Instrument cluster

My check engine light has been off for a long time, not because there weren’t any error codes, but because the light bulb was burnt out. Replacement requires removal of the entire instrument cluster, and pulling the panel out. However, this is quite easy to do.

First the lower center panel trim has to be removed. This is held by a single screw hidden behind the ashtray.

Lower center panel screw

The panel can be easily pried out by hand without any tools. It is held by several clips.

There are two connectors for the cigarette ligher and a light bulb for the ashtray.

Electrical connectors

Once the lower center panel is removed, the two screws that hold the instrument panel trim will be exposed. Once these are removed, the instrument panel trim can be pried out easily. This is also held by a bunch of clips and pins.

The biggest challenge was unplugging the connectors behind the hazard flasher switch and the defroster switch. These switches only pull forward from the panel, and the connecting wires are pretty short, so removal requires inserting your fingers behind the panel into a tight space to wiggle the connector out.

Once the two connectors are unplugged, the entire instrument panel moulding can be removed.

This will expose the instrument cluster. The instrument cluster is a single enclosed unit mounted with four screws. Once the screws are removed, the panel comes out very easily.

There are two electrical connectors on the back of the cluster that need to be unplugged. Again, the wires are short and there is very little working room.

The backside of the instrument panel is an exposed circuit board. All of the black circles are light bulbs that illuminate various things. These are clearly labelled and are easy to identify.

The bulbs can be removed by simply turning them and pulling them out. These are glass wedge-based bulbs, also known as T (Tubular) style. The bulbs are designated by their diameter, with each unit representing 1/8″. The smaller ones are T1.5 (which are 0.1875″ diameter) and the larger ones are T3.25 (0.406″ diameter). The bulb can be pulled out of the plastic base, and a new one can be inserted.

Rear Shocks

Whereas the front suspension has a strut unit consisting of the shock running inside the spring, the rear suspension contains the spring separate from the shock. Replacing the rear shock is relatively easy. It is held with two bolts at the top attached to the frame body, and one bolt and bushing at the bottom attached to the wheel unit.

Old shock absorber unit with rusted cylinder housing

The lower bolt goes through a bushing on the shock and screws into a welded nut. Since this is fully exposed to the elements, everything was heavily corroded, and it was hard to even notice that the nut was actually a welded nut. The bolt just wouldn’t budge, even with an air impact wrench.

Lower bolt and bushing

I had to pull out my oxyacetelyne torch and heat the nut until it was cherry red. The rubber inside the bushing was also starting to burn. Using an impact wrench while the whole thing was still hot did the trick in removing the bolt.

Acetelyne torch

In comparison, the upper two bolts were a lot easier to remove. However, the threads are not very deep, and it is easy to strip the threads.

Upper bolts holding the shock
Old and new shock

Strut Replacement

Replacing struts is one of the simplest jobs one can do on the vehicle. The strut is a single unit that contains the suspension spring coil and the shock absorber (dampener). The spring is kept compressed under tremendous pressure inside the strut. It is like a loaded gun. Therefore, it is not worth the trouble to disassemble the strut or attempt to replace its internal components. It is much easier to buy the whole strut. The cost of a complete strut for the front wheels was only $75 each.

Assembled strut unit

Two horizontal bolts hold the steering knuckle to the strut. These are easy to remove. The hardest one to remove is the sway bar arm that is attached to the strut. It is a ball joint, and the bolt needs to be held from the opposite side with a wrench while turning the outside nut. Its a bit tricky and it is easy to strip the nut, but it does come off eventually.

Steering knuckle and sway bar attached to the strut

Next, the top side of the strut has to be removed from inside the engine compartment. The center nut should not be loosened, as it holds the compressed spring. Once the two outer nuts are removed, the strut simply falls off from the bottom. Before doing this, the brake hose and the speed sensor wire have to be removed from their harnesses attached to the strut.

Strut tower attachment inside the engine compartment
After removal of the strut

The left and right sides are different, so it is important to match them up correctly.

Old and new strut assembly

This is with the new strut installed

With new strut installed.

