Hatchback model's versatility
Base version not well-equipped
Sedan is bland
Leather seats are not heated
The subcompact Rio has been hanging around Kia showrooms since 2000, when it was the least-expensive passenger car sold in the U.S. Boasting all of 96 horsepower, the subcompact was pretty much a throwaway car as it was poorly built, and offered drivers very little in terms of ride quality or onboard amenities.
2018 Kia Rio
Eighteen years later, the all-new 2018 Kia Rio has moved beyond its humble beginnings and now shares its underpinnings with the Hyundai Accent. For 2018, both the sedan and hatchback (Kia calls it a 5-door) are available in three trim levels - entry-level LX, available with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, the automatic-only mid-level S, and the automatic-only uplevel EX. Our tester was an EX hatchback.
Standard equipment across the lineup includes tinted glass, body-colored front and rear bumpers, air conditioning, a 5-inch touchscreen display, satellite radio, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, variable intermittent windshield wipers, USB and aux inputs, and a tilt steering wheel.
Aside from the automatic transmission, stepping up to the S (the one we would pick) adds power heated outside mirrors, body-color outside door handles, overhead sunglass holder with dual map lights, 60/40 split-folding rear seat with adjustable headrests, center console with sliding armrest, front and rear USB charging ports, cruise control, Bluetooth, power windows and locks, and remote keyless entry.
In addition to those features, EX buyers are treated to 15-inch alloy wheels that replace the steel ones found on LX and S models, fog lights, a chrome-trimmed grille, tilt and telescopic steering column, 3.5-inch multi-information instrument cluster display, gloss black center fascia, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, upgraded cloth seat trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and a 7-inch touchscreen with an app-based infotainment system.
A rear view camera is standard on all three trims, while low-speed automatic emergency braking is standard – and only offered – on the EX trim.
The Rio's subcompact dimensions are wrapped around an interior boasting a fit and finish that's above average for this class, with a combined 103.6 cu ft (sedan) or 107.9 cu ft (hatchback) of passenger and cargo volume - that places it solidly in the EPA's compact classification. The front seats are comfortable with decent bolsters, while four six-footers – with a bit of give-and-take - can sit behind each other. Instrumentation is simple and straightforward, with large controls that are easy to reach from the driver's position, that are intuitive to use - with redundant buttons and knobs for all major functions that are also controlled from the touchscreen. The driving position is very good and, although the A-pillars are fairly thick, visibility out the front and sides is excellent.
Steering wheel-mounted controls for the audio, cruise, Bluetooth phone systems, and driver information center were easily understood and intuitive. In fact, it took us less than a minute to pair an iPhone. The headlight and turn signal stalk to the left of the steering wheel also feature a tap/flash to pass function.
But as expected at this price point, things are hardly perfect. Both front seats lack lumbar adjustment, the passenger seat doesn't adjust vertically, while the nicely-trimmed leather seats on the Launch Edition aren't heated – a major omission to those of us living where the snow flies. In addition, the cabin's nicely grained trim is comprised almost entirely of hard plastics, the door armrests – one of the few soft touch areas - aren't ergonomic, while the center console armrest is too small for both front occupants to use simultaneously. Finally, thick C-pillars and a small rear window hinder rear three-quarters and rear visibility – where the backup camera came in particularly handy.
Once again, President and Chief Design Officer Peter Schreyer and his design group have done a nice job re-styling the Rio, where the Rio's more chiseled style looks best in hatchback guise. Up front, a narrower "tiger nose" grille is nestled between the headlamp enclosures and sits above a larger, more aggressive, lower air intake that's bracketed, on EX models, by vertical faux brake cooling ducts containing round fog lights. Along the sides, a mid-panel character line and sculpted swage line break up the slab-sided look, while the wheels, pushed out even further to the corners, give Kia's latest subcompact a more aggressive stance.
The cab-forward greenhouse features a steeply-raked windshield that flows back until, on hatchback models like our tester, it ends at a small spoiler above the rear window.
Styling bits aside, other changes on the 2018 model include an increase in length of 0.6 of an inch, a reduction in height of 0.2 of an inch, an increase in width of 0.2 of an inch, and an increase in wheelbase of 0.4 of an inch. At the same time, both the front and rear track have grown by 0.2 of an inch.
On the road
The Rio’s ride is tuned a bit for handling, so darting in and out of traffic and apexing corners is almost entertaining, even given the fact that it possesses a fairly simple torsion beam suspension setup in back. Revised springs and dampers for 2018 offer a smoother, more compliant ride, while the reworked engine offers a bit more power at lower revs for better around-town performance. Major bumps as well as minor road imperfections are handled with ease, the ride is quieter than the outgoing model, steering feel is improved, and four-wheel disc brakes are standard – a rarity for a subcompact. In addition, with an EPA-estimated 28 miles per gallon in the city, 37 on the highway, and 32 combined, the Rio holds its own against competitors from Honda, Nissan, Ford, and Chevrolet. Our own observed, vehicle-measured fuel economy was an excellent 34.3 miles per gallon in suburban driving.
At the same time passing at freeway speeds takes a bit of forethought, while steering feel is hampered by poor on-center feedback. Body lean is noticeable during cornering, with the narrow P185/65 R15 Continental ProContact tires contributing little to the effort – squealing in protest at the slightest attempt of aggressive driving maneuvers. In addition, the brakes – though decent – are more difficult to modulate than they should be with little initial bite to the pads, a manual transmission is only available on the stripped-down entry model, while hitting the "Sport" button - which alleviates the automatic's tendency to hunt for the right gear when accelerating or decelerating – results in a hit to fuel economy.
2018 Kia Rio new car prices begin at $14,795 (including destination) for an LX sedan (the only trim, by the way, available as either a sedan or hatchback) with a six-speed manual, and top out at $20,225 for a fully-optioned EX hatchback equipped with a six-speed automatic.
That top-of-the-line price matched that of our tester, a six-speed automatic-equipped EX hatchback finished in Urban Gray with a base price of $18,700. It was equipped with the $500 Launch Edition package consisting of red accent leather seating and interior trim, as well as a $130 set of carpeted floor mats. An $895 destination charge brought the manufacturer’s suggested retail price to the aforementioned $20,225.
The Bottom Line
So what do we glean from all this?
The bottom line is that despite a bland-looking sedan version, the absence of heated front seats on the only leather-trimmed model available - the Launch Edition - and a base model that isn't well-equipped, the Rio's quieter, comfortable interior, smoother ride, and excellent fuel economy make it a solid contender in the subcompact class and should continue to help Kia lure buyers away from the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta and even the Honda Fit.