Still Cheap, Now Chic
When Kia introduced the little 96-horsepower Kia Rio sedan in 2000, it was at the bottom of the food chain and sold largely on its used-car price of $9,045—the lowest new car priced car in America. Since then, the Rio has worked its way upward, shrugging off questionable quality and dowdy looks, replacing them with high marks for reliability and visual appeal. The one thing the Rio hasn’t changed is—it is still one of the least-expensive cars sold in the U.S.
For 2018 Kia has a new Rio. It is longer, lower, and wider than its predecessor. Once again, it’s available as a four-door sedan or hatchback. Like Toyota in the 1990s, Kia believes the Rio is a stepping-stone, hoping that buyers will like its little car so much that they’ll trade up as their needs and families grow. The 2018 Rio makes a strong argument for this stance.
In addition to three regular trim levels—LX, S, and EX—the new Rio also can be had as a loaded Launch Edition that will be available through the 2018 model year. All Rio trims are available in both sedan or hatchback body styles, with the LX sedan starting at $13,990 and the LX hatch at $14,290, both with manual transmissions, making it one of the least-expensive cars available today. Choosing the six-speed automatic adds $1,000.
Step up to the S, and the auto transmission is standard for the front-wheel drive cars, the sticker price jumps to a
modest $16,000. The top-line EX trim is priced at $18,000, also with the six-speed automatic. The EX Launch Edition Package adds $500.
The new Rio is powered by a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter gasoline direct-injected four-cylinder engine pumping out 130 horsepower and 119 pounds-feet of torque. And with EPA fuel economy figures of 28 mpg city/37 highway/32 combined for the automatic hatchback and sedan, the new Rio is a fuel-sipper without resorting to expensive hybrid technology. As you’ll hear later, it looks like it can join our 40 MPG Club based on real-world numbers.
I have never beeen able to understand America’s peculiar preference for sedans. With the Rio, the new styling has more proportional fashion sense on the hatchback than on the sedan, not to mention the increased cargo space of the hatch. The wheels have been pushed out toward the corners of the car, and Kia invested a lot of time into making the front and rear ends of the car appear wider and more planted.
Hints of the new Optima grace the lines of the sheet metal, with the signature Kia “tiger nose” grill flows nicely across the front and seamlessly into the cat’s-eye headlights. Borrowed from the Niro crossover, the grill is taller and more upright now. The hatchback carries a character line around back with a crease across the back window.
For a pint-sized car, the 2018 Kia Rio’s relatively roomy interior looks more upscale than you would expect in this size and price category. The cabin uses plenty of soft-touch plastics and a modern infotainment system. A new, well-sculpted dash design looks expensive and entertaining at the same time. Kia’s UVO3 infotainment system offers voice recognition and smartphone integration for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with five-inch and seven-inch
screen sizes, depending on trim. There’s also an upgraded 3.5-inch display tucked into the instrument panel, which will remind your teenage drivers that it’s time to come home, thanks to a programmable curfew alert. Controls to adjust temperature and the stereo are logically placed and within easy reach. Steering-wheel-mounted controls are standard.
Ample front seats and an airy cabin offer enough space for people sized just on the small side of football linemen. However, reasonably comfortable rear seat bottoms and seatbacks are best suited to children and small adults given the dearth of legroom. For utility, the Rio hatch offers 17.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats in their upright and locked positions; that grows to 32.5 feet with the seats folded down.
In favor of cost efficiencies, the 2018 Kia Rio is devoid of options. Without the ability to add features, Rio shoppers will want to choose their trim level wisely. The LX retains some proper cheap-car features like black door handles, manually adjustable side mirrors and manual windows—that’s how you keep the price low. But even the lower trims come equipped with some pretty solid features. SiriusXM satellite radio is in every single trim, but Bluetooth doesn’t pop up until S. A backup camera is standard on the S and EX. Every trim receives a USB port, with the S and EX getting a second port for the rear seats.
You will need CarPlay and Android Auto in this car, though, because that’s the only way to get navigation. Kia deliberately did not include an embedded navigation option, preferring instead to keep costs down by relying on drivers’ or passengers’ phones.
The Kia Rio is one of the least expensive cars to offer Autonomous Emergency Braking. There’s also a long list of safety features that are standard across the board including six airbags, hill-start assist and vehicle-stability.
Behind the Steering Wheel
Our test drive car was an EX with Launch Edition Package that featured red accented leather seats and trim. The sticker price that included carpeted floor mats and $895 destination charges totaled $20,225.
The rear glass filled the mirror, the rear-pillar blind spots were small and the front-pillars proved relatively thin, too. Combined with a low-slung hood and dashboard, forward visibility was as good as it gets. There was a splash of red trim along the dashboard, extending into the door panels. Our EX had optional leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and they felt great.
The Rio used every ounce of the engine’s 130 horsepower, and did fine accelerating onto the freeway. There wasn’t a ton of power, but the benefit was better fuel economy as evidenced in 40.3-mpg after driving 237 miles. At idle, the engine was nearly silent. It was a little buzzy as the revs climbed, but was no better or worse than competitors’ engines. On the highway, wind and tire noise were present, but in very manageable amounts. The six-speed automatic transmission was well-matched to the engine, making the most of the available power at any given time.
In spirited driving, the suspension setup—struts up front with a torsion beam at the rear—was right on. It was firm and supple, with no hint of sogginess. The small hatch rolled over concrete and asphalt without much audio drama, and did a good job of absorbing bumps and potholes. Steering was linear and the Rio didn’t protest when aimed down a twisty back road. Surprising was how well the Rio kept body roll in check.
In the Marketplace
Although the small-car market has slowed with gas remaining cheap and the mass migration to crossover/SUVs, the 2018 Kia Rio is in a fiercely competitive segment. It faces rivals such as the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Mitsubishi Mirage and Toyota Yaris. The new Rio is ready to take them on, bolstered by modern styling, an attractive and quiet interior, a comfortable ride and an expansive array of safety features. Even with its minimal equipment, the base Rio LX strikes me as highly likely to draw buyers looking for an inexpensive small car.
And then there’s the bonus feature–Rio’s 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. With that, Kia has created a car that will serve buyers who will step up the Kia lineup as their families grow.
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