Translated from Spanish the Kia Rio means “Kia River.” A better name would be Kia “Alegre,” which translates into frisky, merry, or joyful. It even could qualify as a Kia “Perrillo,” or puppy. That’s the sense you get chasing around in this new compact car, which comes as a four-door hatchback or conventional four-door sedan. It is entertaining and eager to please, though with a few faults, just like any puppy.
As South Korea’s Kia has evolved into a full-line manufacturer of cars, crossover sport utility vehicles, and even a minivan, the Rio hasn’t received much attention. But it is the company’s top-seller worldwide, owing to its low price, tidy dimensions, and good fuel economy.
In the U.S., the Rio competes against an array of subcompact and compact economy cars: Chevrolet Spark and Sonic, Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris and iA, Nissan Versa, Fiat 500, Mitsubishi Mirage, and Mini Cooper.
The fourth-generation Rio presents new styling, an improved 130-horsepower engine with 119 lb.-ft. of torque, new suspension system tuning, and a choice of a 6-speed automatic transmission or a 6-speed manual gearbox.
Unfortunately, for enthusiasts who might want the stick shift, it is only available on the base LX trim level, which has a sticker price of just $14,795. In a rarity deserving of a standing ovation, all Rio trim levels come standard with SXM satellite radio. Economy cars from other manufacturers require the buyer to buy a more expensive version simply to get SXM. There’s no navigation system but you can run one through your smartphone with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
I drove the 2018 Rio top-line EX four-door hatchback with the six-speed automatic transmission. With its base price of $19,595 and a special launch edition price of $20,095, which included two-tone black-and-red leather upholstery, the Rio EX hatchback was uncommonly well equipped for a compact economy car.
Though its standard upholstery is a handsome embossed cloth – preferred by many, including this reviewer – a leather package is optional for EX. Also, part of the EX package is full safety equipment with autonomous emergency braking, 7-inch center screen with infotainment functions and a rear camera, 15-inch alloy wheels, tilt and telescoping steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel, tire pressure monitoring, and power windows with one-touch up and down on the driver’s side.
In urban traffic, the Rio EX has a frisky personality, quick moves, and, with its strong powertrain, a capability to easily pop through gaps in traffic. With four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, it also stops with authority. The LX and S trim levels have front disc brakes and drum brakes on the rear wheels.
Driving at high speeds on freeways is another matter. Though the tested Rio had no trouble merging from ramps and keeping up with traffic, the steering had a loose feel with a tendency to wander, requiring frequent steering corrections. That could become tiring on a long trip.
The Rio hatchback had little difficulty tracking on curving roads. It obviously is no sports car but its steering and suspension system combine to hold a decent line around corners as long – as you don’t move too fast. At the same time, the ride is not punishing except on very rough roads.
Inside, it provides decent comfort for four people, though it actually offers seatbelts for five. The front seats deliver long-distance support and the back seats offer ample headroom, though knee room is in short supply. As with most cars, the center-rear seat is an unyielding, uncomfortable cushion.
Kia has plenty of decent cars for the masses. Rio is worth checking into for the value it provides.