By on October 9, 2017

2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door - Image: © Timothy Cain

2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door

1.6-liter DOHC inline-four (130 horsepower @ 6,300 rpm; 119 lb-ft @ 4,850 rpm)

Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

28 city / 37 highway / 32 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)

8.5 city / 6.4 highway / 7.6 combined (NRCan Rating, L/100km)

35.1 mpg [6.7 L/100 km] (Observed)

Base Price: $15,095 (U.S) / $16,555 (Canada)

As Tested: $19,595 (U.S.) / $25,605 (Canada)

Prices include $895 destination charge in the United States and $1,660 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can’t be directly compared.

During a year in which Kia is about to drop a BMW 3 Series-rivalling sports sedan with a price tag that rises above $50,000, it’s not hard to see why the arrival of a new Kia subcompact hatchback goes relatively unnoticed.

It’s not hard to see why the arrival of any subcompact goes unnoticed. In the United States, subcompact car sales are a pittance, forming just 2 percent of the market after losing one-fifth of their collective volume so far this year. Kia’s entry, meanwhile, fills only a narrow gap in America’s subcompact niche, suffering from a 51-percent year-over-year sales drop to only 11,952 sales in 2017’s first nine months, equal to just 4 percent of the subcompact market.

This is nothing new. U.S. interest in the Kia Rio, valued at over 50,000 annual sales way back in 2002, perked up with the dawn of the outgoing third-generation model half a decade ago but quickly diminished. Kia USA averaged fewer than 30,000 annual Rio sales over the last three years.

But you can forget the Stinger for a moment, you can set aside the K900, ignore the Cadenza, and temporarily dismiss the Sorento SX Limited. This is the 2018 Kia Rio. Kia won’t even let you spend more than $20,000 on this subcompact hatch.2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door - Image: © Timothy CainNote: More than usual, the test car we received (from Kia’s Canadian subsidiary) bore little equipment similarities to the Kia Rio sold in the United States. While the underpinnings and powertrain are identical, there are numerous key distinctions. This car, a Canadian 2018 Rio EX Tech, rides on 205/45R17 Continental ProContact rubber. The U.S. Rio tops out on 15-inch rims with decidedly less aggressive 185/65R15 rubber. Regardless of trim, Kia’s Canadian Rio comes standard, even at CAD $16,555, with heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. Those aren’t on Kia’s U.S. Rio options menu. Nor is the UVO-integrated navigation system fitted to this EX Tech, or the sunroof on all three Kia Canada EX models. In the U.S., where the Rio has been a subcompact afterthought for many years, Kia is positioning the 2018 Rio 5-Door exclusively as a value option. In Canada, where the Rio joined with its Hyundai Accent corporate cousin in claiming more than 40 percent subcompact market share in each of the last three years, Kia is willing to attack two ends of the subcompact spectrum.)2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door - Image: © Timothy CainIt’s unclear just how much difference our tester’s wider and grippier tire quartet makes, but it’s safe to assume America’s Rio adds a bit of impact deadening in exchange for slightly less mid-corner bite. That’s not to say this 17-inch-shod Rio rode stiffly or suffered from poor pothole absorption. While busy, as a subcompact 102-inch wheelbase and narrow 60-inch tracks is wont to be, the new Rio is not treated unkindly by the roughest of roads. Thank the newly rigid structure: Kia says the new Rio’s platform is 30-percent more rigid than the 2017 model’s. It feels more like 60 percent.

Stiff structures are a boon for ride quality, sure, but also for handling and general NVH, as well. The 2018 Rio won’t soon be confused for a hot hatch, but it puts up no argument when tasked with ramping up the proceedings on a fun road. The steering isn’t exactly communicative, but effort builds up naturally and predictably. It’s matched by progressive brake feel and an unobtrusive six-speed automatic that doesn’t flub a shift. (A six-speed manual is available only on the base model, on which the automatic is a $1,090 option in the U.S.)

These are the kinds of small details that small Kias used to miss, left to ply their trade based exclusively on the merits of value. But by nailing down these small things — linear steering and proper brake response and smooth shifts — that consumers may not notice as individually improved elements, a Kia Rio will find it easier to be taken seriously as a cohesive package.2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door interior - Image: © Timothy CainEven with modest overall curb weight reductions, the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that’s standard across the Rio lineup could have done with some updating. Instead, Kia reduced horsepower and torque (marginally) in order to maximize power at more realistic rpm. The problem? The 2018 Rio’s 130 horsepower don’t peak until 6,300 rpm, long after you’ve grown weary of the unrefined engine note. It’s not a rev-happy powerplant, so you’re anxious for the Rio to meet your demands at lower points in the rev range. Like many of its competitors, it can’t, particularly without a manual transmission. Sufficient the 1.6-liter may be, but it causes the six-speed automatic to hunt around for a gear, any gear, when climbing Prince Edward Island’s modest inclines. This is hardly the Rockies.

