We’ve often said it’s more interesting to see how a manufacturer makes their inexpensive cars vs. the big-ticket items. We recently tested the Genesis G80 Sport, one of the most lux of the Kia/Hyundai/Genesis family, and came away mightily impressed. How about the other end of the spectrum, Kia Rio?
Can the littlest Kia win us over?
Welcome to the Rodney Dangerfield section of the auto market. It’s hard to get any respect. The little Rio is the cheapest car K-H-G sells in the U.S., and while the brand has made huge strides, especially in the last 10 years, it’s a tough sell in the bargain-basement section of the market, where margins are razor-thin, and the temptation of nice CPO used vehicles loom large in buyer’s hearts.
Well, the Rio may be small, but it doesn’t look cheap. In fact, it’s a handsome little vehicle. The Rio is offered in 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback (like our tester), And like other Kia models, it has a distinctively European look to it – rounded lines, crisp dimensions, and a high-quality look. Our tester in Urban Gray with its 15-inch basket-weave alloy wheels, would look just as much at home in Barcelona, Milan, or Munich, as the drive-thru of Taco Bell.
Step right up.
The interior also feels modern – and a whole lot nicer than you might expect. Part of this was due to our tester being the top of the line EX model, and also included the EX Launch Edition Package. Even so, we weren’t prepared for what greeted us – a handsome two-tone interior, with leather seats, red accents on the dash, door trim and seats, and instrumentation that looks like it came out of an Audi. Or at least, an Optima.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel (with tilt and telescope) features all the remote switches you’d ever need ,and combined with the leather-wrapped shift knob, you feel like you’re in an expensive vehicle.
Round analog gauges flank a 3.5-inch driver information/trip computer display, and on our EX trim model, the center stack features a generously sized 7-inch touchscreen, that also houses the rear view camera. The Rio employs Kia’s UVO info-tainment system, and it’s one of the best, simple and easy to use. To make sure you’re connected at all times, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, streaming Bluetooth and Siri accessibility are all included as well.
Underneath the display is an a/c heating control system that looks suspiciously like a game controller. Don’t let the kids try to snap it out!
We found the front seats supportive and comfortable, but the vehicle’s overall length means rear seat legroom is tight. OK for adults, for short trips. The 60/40 split folding rear seats give plenty of cargo room for hauling gear – although the Honda Fit is still the king of rear seat/cargo area room and flexibility in this class.
Those looking at the new super-small SUV’s should give the Rio a look. It might be all the room you really need.
Penalty box or plush ride?
The biggest surprise from the Rio are its excellent road manners. It starts with a 1.6-liter, direct injection four cylinder that Kia has refined from the previous model. Punching out a reasonable 130 hp and 119 lb-ft of torque, and combined with a standard 6-speed automatic on the EX, it is surprisingly smooth and quiet. Even better, when we toggled over to the Sport mode, it’s very peppy, with strong around-town acceleration, and good merging performance for the freeway.
It’s also a thrifty little guy, with 28/37 EPA estimates city and highway. Positively flogging the little Rio, we still easily managed 28 mpg. A little restraint and we could easily have met the EPA’s 32 mpg combined estimate.
And being restrained would be easy. The ride is surprisingly supple for a short wheelbase car, and it is quiet and solid, even at freeway speeds. Around town, the tight dimensions and zippy performance make it an excellent car to duke it out in the urban commute. Adding to the confidence, our tester also featured standard Autonomous Emergency Braking – a nice surprise in a car in this size/price range.
Can you afford to go to Rio?
That depends on how you want to fly. If you go full-on, loaded, like our tester, on top of the $18,700 base price, you’ll pop $600 for the launch edition (with that red/black leather interior we love), $130 for carpeted floor mats, and $895 for delivery.
As delivered we’re looking at $20,225. Gulp.
That puts the little Rio in some expensive company especially in the segment above it. But in all fairness, while we appreciated Kia putting us in such a nice ride, most buyers in this segment are watching their budgets, and will opt for the lower level trims. And there’s plenty of good news there as well.
The LX model starts at $14,200, and includes air conditioning. A nice little urban runabout and it comes standard with a 6-speed manual for max efficiency.
We’d be more tempted by the mid-level S, which starts at $16,400 and gives you goodies like steering wheel remote, Bluetooth, cruise control, remote keyless entry, rear view monitor, power windows, locks and a 6-speaker audio system. It also features the 6-speed automatic as standard. All-in, it’s a strong value.
All Rio models have that one little ace they like to throw down – an impressive 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty, along with a 5-year/60,000 mile basic warranty and roadside assistance. That makes the kind of small car that can happily be handed down to other family members, or just kept for a long time for yourself.
Oh, and if for some reason you don’t want a hatchback, the Rio 4-door sedan runs about $300 less than the 5-door.
OK, call us impressed. Every recent Kia we’ve driven has been a fine vehicle. We had a blast in the turbo Soul!, found an admirable blend of performance and efficiency in the Niro hybrid, enjoyed the Sportage SUV and plush Sedona minivan.
The Rio, brings everything we like about the other Kia models, and puts it in a bite-size, affordable, and surprisingly capable and refined package.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.