CV axles and ball joints

The biggest challenge in replacing the CV axles is the removal of the old axles. The shaft is locked inside the transmission with an expanding C-clip. To release the shaft, it has to be pulled sharply to make the C-clip compress and slip out of its retaining groove.


First, the steering tie rod has to be disconnected, and the wheel hub has to be removed from the lower control arm. A prybar could be used to remove the axle from the transmission, but a more effective method is a slide hammer. This can be done as follows: separate the inner CV joint by removing the metal strap that holds the rubber boot and then pulling the joint apart. This will leave just the cup attached to the transmission. Then clean all the grease inside the cup.

The inner CV cup

The tool we need is a slide hammer with a vice grip attached to the end. Most slide hammers come with a threaded attachment. As long as we find a vice grip with the correct screw size, it can be directly attached to the slide hammer.

Vice grip attached to a slide hammer

Tightly clamp the vice grip to the cup wall. A couple of sharp pulls on the slide hammer should release the shaft from the transmission. If that doesn’t work, an alternate method is to drill two holes on the sidewalls of the cup, insert a bolt and attach the slide hammer at the center. Luckily, in my case the vice grip method worked for both axles.

Vice grip attached to the inner CV cup

The shaft seal should be replaced any time the axle is removed. This will require a seal puller. Installing the new seal can be done with a wooden block and a hammer, but a bearing driver comes in very handy.

Shaft seal
This is what the transmission input looks like with the shaft seal removed.
With the shaft seal

Installing the new axle is a lot simpler. It can be simply inserted into the transmission and gently tapped with a hammer to snap the C-clip in to place (with the axle nut attached to protect the threads).

Old vs new axle

The grease boots on my lower control arm’s ball joints were torn, so this was a good time to replace them. The arm is attached to the frame as well as to the stabilizer bar. There is a welded nut inside the frame that the bolt screws into. At the other end, the stabilizer bar runs through the control arm with two bushings on either side.

Removal of the lower control arm
Old and new lower control arm
With the lower control arm removed

This is also a good time to replace the outer steering tie rod end. There is a jam nut that locks the position of the tie rod. This is a critical part that determines the alignment of the front wheels, so it must be replaced in the exact same position. Even then a new alignment job may be necessary.

Old and new tie rod end
With the new rod end and control arm installed

Here is a photo of all of the items that were replaced. It includes brake pads, axles, seals, lower control arm and tie rod ends.

All the parts that were replaced

Transmission Fluid

I was losing transmission fluid. I noticed this while driving uphill – the climb power just didn’t feel right. The Kia calls for SP-III fluid. While in a hurry, I took a guess and bought Dextron-III from the store, thinking that the “III” probably means it is equivalent to SP-III. I was wrong. This is very confusing because there are many different trade names. However, the back of the bottle should list all the compatible types (which I did not check).

The leak, however, was easy to identify. It was coming out of a flare fitting at the bottom of the radiator that somehow had come loose. But now I had to deal with that one quart of wrong fluid mixed in. It might not be serious, but just to be safe, I decided to drain as much of the fluid as possible to fill with the correct type.

On the Kia Rio, there is no drain plug on the oil pan. The recommended method is to remove the oil pan. But that was going to be a big pain. The simpler method, which I believe is just as effective, is to insert a plastic tube through the dip stick tube until it hits the bottom of the pan, and use suction to pull the fluid out. Using a hand pump, I got 3 quarts out. The capacity is 5.2 quarts. Even if you drop the oil pan, I don’t think it would have been possible to get more out, since about half of the oil is in the torque converter.

Water Pump Replacement

One would think that replacing a water pump should not require tearing down the engine. But on the Kia Rio, the water pump is buried inside the engine block behind the timing belt making it a major job. A lot of things have to be removed to access the water pump. Additionally, a leaking water pump will soak the timing belt and the rollers. If the timing belt breaks, it would cause irreversible engine damage. So any issue with the water pump must be fixed right away.

Radiator hose and fan removed

First, the radiator has to be drained, and the upper and lower radiator hoses have to be removed. The radiator fan also has to be removed. Even 1-2 inches of extra room makes a tremendous difference, which I found out the hard way.