Perhaps the power levels would be more acceptable if Kia had found a way to amplify fuel economy figures. This is a key knock against subcompacts — if they can’t provide a meaningful discount at the dealer, surely they ought to be able to at the fuel pump. But all too often, they don’t. The 2018 Kia Rio is rated at 28 miles per gallon in the city and 37 on the highway, a combined 32-mpg rating. With 62 more horsepower and 417 extra pounds, the 2018 Honda Accord has better city, highway, and combined ratings along with midsize space. Of course, those two cars aren’t competitors, but that’s just it. Small cars should offer the smallest fuel bills. We averaged 35 miles per gallon with the 2018 Rio during its rural stay in PEI.2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door interior detail - Image: © Timothy CainInside, front seat comfort would be improved by more lumbar support. While rear seat comfort is acceptable, rear legroom is tight for adults. Knees must be implanted in the backs of front seat occupants. Seat cloth and up-front materials certainly seem ahead of the subcompact game. It’s a modern affair that by no means embarrasses the Rio owner, with or without a heavy feature load. Seats up, cargo volume out back now stands at 17.4 cubic feet, up by more than two cubic feet compared with the 2017 model. Sacrificing some of that space for more rear seat volume may well have been a wiser choice, as the Rio (again, like other subcompacts) still can’t really compete with the Honda Fit’s flexibility.

Given the price point and the way the 2018 Rio, except when accelerating or squeezing passengers in the back, feels so often like a car in a higher price point, it’s difficult to interpret its negatives as anything other than minor. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the way the Rio’s interior does a worthy job of replicating a much more costly car.

The packaging does lend itself to comparisons with the most easily recommendable Kia, however. The 2018 Kia Soul has a $16,995 base price and is quite nicely equipped in Soul+ trim with a small options package at $21,595, two grand more than the top-spec Rio. Better resale value, more power, comparable fuel economy, and way more interior space makes the Soul a winner very nearly every time.

That’s not so much a knock against the 2018 Kia Rio as it is a swipe against subcompacts in general. It explains America’s distaste for the smallest cars, and it explains why the new Kia Rio stands little chance of being any more successful than the previous Kia Rio. No matter how good it is.

[Images: © Timothy Cain]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and Autofocus.ca and the founder and former editor of GoodCarBadCar.net. Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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22 Comments on “2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door Review – Can a Subcompact Car Be Good Enough in 2017 to Merit Attention?...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I guess if the Accord is going to outperform the Rio on mpg, the only thing left for the Rio is price. And resale won’t be close to what an Accord can fetch.

    • 0 avatar
      whynot

      That is the only thing the Rio has had going for it for a while now. Hence why the Rio has one of the lowest owner satisfaction rates.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      The real-world mileage result was 35mpg, which beats both the Rio’s EPA “combined” and that of the Accord 1.5T. The Accord, as far as I know, hasn’t been subjected to Tim Cain’s “rural PEI” test yet. So I’m having a hard time seeing the problem here.

  • avatar
    dwford

    These small cars need to go back to being value plays, especially since gas is cheap and people are moving to crossovers. When gas goes back up, people may become interested in these cars again. Until then, they are placeholders.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    In Canadian or US spec, this thing is a commuter beastie, destined to be driven until it dies. At 260,000 miles the only real question is: Will the tow truck driver give me cash for the title? Cash in hand; 10-15 years later, go to the Hyundai dealer and get another one.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Tough position. My first thought was to suggest they turbocharge it… but why?Any cost added whatsoever makes it a pointless endeavor against the Forte in the US. Better to put that money there and decontent it further to battle with the Versa and Mirage. A solid effort from Kia though; just a shame market conditions won’t allow them to flesh it out.

  • avatar
    Corollaman

    H/K engines have always lagged behind the Japanese with their power to mileage ratios

  • avatar
    stuki

    Unless you live in one of the precious few places in the US where even slightly larger cars are noticeably more cumbersome, or you happen to be one of America’s 8-10 small car “enthusiasts,” these things just don’t make much sense over here.

  • avatar
    brakeless

    $19K is just too much for a subcompact, unless it is something “special”. This is just a Rio. It should be $10,995.

    • 0 avatar
      Hydromatic

      Good luck finding any new car for $10,995. I’d be a bit more charitable and suggest a $14,995 price tag, but all of the niceties shown in the pictures above will need to be swapped for cheaper, droller duds. Cheap cloth seats, cheaper radio, cheaper plastics, etc etc.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Hard to make an argument for these given what a stripped down midsize sedan can be had for.

