The four-door 2018 Rio is offered as a sedan or a hatchback, and it comes as no surprise that Kia figures 70 percent of buyers in the United States will opt for the sedan, despite the hatchback’s undeniably more attractive proportions. In addition to three regular trim levels—LX, S, and EX—the new Rio also can be had as a loaded Launch Edition that will be available through the 2018 model year.
Regardless of trim level, navigation is off the table. Full stop. After years of pushing the tech-for-the-price envelope, Kia has concluded that eliminating factory navigation is an effective way to keep the price within reach of the Rio’s ostensibly youthful demographic. The rub is that only the top-tier EX and Launch Edition get Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility. The rest of us will be left to our cellular devices, although at this point they’re so integrated with the human condition that we suspect few buyers in this segment will mind.
Pursuit of fiscal efficiencies also led to the virtual elimination of the Rio’s options (the sole extra-cost item as of this writing being leather upholstery with red accents on the EX). Without the ability to add features, Rio shoppers will want to choose their trim level wisely. The base LX, for example, has crank windows and manually adjusted side mirrors, and it rolls on 15-inch steel wheels; Bluetooth, cruise control, a backup camera, a center-console armrest, and keyless entry are not available. (Starting May 1, 2018, all new cars are required to have a backup camera as standard, so we expect that the LX trim will adopt the feature.) The midrange S trim level does get Bluetooth and a backup camera but uses rear drum brakes and makes do without a telescopic steering wheel (all Rios get tilt) and visor vanity mirrors, among other minor details. While all three trims are equipped with satellite radio, the LX and S use a tiny 5.0-inch screen while the top-spec EX gets a 7.0-inch unit to make the most of the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto hookup. Only the EX includes aluminum wheels, a telescoping column, automated emergency braking, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, and a few other items. In a spectacular example of micro bean counting, all three employ a four-speaker sound system, but only the upper two models get dedicated tweeters for a total of six speakers.
The minimalist theme continues under the Rio’s hood. The same direct-injected 1.6-liter inline-four used in the previous Rio and the current base Soul is the only available engine. (The Europe-market 2018 Rios we drove earlier featured three entirely different engines.) Rated at 130 horsepower and 119 lb-ft of torque, output drops by 8 hp and 4 lb-ft, but what’s there arrives at lower rpm (a vague power graph the company produced shows a slight increase of torque at 1500 rpm in comparison with the engine’s previous tune). Although both six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions are offered, Kia believes only around 5 percent of buyers will want the row-your-own gearbox and limits its availability to the base LX.
For our first exposure to the U.S.-spec Rio, Kia had only top-drawer EX models on hand. The upside is the overwhelming majority of test vehicles were hatchbacks, which is our preferred version of the Rio for both aesthetic and practical reasons, despite America’s peculiar preference for the sedan.
Acceleration provided by the 1.6-liter four-pot, as you might guess, is leisurely. What power there is comes on in linear fashion—unsurprisingly, for a naturally aspirated engine—and shifts are tuned for comfort. Even under full throttle in Sport mode (which alters throttle response and changes shift mapping), the gear swaps are clandestine, with the priority on a smooth handoff. If it weren’t for the engine sound you might think the transmission was a CVT. The brake pedal delivers measured response and better modulation than it probably needs to. Hard braking from 75 mph in the rain revealed a short and drama-free stop, thanks to early intervention of the anti-lock brakes.
Kia claims the new platform reflects a 30 percent increase in tensile strength over the previous Rio; while we can’t verify that claim, we can say it feels tight and solid. The suspension is via struts up front with a torsion beam at the rear—inexpensive small-car design 101. We managed to bottom out the suspension only once, hammering the Rio over the rough, brick-paved streets of Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, and the only indicator of the abuse was a minor rattle from the hatch. Highway travel was similarly quiet, the 15-inch Continental ProContact TX 165/65R-15 all-season tires rolling over concrete and asphalt without much audio drama. While far from sporting, the steering is linear and the Rio doesn’t protest when aimed down a twisty back road; Kia PR never missed an opportunity to remind us that the Rio was developed for the European market. Although its limits are low, the entire package is reasonably well balanced, and you can have a bit of fun if you subscribe to the drive-a-slow-car-fast school of thought.