Kia is on a mission to shed its reputation as a manufacturer of inexpensive automotive appliances of questionable quality. It began with the redesigned Optima in 2010, gained steam with the luxurious K900, and earlier this year they nailed down their new image with the introduction of the Stinger – a four-door sports car designed to compete with the BMW M3, Mercedes-AMG C63, Audi S4, and Cadillac ATS-V. But what about the Rio, Kia’s entry level car that when it was originally introduced, was the kind of car auto critics like Richard Hammond had to work hard to say nice things about it.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Rio has relinquished the title of America’s most affordable car, but still wears its economy car status proudly. Built on a completely new chassis for 2018, the Rio has a more rigid platform on which to hang all its components. This makes a big difference. The car feels tighter – more solid than previous generations – and the handling benefits from it. A redesigned McPherson strut front suspension and torsion bar rear beam axle uses more aggressive geometry to deliver a sportier ride, that isn’t too harsh for a car this small. Steering is precise and even at high speeds on a windy freeway, the car feels firmly planted to the pavement.
The 1.6 liter, fuel-injected 4-cylinder engine provides 130 horsepower. Peak horsepower comes at 6,300 RPM and torque spikes at 4,850 so you have to work well into the rev range, where things get a little buzzy, to access it. You won’t be setting any records at the drag strip, but that’s plenty to motivate the 2,714 pound car in real world driving. The base car has a manual transmission as standard equipment, but move up to the S or EX and the only choice you have is a 6-speed automatic. There are no paddle shifters, but you can take control by pulling the lever to the left. There are two drive modes – normal and sport – which affect the shift points and throttle mapping. Around town I found myself in sport mode 90% of the time as the Rio felt sluggish off the line otherwise. On the highway, even cruising above the speed limit I was able to achieve the window sticker’s 37 MPG promise.
Interior packaging is clever but spartan. The Rio has the most interior capacity of any car in its class, so there’s plenty of room for 4 adults assuming you’re not all over six feet tall. One of the reasons to choose the 5 Door version of the Rio is its expanded cargo area. The hatchback means you get 3.7 additional cubic feet for your luggage. There’s also the convenience of split folding rear seats so you can bring three people and a lot more cargo, or just take two and seemingly the contents of an efficiency apartment. The instrument panel and center stack have been redesigned to clearly present the essential information without a lot of frills. Materials are as you’d expect in an economy car, with hard molded plastic for the dash and door panels. Cloth adorns the supportive and comfortable front seats. This isn’t fancy, but it is well done.
Technology is one of Rio’s strong suits. All models offer Bluetooth connectivity for phones so you can talk hands-free. Once you leave the base model with its 5-inch display, you get a 7-inch touch screen that includes Kia’s UVO system which offers a number of convenience features including Apple Carplay and Android Auto integration. In addition, you also get a suite of apps and services that include vehicle diagnostics, roadside assist, 911 connect, a parking minder that not only helps you locate your car but also can be set to let you know when you have to plug the meter.
Rio may be small but it is safe. It’s solid body structure, full complement of airbags, and safety technologies – electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, and vehicle stability management – have earned the Rio a Top Safety Pick from IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given it a five-star rating. In its EX trim, my test car also had autonomous emergency braking, a backup camera with guidelines, and forward collision warning. It’s all wrapped in one of the better looking small car packages. The five-door hatch is really well proportioned and though unadorned with decorative trim bits, its curved surfaces and flowing lines elevate the exterior from becoming a generic econobox.
In short, Kia Rio buyers can expect a car that’s basic but fun to drive with just enough style to distinguish it amid its cookie-cutter competitors. Toss in a warranty that covers the powertrain for 10 years or 100,000 miles, and you have a pretty compelling package.
2018 Kia Rio 5-Door
Four-door, 5-passenger front-engine, front-wheel drive hatchback
Base price: $14,200
Price as tested: $19,595
Optional equipment: EX Package ($4,500) includes 15-inch alloy wheels, UVO with 7-inch touch screen, gloss black and chrome grille, fog lamps, body color mirrors and door handles, intermittent wipers, rear camera, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, 6-speaker stereo, 2 USB ports and one charge port, and embossed cloth seating; carpeted floor mats ($130); destination and delivery ($895)
Engine: 1.6 Liter 16-valve, double overhead cam, four cylinder gasoline engine with direct fuel injection
Power: 130 HP @ 6,300 RPM
Torque: 119 lb.-ft. @4,850 RPM
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift capabilities and sport mode
Curb weight: 2,714 pounds
0-60: 8.5 seconds
Top Speed: 121 mph
EPA MPG: 28 city, 37 highway, 32 combined