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2018 Kia Rio First Drive | Keep compact and carry on

When Kia announced that it would bring the fourth-generation Rio to the United States, we were rather surprised. The subcompact segment in which it competes isn’t exactly hot here, and small cars have tight profit margins. It makes more sense to concentrate on tiny crossovers that are more popular and can sell for more cash. Ford seems to be taking this tack with the impending introduction of the EcoSport, and the delayed introduction of the new Fiesta in America. Even Kia itself has experienced success with sub-compact crossovers with the Soul.

Kia seems determined to stick with the segment, though. A Kia representative told us that, even though the U.S. subcompact market may not be booming, it still accounts for about 500,000 cars a year. Plus, if any manufacturers leave the segment, that’s an opportunity to pick up some conquest sales. He also said that regardless of the size of the market, Kia still sees a portion of the car-buying public that will always want a budget subcompact, and that it can be a good introduction to the brand. So with that in mind, is the Kia Rio a good introduction to the Korean car company?

In general, yes, and we were introduced to it in and around Baltimore, Md., where we were able to try out a top-level Kia Rio EX on everything from cobblestone streets to winding country lanes. And at first glance, the Rio is a handsome little machine. While the previous generation was round and bubbly, the new model looks more aggressive, and has a shape more akin to larger vehicles. Thank the longer, more horizontal grille, slender, swept-back headlights, lower belt line, large lower grille and jutting lip. The hatchback is the more attractive version of the car, but the sedan is far from ugly, which is no small feat for a subcompact.

Compared with the European version of the Rio, and even the previous-generation model, though, there are visual differences that reveal the fourth-generation U.S.-spec Rio has succumbed to cost-cutting measures. The first tipoff is the wheels. The alloys on the Rio EX, the only model with alloy wheels, are a minuscule 15 inches. Though admittedly adorable, and probably a boon to ride quality, they do look disappointing when compared to the available 17-inch units on the European model, or even those on the old Rio. The headlights and taillights are plain and simple, too. The headlights are reflector halogen lamps, and the taillights and turn signals use incandescent bulbs. The European version has available projector lamps and have LED accents that give it a thoroughly modern look. The basic lamps on our version look out of date.

Inside, the Rio achieves greater parity with its overseas twin. Overall, the interiors are identical, and there’s no question that this is an affordable car. Everything is plastic, mostly of a hard variety. However, the textures are varied and quite attractive. In fact, the leatherette-textured plastic on the dash and doors are pretty convincing until you touch them. The controls are wonderfully easy to use, too. The climate control consists of your basic three dials with buttons for defrost and A/C. The touchscreen infotainment is fairly simple, too, and it comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. All of the buttons and switches feel weighty and solid as well. Interestingly, though, navigation is not an option anymore. Instead, users will have to use their phones’ map apps to find their way. Additionally, you’ll want to avoid the base model LX due to a dearth of features. It goes without power windows, cruise control, a telescoping steering wheel, split folding rear seat, adjustable headrests, Bluetooth, or keyless entry. None of these are available as options either. In fact, the only option available on any Rio is the red leather accent package on the top-level EX. The lack of modern conveniences also makes it that much more disappointing that the LX is the only model with a manual transmission.

The EX model we were in featured soft cloth upholstery with hexagonal embossed designs to spruce them up. The front seats themselves were somewhat flat, but the thick, soft cushions made up for the lack of shape. It was a breeze to find a comfortable driving position as well, thanks to the six-way adjustable driver’s seat, and the EX’s tilt and telescoping steering wheel. A tall driver can actually sit very low in the Rio if you want. Of course, most people will probably prefer raising the seat up. Regardless, you’ll find plenty of head and legroom up front. The rear seats were the same way, though leg and knee room is pretty tight. Fortunately there’s plenty of space for feet beneath the front seats. As for cargo room, the hatchback has picked up an extra 2.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats for a total of 17.4. With the rear seats folded, there’s room for 32.8 cubic feet of stuff. The sedan’s cargo capacity remains the same as the previous model at 13.7 cubic feet. But, although bigger than the old Rio, the hatch still has less space than the Chevy Sonic, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa Note, Mitsubishi Mirage and the Toyota Yaris hatchback. The sedan has more cargo space than the Mitsubishi Mirage G4, Ford Fiesta sedan and Toyota Yaris iA, though.

