The entry-level compact car segment is not generally known for its upscale appeal or comfort. Yet expectations in the low-end market are rising and Kia is jumping on that trend with the excellent, newly-redone little 2018 Rio. For the budget buyer, it’s hard to think of a better vehicle than this one.

Quick Specs & Info

2018 Kia Rio Class: Subcompact
Base Model As Tested: Rio EX
Powertrain 1.6L, 6spd Powertrain 1.6L, Auto
Base MSRP $13,900 MSRP as tested $19,425

Overview

Nowhere in automotive are economies of scale more apparent than in budget vehicles like the 2018 Kia Rio. As other segments improve in quality of materials and design, manufacturers are finding that at the lower end of their offerings, it’s actually cheaper to offer better quality materials than it is to buy separate, lower-cost materials individually. For consumers, this is a great trickle-down return as they get the low-cost models with much higher-cost materials in them.

In short, gone are the days when “cheap for cheap’s sake” was the rule of thumb in compact and subcompact entry-level automotive. There are still some holdouts (we won’t name names, Versa), but for the most part, cars like the 2018 Kia Rio really benefit from this new mindset.

The Rio has been fully redesigned for the 2018 model year. Although budgets are always in mind with cars like this, Kia did a great job of offering a great interior experience, excellent on-road drive quality, and lots of expectations that are exceeded.

One key change is in the powertrain. The 2018 Kia Rio has a retuned engine that offers less power on paper, but more power in the real world thanks to an expanded powerband of delivery. Inside, the car has more intelligent use of space and improved NVH (noise-vibration-harshness) for a higher-quality interior experience.

The 2018 Kia Rio is offered in both sedan and hatchback formats, each with three trim levels plus a special Launch Edition package with limited availability this year.

Trim Packages

The trims are largely the same for the sedan and hatchback with almost no difference between the two. The sedan is better for fuel economy and ease of parking while the hatchback offers more versatility for cargo.

  • LX – is the base level Kia Rio package. It comes with 15-inch steel wheels, automatic headlights, air conditioning, tilt-adjustable steering, rearview backup camera, a 5-inch entertainment display with satellite radio, a USB port, and an AUX jack.
  • S – is the next step up and adds keyless entry, heated power mirrors, power windows, cruise control, map lights, a center console armrest/storage, split-fold rear seating, a second USB port, and Bluetooth connectivity to the entertainment system.
  • EX – builds on the Rio S with 15-inch alloy wheels, chrome elements on the exterior, foglamps, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel with leather wrap, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, upgraded upholstery, and forward collision warning with automatic braking. The infotainment upgrades to the 7-inch touchscreen with Kia’s Uvo, which adds Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and more connectivity options via Bluetooth.
  • EX Launch Edition – is a limited edition of the Rio which takes the EX trim and adds exclusive red interior trim and partial leather accents.

Exterior and Interior Design

One thing about the 2018 Kia Rio is that it won’t win any design awards for its breathtaking exterior style. Because it’s not breathtaking. It’s rather plain, but if Weird Al Yankovic has taught us anything, it’s that plain looks don’t mean something’s boring. Those willing to look beyond the book cover might find something great in the Rio.

Inside, the 2018 Rio has a very well-done interior that offers comfort and a welcoming appeal. It’s upmarket in feel and roomier than expected. All good points, especially for a 40-something, tall guy like me.

Our greatest beef with the Rio’s interior is with rear seat access, which is a little cramped due to the way the seat and wheel well impinge on the door’s opening, restricting the entryway. This is somewhat common among subcompact cars and very noticeable in the Rio. Once in the back seat, however, passengers will find it nicely done. As with any compact vehicle, leg and knee room are at a premium in the little Rio.

We’re also fans of the Kia Uvo infotainment system. The higher-end system in the Rio EX is one of the better offerings in the entry-level segment, with ease of use and good connectivity being its high points. Navigation is not available from the car, but a connected phone with CarPlay or Auto can do that through the system instead. Hard buttons for Auto/CarPlay on/off upon tethering is a nice touch, saving a lot of screen prompts.

Driving the 2018 Kia Rio

The 2018 Kia Rio is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that outputs 130 horsepower to the front wheels. A six-speed manual transmission is standard and a six-speed automatic is available. We like the standard transmission, though, for its driver appeal and added fun factor, but the automatic is nicely done and (obviously) far more convenient.

Out and about, the 2018 Rio has good pick-up and a fast-feeling quality about its drive. It’s not sporty, per se, but it’s a lot more interactive and fun than are most in this class. The chassis sports excellent stability and a stiff, almost sport car appeal to its cornering and strength. The precise steering and low ride height of the Rio add to this immensely.

The Rio gives off confidence in most driving situations, even on the highway at speed or when pushing to pass. It’s quieter than most entry-level compacts are too, making it feel more pleasant and upscale.

Fuel economy for the Rio is rated at 28 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, no matter the transmission choice. In the real world, we saw 33 mpg overall during a week’s worth of driving with various passenger loads.

Competition

There are a lot of competitors in the entry-level subcompact market. Those of note include the best-selling Nissan Versa, the Honda Fit, the Chevrolet Sonic, and the Toyota Yaris.

  • Chevrolet Sonic – is well-done, but misses almost all of the marks the Rio hits well.
  • Honda Fit – has a higher price tag, but includes a peppier engine and better exterior design.
  • Nissan Versa – is the cheapest on the sales lot, but offers little outside of that.
  • Toyota Yaris – has none of the Rio’s high points and is less than interesting to look at to boot.

Strong Points

  • Excellent interior
  • Great infotainment for the price
  • Fuel economy returns are excellent

Weaknesses

  • Difficult access for the back seats
  • No safety ratings as of yet
  • Plain exterior looks

Conclusions

The 2018 Kia Rio is the best in its class right now. It’s got everything but good looks going for it as one of the most well-done subcompacts on offer. From its well-priced and very basic base model to its excellent upper-trim EX with a price still under $20,000, the Rio offers everything one could ask for without breaking the bank.

Test Period Length and Limitations
The Rio was a manufacturer’s press loan for about a week. During that time, a total of over 200 miles were put on the vehicle with varied passenger loads ranging from a solo driver to 4 passengers (3 of which were children).

The following two tabs change content below.
An automotive enthusiast for most of his adult life, Aaron has worked in and around the industry in many ways. He is an accredited member of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press (RMAP) and freelances as a writer and journalist around the Web and in print. You can find his portfolio at AaronOnAutos.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *