2018 Kia Rio First Drive

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.

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.

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.

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.