Stock photography courtesy of Hyundai Motor America and Kia Motors America
As Hyundai and Kia continue their U.S.-market product onslaught, their entrants into the subcompact market have drawn the eye of buyers looking for practical, fun and funky cars on a just-post-recessionary budget. Over the past month, I’ve had the privilege of driving all three of the new platform-sharing hatchbacks in the Koreans’ portfolio, and I’m pleased to report that all of them are competent, practical and efficient, and yes, they have that modern Kia and Hyundai styling—more aggressive, more “out there,” and more youthful than previous offerings. But are they any fun?
First off, since there’s quite a bit of it, let’s establish what they have in common. All three vehicles are on the same platform (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it the Accent platform, since it’s the most ubiquitous of the three cars). All share the same 1.6L, 138-horsepower GDI 4-cylinder engine and 6-speed manual and automatic transmissions (with the exception of the Veloster’s available 6-speed DCT not available on the other two). They all weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,400-2,600lbs and claim 40mpg on the highway (or close enough, depending on what trim you choose). Get the picture?
So which offers the best balance of the characteristics you’re looking for in a cheap, new car? Well, I wouldn’t have scribbled all of this nonsense if I wasn’t going to rank them, now would I? So let’s do this in the all-too-traditional magazine format, from least to most enthusiast-friendly.
3. Hyundai Accent 5-Door SE
The last of the pack should be no surprise. The Accent is the epitome of practicality, but trails in fun factor by a significant margin. The shifter in our six-speed manual was numb and rather uninspiring and the chassis and suspension follow suit. It’s not scary or unpredictable to drive, but it’s just soft—the comfiest and most appliance-like of the bunch.
On the plus side, the interior is higher-rent than the Kia’s, assuming you like blue lighting (VW fans rejoice) and find the seating arrangements to your liking. No bulging bolsters here–just your basic commuter buckets. Control interfaces are slightly more conventional here than in the Rio as well, which may swing your vote if driving dynamics aren’t your primary concern. But then, why are you reading this?
So, enough about third place. Let’s move on…
1. Kia Rio SX and Hyundai Veloster (Tie)
That’s right, the boring old journalistic cop-out—the tie for first place. Hate me if you want, but if you hear me out, I think you’ll see where I’m coming from.
Over the past year or two, I’ve driven just about everything Hyundai and Kia have to offer. While Kia’s cars have always had just a hair more of an edge to them than Hyundai’s, I’ve only driven two that I really felt were dialed-in. The first was the V6-powered Sorento. The second, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, is the Rio.
In fact, I haven’t found a subcompact this pleasant to drive since the Mazda2 I drove last year. The steering (electric, mind you) is spot-on. The suspension is perfectly matched with the 17” wheels and lower-profile rubber. It’s fun to toss around. It’s even fun to rev—eager on an on-ramp, which is strange to say about a car with less than 140hp and similarly unimpressive torque figures. while maintaining all the practicality of the Accent.
Mind you, that’s not entirely a good thing. For one, that means you’re dealing with the same seating and transmission foibles you get in the Accent. The Rio’s not a full-on sport compact, you see; it’s just an Accent with a little more attitude.
For those extra tangibles, you need the Veloster.
Because where the Rio falls short, the Veloster shines. The six-speed manual shifter is a massive improvement over what I experienced last year in the original 3.8L Genesis Coupe. The shift action is still light, but the unit feels tighter and crisper, and the journey between gears is much shorter; going from 5th to 4th doesn’t require a plane ticket like it did in the Genesis. And the seats? Fantastic—aggressively bolstered, tight, and comfortable.
So why then is the Veloster not the clear winner here? Simple. Unlike the Rio, it just doesn’t feel quite pinned down the way it should. Consider this: Of the three, the Veloster has the fewest doors but the heftiest curb weight, which stunts acceleration and further burdens the chassis.
And unlike the Rio, the Veloster suffers from a not-quite-there suspension tuning. Perhaps this was intentional. Knowing full well of the upcoming Veloster Turbo, Hyundai may have hedged a bit on the base model to give the range-topper a little more credibility.
Regardless of the reason, the outcome is yet another car that feels like it’s 85 or 90% of what it could be. To give mathematical credence to my finishing order, I’ll expand thusly: The Rio has only 90% of the potential of the Veloster, but brings all 100% to the table. In the end, they’re both 90s.
2012 Hyundai Accent 5-Door SE
As-tested price: $16,870+dest
Likes: Comfort, practicality, efficiency
Dislikes: Decidedly non-sporting demeanor
2012 Kia Rio SX 5-Door
As-tested price: $19,295+dest
Likes: Comfort, sporty handling, efficiency
Dislikes: Seating/transmission not worthy of the above
2012 Hyundai Veloster
As-tested price: $22,075+dest
Likes: Seats, shifter, funky styling
Dislikes: Funky suspension tuning, heft, lacks Rio’s direct feeling