Kia Rio — Subcompact sophistication

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Over the years the Kia Rio has conjured up images of a very entry-level car that relates to first-time buyers, struggling college students, families seeking basic transportation in a second run-around-town car, and the budget side of rental fleets. This perception — while not completely on target — pretty much nailed the little subcompact.

Things have changed with the introduction of the fourth generation 2018 Rio. It can still be purchased on a budget in the neighborhood of 15 grand and it is still regarded as entry-level, but it has gained a considerable measure of sophistication with a conservatively handsome stance; a quality, quiet interior; a large amount of modern technology; a gas-sipping, but energetic engine; and an overall refined demeanor.

Rio comes in both sedan and hatchback models, with the hatchback offering decent cargo space — 32.8 cubic feet with the seats folded — as well as comfortable room for four passengers. We would vie for the more useful hatch, which offers more engaging styling — and that's the model we test drove.

Kia is at the forefront in design so it comes as no surprise that the new Rio is handsomely proportioned. The exterior is defined by crisp lines and smooth surfaces, providing a more sophisticated and sporty appearance over the previous generation. The front end wears the latest iteration of Kia’s "tiger-nose" grille, integrating newly designed headlights that are swept back for a more aggressive appearance.

Both hatchback and sedan are powered by a direct-injected inline four-cylinder engine that is largely a carryover from the previous model, but with eight fewer horsepower at 130 and four fewer pound-feet of torque at 119, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. For the very few manual transmission devotees left in the world, a six-speed manual is available in the base model only.

Don't fret the loss of horsepower because Kia has obviously worked some magic as evidenced by the Rio's energetic driving demeanor. It is a full second quicker from 0-to-60 than the outgoing car rated at a solid time of 8.5 seconds. We found it particularly energetic, doing a remarkable job merging into fast-moving freeway traffic. And the one time we called on the hatch to pass a slow-moving car on a ticklish stretch of two-lane blacktop, it very adequately answered the call.

At the same time, an owner on a strict budget will be pleased with the little car's gas mileage, which lived up to its EPA rating of 28 mpg city, 37 highway and 32 overall on regular gas.

Equally impressive is the quiet and comfortable cabin Kia has fashioned for the new Rio. The dashboard is of a conservatively handsome minimalist no-nonsense design. Horizontal lines running the width of the dashboard mimic the exterior design and give the cabin a wider and more expansive look and feel. You might call the layout function over form.

For the climate controls, the temperature and air direction are accessed through large dials with the fan speed in the middle. There are actually volume and tuning knobs for the audio system, and in our EX trim are steering-wheel controls for audio and cruise control. There is a center storage cubby with charging ports at the front for a phone. Large tachometer and speedometer dials flank a center information screen from which a digital speedometer can be dialed up.

On the tech front, the Rio offers an impressive list of features including Bluetooth hands-free functionality, a six-speaker stereo with satellite radio, and a rear-view camera system. Available on the top-tier EX trim are a seven-inch floating touchscreen interface, voice recognition infotainment system and smartphone integration through Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which are not typically found in the subcompact segment.

Standard safety in addition to the aforementioned rear-view camera consists of six airbags and traction and stability control. Available on the top trim level is forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking.

Storage behind the seats is a useable 17.4 cubic feet, four more than in the trunk of the Rio sedan. One slightly sour note is that rear-seat legroom is on the smallish side.

The Rio hatchback comes in three trim levels — LX, S and EX — starting at $15,095 for the manual transmission LX and $16,185 for the automatic. The top EX comes well equipped — no options needed — for $19,595 including destination. Note that navigation is only offered via a paired smartphone.

Kia has done a remarkable job with the new Rio successfully eliminating the economy car feel that infects so many subcompact models.

Base price: $15,095; as driven, $19,725
Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 130 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 119 foot-pounds @ 4,850 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 101.6 inches
Length: 160 inches
Curb weight: 2,714 pounds
Turning circle: 33.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 17.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 32.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 28 city, 37 highway, 32 combined
0-60: 8.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Fix, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa

The Good
• Quality, quiet interior
• Composed ride
• Good performance

The Bad
• Tight rear quarters

The Ugly
• Manual offered only on base model