There’s an international star in our midst, but you probably wouldn’t know it to look at it.
The pint-sized Kia Rio – so small its nameplate is just two three-letter words – is one of the automaker’s most popular models, selling almost half a million units worldwide annually.
What started out as a low-buck econobox introduced in 2000 evolved into a sophisticated, European-tailored “supermini” in its fourth generation. Designed collaboratively by Kia teams in Germany and California, the Rio is a crisply drawn hatchback that has nothing to apologize for.
While small cars are no longer a hot commodity in North America, a minimalist subcompact that does everything well without breaking the bank may be just what some used-car shoppers are looking for to navigate a post-pandemic world.
Kia signaled it was getting serious about the Rio when it eschewed the previous car’s whimsical soft-taco profile for the more upright, rectilinear shape that seemingly takes its cues from the Volkswagen Polo, a 7/8-scale Golf that isn’t sold in North America.
The new Rio, introduced in 2017 as an early 2018 model, is 1.5 centimetres longer and a hair wider than its predecessor, and was marketed here as a five-door hatchback and four-door sedan initially. The usual front-drive architecture is present and accounted for: MacPherson-strut front suspension and a torsion beam at the rear, with a structure that’s been fortified with 51 per cent high-strength steel, up from 33 per cent previously.
The cabin is surprisingly handsome and free of gimmicks. Its simple materials look good, if a little hard to the touch. Assembly quality is above reproach and the switchgear clicks and moves with VW-like precision. The climate controls are straightforward with a classic three-dial array that’s easy to regulate (the term foolproof comes to mind).
The seats are firm, but well-formed and supportive with decent bolstering. The lack of lumbar adjustment makes it a little less comfortable on longer drives. The split-folding rear bench can accommodate three for short durations – although legroom is in short supply – and the cargo space behind them is reasonably deep and usefully shaped.
The Rio is a bit of a time machine, reminding us when some things were operated by hand. There are still people around who appreciate simplicity.
“I like the roll-up windows – after replacing an automatic window motor I vowed never to have them again,” posted the owner of a base-model Rio. “Do not like all the bell and whistles that are on the newer models coming out.”
One concession to modern life is Kia’s updated UVO Connect II touchscreen infotainment system, which handles smartphone mirroring wirelessly even in lower-spec models, recognizing that a lot of younger drivers will gravitate to the Rio. The base model got a non-UVO 5-inch display screen.
Motivating the wee Kia is a single available engine, a direct-injected 1.6-litre DOHC four-cylinder making 130 horsepower and 119 lb-ft of torque, tied to either a six-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed automatic. Kudos to Kia for sticking with a durable, conventional automatic transmission longer than most manufacturers.
Being a subcompact, crash safety is often an important consideration for shoppers. The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the 2018 Rio a Top Safety Pick, although with only an “Acceptable” score in the passenger-side small overlap test that mimics impact with a stationary object or oncoming car. Still, the Rio’s robust construction is commendable in such a small vehicle.
A new 1.6-litre engine was introduced for 2020, tuned to deliver 10 per cent better fuel efficiency, but at the cost of less power, making 120 horsepower (down 10 hp) and 113 pound-feet of torque (down six lb-ft). The automatic tranny is now a continuously variable transmission (CVT), replacing the previous six-speed slushbox. It was inevitable.
Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and the 7-inch touchscreen became standard issue across the model range in 2020. Languid sales of the four-door sedan saw it disappear from Canadian dealers’ lots last year, making the Rio strictly a hatchback proposition here.
Driving the Rio is less punishment than one might expect of a low-budget roller. The ride is firm at times around town, especially when absorbing bigger bumps, feeling a little under-isolated over rougher asphalt. Yet at higher speeds that firmness makes for good body control. The steering is precise and nicely weighted. It’s hard to find fault with the care Kia has taken in managing the dynamics.
“It’s so fun to drive; it feels surprisingly sporty and nimble and the steering is a dream,” one enthusiastic owner posted online, noting that his previous car was a BMW 328. Weighing as little as 1,230 kg, the Rio is a reminder that lightweight cars can be entertaining by nature.
Just don’t count on the 1.6-litre four banger to bring the joy. Zero to 97 km/h comes up in 8.7 seconds with the automatic, while the manual gearbox might shave a half-second off that time. The Rio feels zippy enough around town but runs out of steam quickly with such little torque on tap. When pushed, the engine gets noisy and sounds strained. Otherwise, the Rio is a quiet subcompact, belying its econobox billing.
Fuel economy is good for its class; owners typically report getting up to 40 mpg (7 litres/100 km) in city/suburban driving, while highway cruising can yield 50 mpg (5.7 litres/100 km) with a light foot. Drivers get hybrid-like numbers without the expense of hybrid technology.
Rio drivers praise their cars for their solid construction, hatchback utility, nimble handling, comfy seats and low ownership costs. One remarked that their car was the “most non-compact car I have ever owned,” an indication that it’s so much more than a cheap commuter module. Strong sales in other parts of the world are evidence this “supermini” can check most shoppers’ boxes – even if many North Americans have other priorities.
On the downside, the Rio can feel a little stripped in basic form (window cranks are museum relics worthy of the Smithsonian), the bigger sedan actually provides less useable room inside, and the car’s commendably light weight can make it a handful on windy days on the expressway, according to Rio pilots.
The fourth-generation Rio has a good reputation for reliability. In fact, we were hard-pressed to find mechanical complaints of any kind online. Beyond the issue of susceptibility to crosswinds, a somewhat common gripe has to do with the car’s Korean tires, which are prone to punctures and outright failures. Used buyers can upgrade to premium-brand tires that are more durable and ride quieter on the highway.
Beyond that, a few owners have had issues with the infotainment screen going blank, the clutch in manual-transmission models may wear quicker than expected, and some cars may not be equipped with a compact spare tire (Kia dealers are happy to sell you one at considerable cost). Being direct-injected, the engine might need cleaning at high mileage to remove fuel residue.
In a market that’s seen the demise of affordable subcompacts such as the Chevrolet Sonic and Nissan Micra, it’s nice to know Kia is still keen to fly the econobox flag. The fact that the Euro-flavoured Rio is still around and offering generous dollops of refinement, sophistication and value-laden content is rich icing on the cake.