2008 Kia Rio Review

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
2008 kia rio review

Kia is one of the only car brands sold in America that's never built an enthusiast's car. Sensible Swedish Saab offered the 900. Before their core clientele started losing their pulse, Buick ran the Grand National. Saturn looked to the Sky for salvation. GMC got caught up in a Typhoon. Even Hyundai has the Tiburon circling its enthusiast oriented customers. Kia? Nothing but cheap. Or… maybe not. "Being practical doesn't mean you have to take the joy out of life," their web copy proclaims. "That's the thinking behind the Rio. It's affordable and likes a good time as much as you do." What exactly does THAT mean?

Affordability aside, nothing much. The Kia's sheetmetal serves as an instant, constant reminder that the good times are not about to roll. For starters, the front fascia appears to be a mismatch of cheap plastics and leftover pre-bankruptcy surplus (check out those diminutive fog lights on the top-of-the-line SX). The orgy of automotive penury continues with side door protectors that look like they came from the wrong side of the 1980's. The Hyundai Accent has these removed– with the mere imprint remaining. But that's like saying the Rio isn't the only sister in the family that grows a moustache.

At the back, the Rio's rear lights came straight from a Chrysler junkyard; the lower end retains the cohesiveness of overexposed cheap plastic. Overall, only the equally dire, equally South Korean Chevrolet Aveo can compare with the Rio's ultra-cheap, I mean "affordable" exterior appearance.

The Rio's interior surprised me, even in base trim. Yes, the radio controls look and feel like rubber dog toys (don't get me started) and the carpet's thinner than my imaginary hairline. But the seats are comfortable, the ergonomics faultless, and the steering wheel feels solid in your hands. In truth, only one element of the Rio's cabin will repel frugal folks before they turn the key: a sour, noxious smell. The olfactory assault may fade over time, but it sends a subconscious signal that you have abandoned all hope of a fly ride.

You don't drive a Kia Rio. You ride in it. Well, on the highway. Anywhere else, you fight with it. There's no handling as such, just a constant struggle against lateral forces and 14" of limited adhesion as you wrestle with the lack of power steering (available on the LX and SX models). Unless you think it's OK for a guy to dance by himself at the High School prom, piloting this machine is a particularly joyless affair. Did I mention the 110hp engine (@ 6000rpm) or understeer? Why would I?

Another non-surprise: the Rio with a manual transmission is a pain to drive, with a box that puts the "arggg" in agricultural. Needless to say, the optional four-speed autobox is geared for maximum mileage (i.e. minimal acceleration). Unfortunately (for Kia), moving up to the automatic lifts the price firmly into Versa / Yaris territory– where the Rio simply can't compete.

The good news: the base Kia rides smoothly down the highway with controlled body motions, and remains quiet, in an "Applebee's isn't as noisy as a TGIF's" way. That's a good fit for most of the general public that seeks to drive no more than 2/10's to 3/10's of a vehicle's capability– and wants an upper body workout. Oh, the suspension bottoms-out on moderate bumps at highway speeds. Sorry.

The word "base" has new meaning here. No power steering. No ABS or rear disc brakes, poor IIHS side-impact safety rating and, just as dangerous for southerners, no air conditioning. You can't even order a chiller in the base model. You can get AC for $700 more in an entry-level, if equally unexciting, Toyota Yaris hatchback along with… power steering! Or, you can get a variety of near-new low-mileage vehicles ranging from the unloved but far more competent Chevy Cobalt, to the quite loved and still fairly unknown Suzuki SX4.

All of which means that if the Kia Rio loves good times as much as you do, you don't love good times. At all. The Rio has nothing whatsoever to offer the enthusiast and even less to offer the frugalist. OK, the warranty is long and extensive. But then most cars today will last 200k miles.

It's a shame that the most economically-vulnerable members of society will be seduced by the Rio's low sticker. If they checked eBay's completed items section they'd see that an ultra-low mileage four-year-old Rio has trouble breaking the $4k barrier. That's $2k worth of depreciation per year. On the flip side, you can buy a certified three-year-old Corolla or Civic for nearly the same price as a new Kia Rio and get lower depreciation, better fuel economy and far better overall quality. Game, set and match.

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  • Blix Blix on Jun 23, 2008

    what a terrific review of a truly awful car. you had me in stitches, Steve! very entertaining.

  • Steven Lang Steven Lang on Jun 23, 2008

    Thanks. If Chevy ends up sending an XFE to my neck of the woods (a small town in Georgia somewhere between civilization and deliverance) I'd love to spend time behind the wheel with that as well. I don't know why, but somehow the really cheap a$$ boring cars can have this strange appeal to me. I recently got a 1994 Buick Century with only 31,000 miles on it that I swear must be responsible for half the deaths in West Palm Beach. The thing is the automotive version of novocain on the road... and yet I truly like driving it. It's authentic and genuine in the way it simply doesn't give a flip about ergonomics or interior quality... and yet, it works. It seats six, gets 30 mpg on the highway, the 3.1L is a surprisingly good choice for the mass of the car, and the trunk is massive. Everything else about the car is a joke. But it at least it nailed all the big issues for it's target audience at that time, which is why it sold so well for so long. If you want the the All-American version of automotive mediocrity, the Century was probably the epitome of it. It's what the Kia dreamed of becoming when it was a mere Festiva. The base Kia on the other hand would not qualify as a 21st century K-Car because it simply fails on every single level. At the end of a long drive I honestly thought that this car had missed it's target customer. Now if their target was someone who likes cheap 1980's era plastics and the color orange, they may be onto something. But even the bargain basement Aveo has regularly beaten the Rio in the sales charts. Some folks here want to drive the Bentleys, the Ferarris, the Porsches, and the Maseratis. As Sally Struthers would say, "Do you like driving really really expensive cars? Sure we all do. Now go get me another hamburger!" I enjoy the more plebian vehicles because in real life, I'd rather spend my money on a rental property or a really good weed whacker.

  • Skippity “Things To Watch Out For When Buying a 1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7.” A 1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7.
  • Mike Beranek Would you cross this man? No way!
  • Skippity I kinda like styling. There’s plenty of lookalike boxes on the road. Nice to see something unique.
  • Make_light I drive a 2015 A4 and had one of these as a loaner once. It was a huge disappointment (and I would have considered purchasing one as my next car--I'm something of a small crossover apologist). The engine sounded insanely coarse and unrefined (to the point that I wasn't sure if it was poor insulation or there was something wrong with my loaner). The seats, interior materials, and NVH were a huge downgrade compared to my dated A4. I get that they are a completely different class of car, but the contrast struck me. The Q3 just didn't feel like a luxury vehicle at all. Friends of mine drive a Tiguan and I can't think of one way in which the Q3 feels worth the extra cost. My mom's CX-5 is better than either in every conceivable way.
  • Arthur Dailey Personally I prefer a 1970s velour interior to the leather interior. And also prefer the instrument panel and steering wheel introduced later in the Mark series to the ones in the photograph. I have never seen a Mark III or IV with a 'centre console'. Was that even an option for the Mark IV? Rather than bucket seats they had the exceptional and sorely missed 60/40 front seating. The most comfortable seats of all for a man of a 'certain size'. In retrospect this may mark the point when Cadillac lost it mojo. Through the early to mid/late 70's Lincoln surpassed Cadillac in 'prestige/pride of place'. Then the 'imports' took over in the 1980s with the rise of the 'yuppies'.