safely say that this is the best $18k car on the American market right now. (The lower trims go for MSRP of: LX, $13,600 and EX $16,500; both have the same engine).

Economy, sporty appeal, a little luxury. What a bargain.

RATING: 4 wheels (out of four)

2012 MAZDA 3 4-door Grand Touring

I have to admit: at first I didn’t like the Mazda 3, I think mostly because it came right after the Kia Rio, but the more I drove it the more I liked it. The 3 is larger than I remember, and the leather trimmings on the seats, gear shift and steering wheel gave it a very upscale feel. The moonroof is impressive, the rear seat room much better than expected, and there’s just a ton of great features: power everything, great Bose stereo, Bluetooth, full-color compact navigation, 12V power outlets – all the right stuff, and mostly standard.

They added on a technology package here for $1,400 and I recommend it. It included these wonderful Xenon headlights that move slightly and raise and lower themselves to light just the right way; a little disconcerting at first, but after a while indispensable. Then there’s satellite radio, of course, which I love, and then the coolest thing in a car of this ilk: blind spot monitoring that, I can tell you, came in handy many times. 

But it was the driving that impressed me the most. First, this car is quite quiet and very comfortable, and it handles as well as anything I have driven that didn’t cost $50,000. It has a very tight feel, corners great, and is a true driver’s drive. With the 2.0-liter I 4 engine, putting out some 155 hp and rated at 28 mpg city/40 mpg highway, and then a 6-speed auto transmission with a sport mode, this car has get up and go and go.

The Mazda 3 comes in 11 trims – which is far too many – ranging in MSRP price from $15,200 (with a 2-liter I4 rated at 148hp), to $23,400, with a 2.5-liter I4 rated at 167hp. The model I drove, the 4-door Grand Touring, was near the top with a MSRP of $22,300, and that included some very nice standards. They added in the package I mentioned and then $795 in dealer prep, and the bottom line was $24,495. That’s a good price for such a nice car which is great looking, handles well, has some guts, and is economical.

RATING: 3.9 STARS (OUT OF FOUR).


2012 SUBARU IMPREZA

I am a committed Subaru man for two very good reasons: 1st, there are a million of them on Colorado roads, of all ages, and everyone I have ever known who has one says they just go and go and go with little or no maintenance costs. I have heard it said that Subaru just might be the best used car one could buy because of this reliability. Second, all Subarus are All Wheel Drive, which is Colorado is a great plus, and I am a big fan of safety.

All these Imprezas are powered by a 2.0-liter H 4 engine putting out some 148 hp and the one I drove was rated at 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway. It was also equipped with a $1,000 optional continuously variable transmission (with a 6-speed manual mode) which aids in economy, but doesn’t do much for zippiness. I would call this car a plugger: in CVT it kind of slogs along; in the manual mode it has a little more zip, but not much. It is also not the most quiet car I have ever been in, and the noise you hear the most is the engine: it sounds like it’s electric or not muffled properly as it just hums along and gets louder the faster you go.

Having said that, I did find the car to be quite comfortable, if not a bit Spartan. It had keyless entry and power windows, door locks and mirrors, but manual seats. It featured a nice sized back seat and a large trunk for a car of this size, and it had Bluetooth and a very attractive and good-sounding stereo system. My test-drive model had a $3,000 package that included heated seats and side mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, 17” alloy wheels, a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a power sunroof and a nav system with GPS and a LCD touchscreen.   When you add it all up and add in $750 dealer prep, the bottom line here was $23,914 (on a MSRP of $19,095). The lowest priced Impreza carries a MSRP of $17,495.   

I haven’t made this sound like a winner in the context of the Rio and the Mazda, and I didn’t mean to do that. In fact, of the three the Subaru is the least exciting, but perhaps for the money the most versatile. I was fortunate to drive it in the snow and a Subaru AWD system is really great. This car is roomy, comfortable, economical, highly reliable for the long haul, and as safe as you can get in this class. There’s a lot to be said for that.

RATING: 3.5 WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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