One of the most significant trends in the new-car market over the last couple of decades is the way upscale features have trickled down from luxury cars to more affordable models. The Kia Rio is a case in point, as the least expensive model from a brand known for catering to budget-oriented buyers, whose top-level EX Tech trim includes niceties like navigation, heated seats and steering wheel, leather seating, and automatic climate control.
That’s the car Kia gave us to test, and looking at the specifications before picking it up, we wondered how much we would have to temper our expectations of this handsome, not-quite-$24,000 car. It’s easy to think some of the Rio’s slick looks and upscale specs would rub off on the way it drives.
Initial impressions were good: The 1.6L engine idles so quietly, my wife asked if the car was a hybrid. It is not, however, and that notion was quickly dispelled when we put the motor’s 130 hp to work. It’s eager enough, but makes a lot of noise even in moderate acceleration, and the engine isn’t much to listen to.
Also noisy is the car’s suspension, which transmits a lot of clunking and clomping sounds into the cabin over rough pavement. We’d say that’s to be expected in a subcompact, but others in this class are better at isolating driver and passengers from the worst of that soundtrack. That said, this new Rio’s suspension did better at keeping our test car’s big and heavy 17-inch wheels planted on the road; versions of the last-generation Rio fitted with wheels like this tended to feel unsettled when driving on broken asphalt.
There’s more headroom in the Rio’s front seats than in many larger cars we’ve driven recently, a nice surprise in a small hatchback. Those riding in back will find vertical space is also good there, but legroom is predictably snug.
Upscale aspirations or not, fuel economy is still a major consideration in small cars, and our tester lived up to that with an average of 8.4 L/100 km in a week of city driving, just squeaking in under Kia’s estimate of 8.5.
We appreciate Kia’s efforts to keep the Rio’s secondary controls simple. The single-zone automatic climate controls are very tidy, located below the 7.0-inch touchscreen that houses the car’s straightforward UVO infotainment system and sporting a few redundant hard buttons to make its basic functions easier to use while the car is moving. UVO also supports the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integrated platforms as standard (these are still optional in some much more expensive cars).
Rio pricing starts at $14,795 for the sedan, and the hatchback comes in at $200 more. Our fully loaded EX Tech test vehicle carries an MSRP of $23,745, which includes the six-speed automatic transmission that comes in all trims save for the two least expensive.
That fully-loaded model is also the only way to get the Rio’s sole active safety feature, an automatic emergency-braking system that reacts to an obstruction in front of the car if the driver doesn’t. Despite the Rio’s upscale pretensions, the Honda Fit comes with a more comprehensive set of driver aids for just over $20,000, including lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist. Even the aging Toyota Yaris boasts more driver aids in a $16,000 base model that comes standard with automatic braking, lane-departure alert and automatic high-beam headlights.
About $21,000 will buy you a Rio EX, in which you have to go without automatic braking, but you get the same infotainment and climate controls, a sunroof, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.
Kia clearly feels the Rio is finally good enough to compete simply as a nicely made car, rather than having to load it with the most features for the least money. That old approach may have been a good way to get people to give the Rio a chance, but the company’s new philosophy will work better to keep those buyers coming back.