Which is a damn dirty shame, because the Rio is in fact a terrific little car that anyone should be quite proud to own. There is a grown-up vibe to it that greatly outpaces whatever expectations you might have for a sub-compact car. It is handsome, well-equipped, seemingly well-made, and most surprisingly, extremely competent to drive.
Let’s start with the exterior styling. Although at first glance it seems a tad conservative for the segment, and perhaps not as expressive as its predecessor, it’s handsome and well-proportioned. It is indeed more grown-up in appearance, especially in our test car’s Urban Grey paint. It may not be flashy, but it also looks like a real car that just happens to be small, and I think you’d be much happier picking up a date in the Rio than in a Honda Fit or Ford Fiesta.
That notion carries over to the interior, which itself is an impressive upgrade over what was already one of the nicest cabins in the segment. Now, not every Rio gets the benefits of our test car’s Red Accent package (although it’s only a $130 option and includes leather upholstery), but it’s nevertheless a visually appealing place to spend time. There’s an attractive minimalism to the design (note the cool HVAC controls) and a definite European vibe that, again, looks grown-up. Materials quality is good for the segment, though the test car’s leather seats and steering felt a cut above the rest.
Then there’s the touchscreen that sprouts up from the dash like just about everything these days. Included on the EX trim level, it’s 7 inches, easy to see and reach, and comes with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and satellite radio. Down below, there’s a handy shelf for your plugged-in smartphone above another bin for whatever else.
In terms of space, the six-way manually adjustable seats provided just enough room for this 6-foot-3 editor’s legs, which is far from a sure thing among subcompact cars. I’m one unhappy guy after about 10 minutes in a Honda Fit. Sure, putting the front seat all the way back pretty much cancels out back seat room, but this is a subcompact car, what are you expecting? With someone of average height up front, I can actually fit quite comfortably in the back seat. Overall, quite good back there, plus you get your own USB port. Impressive.
More so is the way the Rio drives. Much as we discovered during our 2018 Rio first drive, Kia has seriously ironed out this subcompact’s driving dynamics. Its suspension is considerably more composed, especially over large bumps and road heaves, while corners can be taken with surprising speed and poise despite riding on 15-inch wheels. Mr. Stocksdale objected to that size on his first drive, but if the car can handle like it does while also delivering a genuinely comfortable ride, I’d be quite happy without 17’s, thank you.
The steering too is improved. I couldn’t detect any difference when pressing the Sport button, which is just fine since past Kia efforts at differing steering settings just added artificial weight without any improvement to responsiveness or feel. The 2018 set-up is far better in both regards, and although not what one would deem sporty, it also doesn’t draw attention to itself in a negative way.
As for the 1.6-liter engine, it’s present. Acceleration is acceptable for this segment and is ably served by a six-speed automatic that does a bang-up job of summoning a downshift when called upon by the pleasingly responsive throttle pedal. No fuel economy mush here, thank goodness. Now, that aforementioned Sport mode does sharpens things here, but not so much that you’d find yourself engaging it with any regularity.
Fuel economy with this powertrain combo is estimated to be 32 mpg combined, and during my week with it (including my standard 75-mile evaluation route of city, highway and mountain road driving) I managed 32 mpg. How about that.
So it’s economical, too, and with an as-tested price of $20,226, a pretty great deal. That includes the interior and infotainment niceties mentioned above, plus forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. You also get Kia’s five-year bumper-to-bumper and 10-year powertrain warranties. Really, even if I had more to spend on a car, I’d be perfectly fine using the 2018 Rio to putter around town — commuting to work, running errands — and save up for something used and more fun (yet thirstier and less reliable) when occasion would take me outside the city limits.
And, if it was just your only car (a far more plausible scenario), I think you’d still be pretty darn happy with this surprisingly grown-up subcompact. You may want to tell people it’s called something else, though.