With fuel prices stable, small cars aren’t flying out of showroom the way they used to, but if you’re thinking small, the Kia Rio offers a solid value proposition. In fact, considered against the likes of the Toyota Yaris, it is downright sporty.
The Rio is a value-first subcompact, available as a sedan or hatchback, and that formula has proven to be a winning one for Kia. As the brand’s best-selling car in 2017, the newly-redesigned 2018 Rio had big shoes to fill, and we mean that metaphorically. Physically, it’s a very small car.
In all the ways that count, Kia succeeded in building a worthy follow up to the successful previous-gen Rio. I spent a week in the Rio EX hatchback and came away from the experience mostly convinced. My top-trimmed test car included all that the Rio has to offer: leather seating and an infotainment unit with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, it isn’t, but at under $19,000 fully loaded, the Rio EX hatchback makes the most of what it does offer. At the price, it will be an enticing purchase for many people.
Kia has worked to continuously improve its small car designs in recent years (I’ll ignore the Soul – for now), especially its hatchbacks. Like the Niro we tested a few months back, the Rio is well-proportioned and doesn’t go overboard with aggressive styling.
The Rio’s look is all party up front, with Kia’s signature “clenched teeth” grille shape above the bumper and a large open grille below. Things head toward business in the back, with a standard hatchback profile completing the look.
Inside, the Kia Rio EX is accented with red stitching and panels throughout. It’s a bold look in an otherwise unremarkable cabin. The infotainment screen is placed high and well within reach, and other controls are easily navigated and intuitive.
The Rio’s 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine won’t get pulses racing, but it does a fine job at pushing the little hatchback into fun-to-drive territory. The engine is quiet and feels more refined than expected, only feeling strained when trying to reach highway speeds or merge quickly into traffic. The six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and without hesitation. Fuel economy for the Rio four-door
is 28 mpg city / 37 mpg highway / 32 mpg combined.
The ride is controlled and comfortable, and even though most of our roads here in Maine are being paved to prepare for the winter plow party, the car never felt jittery or out of control on the rougher parts of the pavement. People with kids will appreciate the car’s ability to shuffle its way across a bumpy construction site without disrupting nap time.
There’s not enough room in this review to preach on the need to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities in every vehicle with a screen (nearly all vehicles have one now, thanks to backup camera requirements). The Kia UVO system found in the Rio has these features, and it raises the tech bar for other “cheap cars.” The Kia Rio EX has a seven-inch touchscreen that is easily visible in all light conditions, fast, responsive, and simple to use. Since the cabin is so small, the upgraded six-speaker audio system doesn’t struggle to be heard, though the overall quality suffers from some road noise and lack of overall sound deadening in the car.
Kia has some neat, though gimmicky, tricks up its sleeve with the UVO infotainment unit. With a connected smartphone app, owners can check vehicle status, control and monitor teen drivers, and interact with a “virtual” Rio dashboard on their phones. With kids under 10 and no desire to text with my car, I’m not the target audience here.
Forward collision warnings and autonomous emergency braking are also included in the EX trim level – adding peace of mind and a few extra warning beeps while parking in a tight driveway.
When judged in the right context as a budget-friendly commuter car, the Kia Rio is small but comfortable. It feels bigger than it looks, and the interior is set up to be more than tolerable on longer drives. On paper, the Kia Rio falls short of competitors’ leg- and headroom, like the Nissan Versa and Chevrolet Spark, but real-world usability doesn’t take a big hit.
The black and red leather seats in my Rio test car were far more stylish than supportive, but weren’t unbearable by any standards. There’s enough padding and the adjustment levels are acceptable, but the seats are seriously lacking shape – there’s enough flat real estate in the front seats to start a farm. Topography aside, there’s a comfortable driving position for people of various sizes. My five-foot tall wife complained of a center armrest that was too far back when her seat was adjusted properly, but otherwise found visibility and ergonomics acceptable.
Back seat passengers, in our case a two- and five-year old, will find headroom to be compromised greatly by the sloped roof. This is mostly a problem for full-sized people, but for our family turned the buckling and unbuckling of car seat latches into a contortion act for our kids. I can only apologize for bumped heads so many times before I feel guilty.
With a few edits, the Kia Rio could be a wonderful car. It’s already very good, and it challenges other automakers to bump up the standards for their budget-class vehicles. I use the words “set your expectations accordingly” a lot, but they didn’t have to be lowered all that much to like the Rio’s value proposition and to see that it’s worth more than a casual look for single buyers and young families with one kid or a dog. While other companies are running out of the car market, Kia has made a meaningful investment in the segment, and with cars like the Rio it really shows.