Kia’s new pocket hatch and sedan duo should have the competition worried
SEPTEMBER 27, 2017
The days of very complete and comfortable cars that start at less than $15,000 can seem like a thing of the past, along with floppy disks, pagers and Night Court marathons. After all, the amount of tech that goes into the cars of today has pushed the price of entry to the point where it seems at least $20,000 is needed to get into something that can haul itself, some groceries and you in style — or, in lieu of style, at least some inoffensive champagne-colored anonymity.
Kia is about to challenge this notion with the fourth-generation Rio, which lands later this year with an impressive list of real-car accommodations, a peppy engine and some positively retro 1990s pricing.
The Rio has occupied the entry-level, college-car niche long enough to be familiar to most people when they see it, even though non-owners probably only notice them on rental car lots. The Rio has been fine with its position in life, and Kia has been fine with it as well — they’ve been selling tons for the past 17 years. The 2018 model does not lose sight of this fact, but it does try to deliver much more than one could have hoped not long ago, in one of the most affordable cars sold in the U.S.
First things first: the Rio is powered a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter gasoline direct-injected four-cylinder engine pumping out 130 hp and 119 lb-ft of torque, with a choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic driving the front wheels. The Rio has adopted Kia’s current design language — overseen by ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer — along with a brash look that is distinctive and upscale, with the slightly angry face European automakers now favor. That’s not by accident; the current Rio was developed with the European market in mind, and it has to please customers in dozens of countries — that means it can’t get away with catering only to American-size roads and parking spots.
The Rio will be offered as a five-door hatch and as a four-door sedan.
What’s underneath it all? Kia is going heavy on high-strength steel, using it judiciously throughout the structure to improve tensile strength by 30 percent compared to the outgoing model, while also working hard to get NVH down to a minimum. With a revised suspension geometry featuring MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam setup in the back, the engineers have aimed to reduce roll in the corners while offering a ride quality optimized for decrepit road infrastructure, but also road manners that won’t embarrass the car on some twisty back roads.
Kia has also given the Rio sedan and hatch a modern and premium-feeling interior that uses plenty of soft-touch plastics and a modern infotainment system — Kia’s UVO3, which offers voice recognition and smartphone integration for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with 5.0-inch and 7.0-inch screen sizes, depending on trim. A new and well-sculpted dash design aims to look expensive and entertaining at the same time.
For utility, the Rio sedan offers 13.7 cubic feet of cargo room, while the hatch betters those numbers with 17.4 cubic feet with the seats in their upright and locked positions; that grows to 32.5 feet with the seats folded down. When it comes to safety, the Rio comes standard with six airbags, stability control and available forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, the latter two offered only in the top EX trim.
We went to the back roads of Maryland to try out the new Rio five-door hatch while also getting a taste of some authentic college travel season traffic on Interstate 95 around Baltimore — after all, the Rio is ultimately more likely to see horrid commutes than the twisty B-roads you see in car commercials. In both settings, the Rio impressed us with its quiet interior, solid driving dynamics and impressive use of what power it has.
That power amounts to just 130 horses, which doesn’t look like much on paper, but it makes those horses count without revving itself silly or requiring the accelerator pedal to be glued to the floor for the duration of your commute. In fact, the 1.6-liter GDI unit here feels relaxed and ready to serve up plenty of go without nervous stabs at the throttle, offering confident overtaking on the highway without much drama or noise. The engine stays generally muted until all 130 horses are put to work, pressing the Rio in the corners of back roads that slice through Maryland horse country with the six-speed auto giving relatively little notice of its workings. Likewise, road and wind noise stay at a comfortable minimum thanks to tall tires on 15-inch wheels soaking up most, if not all, of the broken pavement.
In the corners, the Rio keeps itself in check while offering good steering feedback, even though it’s clearly geared toward comfort rather than sport. The degree to which body roll has been reined in is the most surprising aspect of the Rio’s driving dynamics, and the hatch also avoids excessive nose lift during spirited starts.
The well-proportioned interior is the most memorable aspect of our time with the Rio, though: It offers comfortable and intuitive controls without tiring the driver with road and wind noise, even after several hours of driving on different types of roads. And with fuel economy figures of 28 city/37 highway/32 combined for the automatic hatch and sedan, the Rio is a fuel-sipper without resorting to costly hybrid tech.
Still, some cost-cutting measures are evident: Navigation is only offered via a paired smartphone (which can be useless in an area without cell coverage), but that’s still a small price to pay for everything else available in the top EX trim.
The well-proportioned cabin is quiet at most speeds, which in a rare quality in this segment and price category.
The work put into the Rio to eliminate various economy car traits has paid off handsomely, with a capable and quiet hatch that puts an impressive distance between itself and the Kias of just five years ago. This is a segment that has been difficult to get right even for automakers such as Toyota and Honda, whose bread and butter has been minimalist A-to-B cars for a far longer amount of time.
The Rio’s biggest roadblock is that compact utilities are quickly becoming the new entry-level segment, displacing subcompact hatches, but a starting price around $15K and some misfires among its competitors should help propel the Rio to the top once it goes on sale at the end of the year. It doesn’t even need that kind of help — it’s quietly impressive on its own.