One area where the Rio clearly hasn’t suffered from cost-cutting or generally being a cheap car is in the driving experience. The first thing that impressed was the ride quality, thanks to a starting point on the cobblestone streets in front of the hotel. The Rio doesn’t make bumps vanish the way a Jaguar does, and in fact it has a fairly firm ride, but its dampers do exactly what they’re supposed to: dampen bumps. You can clearly feel them, but you aren’t being pummeled into submission. The car stays impressively composed, too. The body doesn’t float or wallow, nor does it shimmy and shake. It feels genuinely solid and secure.

The tradeoff of having a ride on the firm side is that the Rio is an able handler. We won’t quite call it sporty, but the little car exhibited very little body lean, and again, bumps didn’t upset it, which made it easy to corner confidently. The accurate steering provides a confidence boost, too. Add to it good weight and a lack of nervousness, and you have one of the better helms in the segment. It would be nice if the car was a bit more eager on turn-in and the steering a bit quicker, but for average drivers it should be more than adequate.

The brakes were admirable as well. The EX model we drove featured four-wheel disc brakes, and they seemed to have plenty of stopping power. The brake pedal is a highlight. It feels firm and makes it easy to dial in just the right amount of brake pressure. Bear in mind we can only speak for the EX. The LX and S trim levels feature rear drum brakes, a downgrade from the previous generation. Still, others in the segment continue to use rear drums, such as the Chevrolet Sonic, so they’re likely adequate, but it’s disappointing to see the new model take a step backward.

As for the engine and transmission, the Rio is OK. The little four-cylinder actually makes 8 fewer horsepower and 4 pound-feet of torque fewer than its predecessor. According to Kia, the tradeoff is more power and torque low in the rev band. This is evident looking at a graph of the power and torque, though it didn’t feel much better or worse from behind the wheel. In fact, the power feels just barely adequate. It has enough power to scoot about town, and it has just enough to avoid feeling dangerous when going up an onramp or attempting a pass, but it never feels brisk. The engine also is fairly quiet at low rpm and cruising speeds, but becomes buzzy and loud when wound up.

The transmission firmly sits in the OK camp, too. We only had an opportunity to drive the automatic, which is a traditional six-speed. It shifts smoothly, and it’s rather smart about picking gears when demanding more acceleration. The shifts themselves are a tad sluggish though, which is particularly evident in manual mode. It’s a shame Kia didn’t see fit to put one of its snappier dual-clutch transmissions in the Rio, as it would’ve livened up the driving experience. Of course it also would’ve increased the cost.

Speaking of cost, the Rio starts with a very low base price. Though pricing hasn’t been nailed down, Kia said the cheapest Rio, an LX sedan with a manual transmission, will start at about $ 13,990. The LX hatchback with a manual will start at $ 14,290, and adding an automatic to either car adds $ 1,000. Kia hasn’t released pricing for higher trim levels, but expects prices will top out around $ 18,000 to $ 19,000. Comparing starting MSRPs, the Rio undercuts the Honda Fit, Chevrolet Sonic, Nissan Versa Note, and both types of Toyota Yaris. It also is about the same price, give or take a couple hundred dollars, as the Ford Fiesta and Mitsubishi Mirage. However, the feature content, or lack thereof, of the base Rio LX means that the higher-spec S is a more even comparison with the more expensive hatchbacks, and the prices will probably be more even, too, eliminating much of a value advantage.

This also brings up one last potential hurdle for the Rio, and that’s the Soul, the funky compact crossover that’s a favorite with people and hamsters alike. Not only does it have more space, more features, better brakes, and more style, but it costs about the same as the other subcompacts, starting at a bit above $ 16,000 for a manual model.

Taken on its own, the Kia Rio is a solid, well-rounded subcompact that provides a surprisingly engaging driving experience. But a lack of feature content and not enough of a corresponding discount means that, on paper at least, it doesn’t stand out against the competition. Anyone that does happen to give it a second look probably won’t be disappointed though.

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