But that’s a good thing.
Here’s a pro-tip for you: buy what you need, not what you can afford. If more people followed this mantra, the 2018 Rio would be Kia’s top-seller.
That’s not a bad thing, either. This pint-sized sedan is a well-rounded four-door with an impressive list of tech and safety equipment for a car costing under $20,000. It’s perfect for young people entering the workforce as well as folks who don’t buy into the belief that bigger is better.
One area where subcompact cars, especially sedans, excel is pricing, The Kia Rio has a base price of $13,900, which is more than the dollar-bin Nissan Versa at $12,310 but less than the dearly priced Chevy Sonic at $15,295. Don’t pay attention to those MSRPs, though, as dealers rarely stock base models of cheap cars like these.
No, you want to look at something like this tester, a 2018 Kia Rio EX, the highest of three trim levels that starts with the LX and S. The EX starts at $18,400 and this one has zero options save for $130 worth of carpeted floor mats, making its as-tested price just $19,425. As we’ll discuss below, the amount of standard features this car offers for less than 20 large is exceptional, earning it an equally exceptional score in this category.
The Rio is an attractive little sedan. Yes, its oversized headlights look a bit out of whack with its body, but its overall shape remains in proportion with larger sedans despite its smaller dimensions.
In fact, it looks adult and mature, not cartoonish like the Versa or boy racer like the Sonic. It’s what I’d drive if I wanted to be taken seriously but had seriously little money.
The interior reflects the same handsome design as the exterior. There’s a large 7-inch touchscreen perched atop the dash, some straightforward dials for the climate system (sorry, no automatic climate control at this price), and lots of buttons on the leather-wrapped steering wheel to control everything without taking your hands off the wheel.
The materials inside are of decent quality as well, considering the segment. There are leather accents on the gear shift and other touchpoints, and the seats are a nice dual-tone fabric with a geometric pattern. There’s nothing juvenile or gimmicky either, like loud colors or off-putting patterns.
Seating choices favor the driver and passenger in the front, where the majority of cabin space is devoted. The seats themselves are comfortable, but offer little support in turns for your body. A sport sedan this is not, so a focus on comfort over cornering prowess is to be expected.
Sound deadening and extra seals are some of the first things to go when product planners remove cost, so the Kia is, as you might expect, a little loud. Noise from the engine, the road, and the wind do enter the cabin at higher levels than in cars costing as little as a few thousand dollars more. That said, the volume is no worse than competitors in the same price range.
The level of technology and connectivity the Rio offers at such a reasonable price (all standard on the EX trim, mind you) is surprising. While there’s no navigation system, the Rio EX does give you a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The latter two systems offer navigation functionality that can be used in conjunction with the system’s screen, so you’ve got turn-by-turn directions at your fingertips.
Bluetooth connectivity is standard as well, as are two USB ports for charging and connecting your smartphone to the system. As mentioned earlier, the steering wheel is awash in controls for things like the radio, cruise control, and information display. Speaking of which, you get an information display between the gauges! It’s large, easy to read, and surprising to find in a vehicle this inexpensive.
Sorry, but you can’t expect sports sedan handling for less than $20K. The Rio has a comfortable and more controlled ride than some other subcompact sedans like the Versa, but enter a turn quickly and you’ll experience enough body roll and understeer to scare you off from such maneuvers going forward.
It’s of little consequence, though, because the Rio’s modest 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine only produces 130 horsepower and 119 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic, this pair keeps the Rio out of trouble by virtue of their limitations. That’s not to say the Rio is underpowered; there’s enough grunt here not to embarrass yourself when merging or even passing. Just don’t challenge anything larger than a Mini Cooper at a stop light.
While Kia doesn’t offer a full slate of active and passive advanced safety features for the Rio, it does offer some impressive equipment that you’re not going to find on most competitors.
The most impressive is automatic emergency braking and frontal collision warning, both of which are standard equipment on the EX model. It’s unusual to find these two advanced safety features on such an inexpensive car, so Kia deserves some credit for including them. That said, they’re relegated to the more expensive EX trim level only.
That’s about it, though, aside from a full smattering of airbags, anti-lock brakes, and other expected safety equipment. There are no blind-spot monitoring or rear cross traffic alert systems available at all, and no sensors to speak of. Again, that’s typical for this price range, though larger sedans do offer these features
One benefit of being a small car is that fuel efficiency comes easy. The Rio is quoted by the Environmental Protection Agency to achieve 28 miles per gallon in the city, 37 on the highway, and 32 combined. The Nissan Versa sedan, being even cheaper, lighter, and less powerful, is a bit more efficient, but I’d happily trade a few MPGs for the more substantial and mature Rio.