Do you remember the 1995 to 2005 Chevrolet Cavalier? It has always been, to me at least, the epitome of The Bad Cheap Car. With rock-hard plastics and barely a feature beyond a steering wheel, the Cavalier felt like a punishment for only being able to afford so little car.
We’ve come a long way since then, and plenty of cheap models rock modern features like Bluetooth, USB ports, alloy wheels and even proper infotainment systems. The 2018 Kia Rio is one of those cars. The fourth generation of Kia’s least-expensive car will arrive in Q4 2017, and it doesn’t feel anywhere close to being a penalty box.
Kia has always been good at, as they say, shoving 10 pounds of stuff into a five-pound sack. Their cars tend to be obscenely good values, and the 2018 Rio keeps that commendable tradition alive. May the Cavalier-style cheap car remain dead and buried for the remainder of human history.
Ace of base
Kia only had the top-tier EX trim available during our drive, but I’ll quickly touch upon the two trims beneath it, LX and S. All Rio trims are available in both sedan or hatchback body styles, with the LX sedan starting at $13,990 and the LX hatch at $14,290, making it one of the least-expensive cars sold in America today. Adding a six-speed automatic tacks $1,000 onto the price. Additional trim pricing will be available closer to the model’s release.
The LX is the only model that can be had with a six-speed manual. Both LX and S come with steel wheels and wheel covers, while the EX gets fancier alloy wheels. The LX retains some proper cheap-car features like black door handles, manually adjustable side mirrors and manual windows. That’s how you keep the price low, after all.
Things are bound to get even more exciting if Kia brings back the turbocharged SX trim. It’s not happening right away, and Kia was awfully cagey about its future, so nothing is certain but here’s to hoping.
All three trims are devoid of vast options packages, so what you get can’t often be changed. But even the lower trims come equipped with some pretty solid features. SiriusXM satellite radio is in every single trim, even on the base 5-inch infotainment system, but Bluetooth doesn’t pop up until S. A backup camera is standard on the S and EX. Every trim receives a USB port, with the S and EX getting a second port for the rear seats. Steering wheel controls are standard across the trims, too.
The interior feels a cut above
Inexpensive car interiors are usually depressing, monochromatic affairs devoid of any hint of styling (I’m looking at you, Ford). On the Rio EX tester I spent time with, the interior truly felt like it should be in a car that costs more than $20,000. There was a splash of red trim along the dashboard, extending into the door panels. Even the hardest plastics were on the softer side, and actual attention has clearly been paid to the places where your arms and hands rest. The EX gets optional leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and they felt great, but I bet the cloth will feel pretty swell, too.
As with nearly every new car these days, you can basically turn your pants upside down and empty all your pockets into the billion storage areas inside the Rio and still have space left over.
I was only given the chance to drive the five door, but unlike many other small hatchbacks, I found the view out back perfectly reasonable. The rear glass filled the mirror, C-pillar blind spots were small and the A-pillars proved relatively thin, too. Combined with a low-slung hood and dashboard, forward visibility is top notch.
My only complaint about the interior is the driving position. It’s not great for taller drivers like me — my arms had to reach too far for the wheel when the seat was positioned to my legs’ liking. I wish the wheel had more telescope. If you’re tall, you may want to avoid the LX and S trims entirely, as their steering wheels only tilt.
A solid drive
For the longest time, something didn’t jibe with me in terms of how Korean cars drove. Maybe it was their suspension tuning, but they never felt quite right. That said, the 2018 Rio gets it just right, thanks largely to its reliance on European tuning.
While the US-spec Rio is tuned to be a bit softer than its European counterpart, it stills feels solid. With its fat (185/65) all-season tires wrapped around 15-inch alloy wheels, bumps and cobblestones turn from jarring motions into slight bumps with some road noise. The combination of the stiffer suspension and the softer tires worked wonders. In spirited driving, the suspension setup was bang-on. Drivers who want the softest-possible ride may want to look elsewhere, but I will say that the Rio exceeded my expectations in terms of ride quality.
No matter what trim is chosen, the sole engine on offer is a 1.6-liter, naturally aspirated four cylinder good for 130 horsepower and 119 pound-feet of torque. It’s a revised version of the outgoing Rio’s engine, but tuned for better low-end torque. In conjunction with its cleverly programmed transmission, it felt plenty competent. To paraphrase a colleague, both the driver and the powertrain are aware that there isn’t much to work with, power-wise, so the latter works to mitigate that issue by keeping the revs up.
The Rio’s attention to noise, vibration and harshness earns it another gold star. At idle, the engine is damn near silent. It’s a little buzzy as the revs climb, but it’s no better or worse than competitors’ engines in this regard. On the highway, wind and tire noise were present, but in very manageable amounts.
The automatic-transmission Rio is EPA-estimated at 28 miles per gallon for city driving, 37 mpg highway and 32 mpg combined. My drive partner and I achieved about 33 to 34 mpg in a mixture of highway and city driving on the roads outside of Baltimore.
Enough tech where it counts
The Rio EX comes standard with autonomous emergency braking and forward collision warning. No extra packages here, these are the only advanced driver-assist systems on offer and you must order the top trim to have them. I did not test them out, because even though I’m trying to learn to skateboard at age 31, I don’t have an actual death wish.
Again, since I only drove the EX, I can’t comment on the Rio’s base 5.0-inch infotainment screen. I can only talk about the 7.0-inch UVO3 infotainment system, which is probably what Kia planned, because it’s quite good. It packs both, and it’s a snappy little system that relies on both touch inputs as well as physical buttons flanking the screen. If you’ve driven any other Kia with UVO, you’ll feel at home here immediately.
You’re going to need CarPlay and Android Auto in this car, though, because that’s your only way to get navigation. Kia deliberately did not include an embedded navigation option, preferring instead to keep costs down by relying on drivers’ phones.
This arrangement is still good in the sense that it’s better than other automakers that ask you to download some dumb proprietary app for nav purposes (sorry, Toyota). It’s bad in the sense that Apple Maps does not pre-load maps when cell reception gets spotty, so when you’re out navigating in the middle of nowhere, your map might just disappear, like it did for me. That’s a pretty poor navigation system, considering a map is sort of required for the whole ‘navigation’ shtick.
Down to brass tacks
The Rio occupies a busy segment with at least five main competitors, including the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Toyota Yaris iA, Chevrolet Sonic and Ford Fiesta. Having driven them all over the last two or three years, I can say with confidence that the 2018 Rio will be gunning for the top slot in this segment with its solid driving dynamics, interesting interior and decent tech loadout.
The penalty box doesn’t feel so penalizing anymore.