Yes, it’s only $14,000, but the term “entry-level” takes on a new meaning for the fourth-generation Kia Rio. Kia views the Rio as 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 compelling argument for this theory.
Once again available as a four-door sedan or hatchback, the new Rio is longer, lower, and wider than its predecessor. Unlike the Ford Fiesta sedan, which looks like it’s an awkward teen trying on its older brother’s duds, the Rio has some proportional fashion sense. Hints of Optima grace the lines of the sheetmetal, and the signature Kia grille up front flows nicely across the prow and seamlessly into the headlights. On the sedan, the taillights echo the K900 for a look that’s more serious and mature than the previous model. The hatch goes for some sculpting action in the rear, though it’s not as dramatic as, say, the extroverted haunches of the Honda Fit. Overall, the Rio is a small car that’s comfortable in its own skin.
The 1.6-liter four-cylinder carries over from the last generation, down 8 horsepower and 4 lb-ft of torque from last year for a total of 130 hp and 119 lb-ft. But what the Rio lost in power it has gained in fuel efficiency; both hatch and sedan versions boast figures of 28/37/32 mpg city/highway/combined with the six-speed automatic, and the six-speed manual nabs 1 additional mpg in the city. Kudos to Kia for keeping a manual in the mix; it’s too bad it’s not available on higher trim levels. Revised motor mounts make the engine practically silent at idle—so quiet, in fact, that I was convinced it had a start/stop feature (it doesn’t).
The six-speed automatic transmission is well-matched to the engine, making the most of the available power at any given time. It’s quick to kick down a gear on even the slightest inclines, and a prod of the throttle will even spur a second downshift, though the result is mostly angry buzzing and not forward thrust. If you’re really looking to row your own gears, go for the base LX model, which offers up a standard six-speed manual transmission. Going that route, however, means you’ll have to roll down your own windows and the top-level EX’s rear discs are swapped out for drums. Those brakes on the EX have an eager early bite, which remain progressive the entire length of travel. Also standard on the EX is a camera-based autonomous emergency braking system capable of slowing the car all the way to a full stop if necessary.
Out on the road, it’s clear Kia’s engineers set out to create a driving experience that belies the Rio’s low price. The ride provided by the front MacPherson struts and twist-beam axle out back is firm and supple, with no hint of sogginess. It might not match the verve of the aptly named Fit, but it provides a much more involved driving experience than either the Nissan Versa or Toyota Yaris. Nicely damped transitions give it a secure feeling on the rain-soaked roads outside Baltimore.
That’s especially impressive, given the diminutive 185-65/15 tire setup that’s standard across all trim levels, with the EX featuring alloy wheels. Larger 17-inch wheels are offered in Europe, but they’re not currently planned for the U.S. Given the quality of some of the streets here, that might not be such a bad thing.
As far as entertainment goes, LX and S models feature MP3 and satellite capability playing through four speakers all controlled through a 5.0-inch display. The EX kicks it up to a 7.0-inch touchscreen featuring Kia’s UVO3 Infotainment system, which adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as a pair of tweeters in the dash. There’s also an upgraded 3.5-inch display tucked into the instrument panel, which will remind your rambunctious kids that it’s time to come home. Thanks, programmable curfew alert.
It’s important to note, however, that the UVO3 system won’t include built-in navigation, instead utilizing the maps integrated with your smartphone. It’s a great setup as long as you’re within cell service. But once my test drive takes me outside the city limits of Baltimore, I’m surrounded by the boonies pretty quickly. Here, cell towers are few and far between, revealing a limitation of Apple CarPlay. With no data available, I watch the map dissolve into a sea of grid lines, rendering navigation useless. If you frequently venture into less-populated areas, you might want to bring along a map or use Android Auto, which allows offline map downloads.
At least the interior is a nice place to spend time even if you’re lost out there in the wilderness. Controls are logically laid out, and the EX provides a bold punch of color with a swanky red accent leather package as an available option. It manages to be tasteful than gauche, and it’s the only splash of spice of an otherwise straightforward palette. Even the exterior colors paint a decidedly muted picture—if you’re looking for something more extroverted, Honda will sell you a Fit in Orange Fury, or you can spec out a Chevy Sonic in Kinetic Blue. The most adventurous color in the Rio lineup is a nice shade of green.
As the entry-level car in Kia’s lineup, the Rio carries an appropriately entry-level price: $13,990 for a base LX sedan. Springing for the hatch will set you back $14,290, and the automatic transmission adds $1,000 to either body style. Expect to pay around 18 grand for a fully loaded EX model, though Kia says the majority of buyers will opt for the mid-grade S, which comes with remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, power windows, and more.
With the 2018 Rio, Kia digs under the sheetmetal to sharpen and strengthen its small car reflexes while making the overall ride quieter, tighter, and more refined. So is the Rio now all grown up? Not really. Instead, the Rio embraces its entry-level status—with the promise that something bigger and better awaits at the Kia dealership when the time comes.