Car Review: Kia Rio goes from bargain basement to sophisticated subcompact hatch

WASHINGTON — It wasn’t long ago that the Kia Rio was just basic transportation for those who wanted to buy new and not used. It was loud and not very pleasant inside. Come to think of it, I would pay more if I heard that was my ride at the rental car counter. But in 2018, Kia went back to the drawing board and remade this subcompact in the image of their larger cars — adding value and a more upscale look and feel.

Huge steps were taken inside the Kia Rio, adding much better materials than before. The interior is nicer than the sub-$19,000 price tag suggests. The cloth seats are a durable material. The leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob add some class. The seats are surprisingly comfortable, but some people might wish for more adjustments.

Space is decent, with plenty of head and leg room up front for most people. The back seats have less room for taller adults, especially if taller folks are already up front. Cargo space is better with the five-door hatch version but don’t expect very much in the little ride.

If you shop for a 2018 model you want to look for an EX trim level. For 2019 models, make sure to add the Technology package. Selecting that gives you some upgrades with more tech and it’s just an $800 upgrade. That tech package gets you a larger 7-inch touch screen plus Android Auto & Apple CarPlay integration; you can use the phone for NAV. It also buys you Forward Collision Warning and Autonmous Emergency Braking. A surprisingly good sound system is included probably the best in the class from what I’ve heard.

Driving subcompact hatches is usually akin to driving an appliance, since it is more basic transportation. But after a week in the new Kia Rio I was pleased with the way it drives. It’s no rocket with 130 horsepower, but it feels eager and willing. You’re looking at around nine seconds to hit 60 mph and it can sound a bit strained doing it. Handling is a strong suit of this little hatch. It does very well in the corners and the brakes haul the car down with a bit of dive on hard braking. When pushed in the corners, the small more economy-minded tires complain about the hassle by letting out a squeal or two.

The ride is more pleasant than most in this class. It handles bumps with less harshness. The cabin is more subdued. There is some wind and road noise, but less than most of the competition.

Fuel economy for my week was 31.7 mpg, just under the 32 mpg on the sticker.

Small subcompact cars tend to look like a less expensive car that is thrown together. The new Kia Rio looks more upscale and bigger than its size. I think much of the credit goes to a more complete look.

Usually the mirrors and lower body cladding of subcompacts are black and with the rest of the body in another color, but not with the Rio. The same body color carries over the entire car. The Rio now looks like other modern Kia models with the now-familiar wide grill just on a smaller scale. Handsome alloy wheels are small at just 15 inches for 2018 models. Steel 15’s for 2019 models aren’t as stylish looking. There is a lot of glass and even the rear hatch has a good amount of glass and no spoilers or rear wings.

The Kia Rio has gone from basic to a well-equipped yet reasonably priced subcompact. With a more upscale look and feel, the smallest Kia feels more a part of the family than before. Buying this new car comes with extra peace of mind from a long, 10-year powertrain warranty and a 5 year/60,000 miles new car warranty.

Mike Parris is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association. The vehicles are provided by DriveShop, FMI or Motus One for the purpose of this review.

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