  • avatar
    Corollaman

    I own a subcompact cause I live in a crowded big city with limited parking plus lots of traffic and I love the fact that I can just about fit anywhere. And if I need to go on a trip, I just rent a larger car.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    If 60 inches is a narrow track, how about a ’58 Chevy at 58 inches? The Wide Track Pontiacs went all the way to 64 inch track. If you look at Kia’s lineup the track only varies from 60 inches to 64 on the Stinger. All modern cars are fairly wide, but 2005 to 2009 Subaru Legacy track was only 59, making this underachieving Rio wider.

    Similar remarks about wheelbase. The latest Golf is 100 inches, less than this Rio, but anyone having a ride in each isn’t going to say the Rio rides better in any way, shape or form.

    In other words, bringing up the old saw about narrow tracks and short wheelbases brings back the sort of strange outlook enthusiast magazines had fifty years ago when they dissed funny little furrin’ cars as rough riding tin cans, then sat back and felt superior.

    Let’s get real. If the engineers at Kia cannot get decent ride and handling from this bucket, it’s on them, not the basic dimensions. Because others have done much better with less. The old BMW 2002 had 52 inch track front and rear and a 100 inch wheelbase. They rode and handled rather well, I always thought.

  • avatar
    deanst

    If Kia could make a credible “ST” version of the car with accord hp and mpg, I would buy one tomorrow. It’s quite handsome for a subcompact.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      It is. Apart from the Mini, I don’t think there have been any subcompacts since the original Fit and Versa that I’d be able to get past the looks to bother with a test drive. This one goes beyond that; it’s a car I’d actually enjoy looking at.

      • 0 avatar
        TonyJZX

        This car was introduced in 2011. A eon ago. To me, it did many firsts, it was a decent looking car, it introduced an ok 1.4 PFI 6 spd manual with a nice looking interior neven in basic trim, and it introduced a 1.6 GDI w/ 6 spd auto when everyone else was stuck with PFI and 4 spds. They even had a nice looking 3 door model.

        However the world and the market moved on. There is massive discounting on the C segment end.

        You can get yourself into a Corolla sized car w/ 1.8-2.0 auto for about the same money so why not have that capability for no downside… and its much easier on resale to get rid of a large hatch.

        Worse still the subcompact CUVs are around the same money too.

        There’s no reason for this car to exist outside of the subcompact markets of the BRICs of the world.

        Thing is they could have innovated with the slotting the 1.6 turbo 200hp motor into it. Instead they removed the 1.6 GDI in my market and persist with a 1.4 PDF 4 spd auto.

        • 0 avatar
          rpn453

          This is supposedly a new generation of Rio. I hadn’t paid any attention to the previous one. It does appear to be similar.

          An ex-girlfriend of mine would have bought a subcompact instead of her Mazda3 last year if there were better options in that category. Relative price would not have been a concern. She said a primary consideration was a small footprint so she could easily park it in her little garage, which has somewhat tight access. It didn’t take her long to get a couple bumper scrapes. I’m sure in 10 or 20 years the bumper will have lost as much paint as the ’93 MX-6 it replaced.

          She didn’t even want to look at something as big as a CX-5. I figured the CX-3 would be perfect, but the visibility was poor from her seating position. All the better; the CX-3 had no manual option anyway.

          I did suggest test driving a Fiesta, but she wasn’t interested. She has a bad impression of domestic vehicles and I wasn’t going to try to convince her otherwise and receive the blame if she ever had issues.

          A brand new 2007 Fit probably would have been a sale. Maybe even a new 2007 Versa. I suggested driving a new Fit while we were at the Honda dealer driving the HR-V. It wouldn’t have even been much effort to try the Versa after we drove the Juke. But the reviews suggested both the Fit and Versa had been cheapened to the point of penalty box status so she didn’t want to waste any time on them.

  • avatar
    brettc

    Quite a difference in trims for the U.S. model. I was on Kia’s USA’s site yesterday looking at the Rio and was surprised that the 2018 model has no heated seat option.

    I thought I was missing something but apparently it just doesn’t exist! Canadians do love their hatches though, so it’s smart of Kia of Canada to offer what they do.

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

    It really is an attractive car, much more so than my 2004 Rio was. But, I think I’ll be keeping my ’17 Versa for now.

  • avatar
    namstrap

    I’m on my second hatchback now, and couldn’t conceive of having anything else now. I am Canadian, though.
    Happy Thanksgiving to all my Canadian friends in here!

  • avatar
    ccbc

    This thing screams copycat. Even the LCD in the middle of gauges has a template identical to VW. Pathetic how Koreans cannot definetheir own image.


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