The windshield washer reservoir and the power steering fluid lines need to be unmounted from the wall and moved out of the way. This is for making some working room on the left side.

Windshield washer reservoir and power steering lines removed

Both drive belts and the water pump pulley have to be removed. The power steering pump has to be unmounted and moved out of the way. The AC compressor also has to be unmounted from its bracket and moved out of the way.

The passenger side engine mount has to be removed and the engine jacked up. This raises the left side of the engine to give better access to the timing belt housing. Next, the top timing belt cover can be removed.

Engine mount removed

The crankshaft bolt and the harmonic balancer have to be removed. This will allow the two lower timing belt covers to be removed.

With crankshaft bolt removed

Before removing the timing belt, the crankshaft has to be rotated until the camshaft alignment marks are correctly located. The tensioning roller has to be compressed to allow the timing belt to be removed. Next, the timing belt rollers can be unbolted from the water pump housing.

Alignment of the cam sprockets

But before the water pump can be removed, its inlet connector has to be unbolted. Unfortunately, this area is blocked by the AC mounting bracket, requiring it to be removed from the engine block.

Water inlet connector is behind the AC mounting bracket

Once the AC mounting bracket is removed, the inlet connector is easily accessible from below.

Water pump inlet connect from below

Finally, the water pump can be removed from the engine block. Once removed, the mating face has to be scraped with a blade to remove all traces of the old gasket. This is in a tight spot, making cleaning and inspection quite difficult.

Water pump’s mating surface on the engine block

The next step is to install the new water pump. The general advise seems to be to avoid using sealants when mounting the new gasket. However, it is nearly impossible to do this without using some Ultragrey as a glue to hold the gasket while placing the new water pump.

Water pump gasket

It is quite tricky to maneuver the water pump through the tight spaces without scratching the mating surface or tearing the gasket. It takes several trial and error attempts.

New water pump installed

The water pump’s inlet (which is accessible only from the bottom) needs to be connected next, but it also connects to the cabin heater return line. Since this is a rigid line, it needs to be disconnected at its other end to to give it some flexibility. Its mount point is hidden behind the exhaust shield, necessitating its removal as well.

Water pump inlet from below

The exhaust shield is easy to remove, but its bolts were corroded and frozen, requiring some of them to be drilled out.

Exhaust shield removed

The water pump’s inlet requires a gasket. Again, it is tricky to align the bolts without scratching the surface or misaligning the gasket.

Inlet connector assembled

Finally, the new timing belt can be installed. The rollers have to be installed first, which bolt directly onto the water pump. While placing the timing belt, care must be taken to ensure that the cam shaft alignment marks are maintained accurately. Then the tensioning rollers can be torqued to the specified value (35 ft-b).

Timing belt roller

The second roller is for tensioning. It has a spring that pulls on it to add tension to the belt. The roller has to be pushed with a wedge as far towards the spring as possible and the bolt tightened. This will allow the spring to be extended and connected by hand. Then the bolt is loosened to allow the tensioning mechanism to work.

Tensioning roller

The timing belt cover has three pieces. Mine was cracked in several places and significantly deformed. These are hard to find and had to be ordered through the dealer.

Timing belt covers (three pieces)

Transmission Range Sensor

I’ve had repeated problems with starting. After replacing the battery, starter and ignition key switch, the only remaining component in the system is the transmission range sensor. This vehicle has no starter relay – it is built into the starter. Incidentally, I also found that the 10A starter fuse is completely unused in this car. Pulling the fuse does absolutely nothing to the starting system. The range sensor is an electrical switch that sits on top of the transmission where the shift level cable is attached. It rotates with the transmission shaft, sensing whether the transmission is in park, drive, neutral etc.. The neutral safety switch closes only when the transmission is in park or neutral, allowing the car to start only under these conditions.

The range sensor is cheap ($35) and is easy to replace. After removing the air intake duct, the sensor is easily accessible from the top. The shift cable has to be detached from the transmission shaft using a 21mm socket. The sensor itself is only held down by two hex screws.

Location of the range sensor (with the sensor removed)
Range sensor
With new range sensor installed