The Car Connection Kia Rio Overview
The Kia Rio is the South Korean automaker's smallest and least expensive U.S. offering. It's sold as either a four-door sedan or as a five-door hatchback.
The newest Kia Rio was launched as a 2018 model, in hatchback or sedan form. The automaker has big plans for the car, including for the first time producing it in North America. The car's dimensions were largely the same from the outgoing model, but ride and handling were improved over the previous car.
With the Rio, Kia has a rival for other small cars including the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris—even the Hyundai Accent, with which it shares some of its running gear.
MORE: Read our 2018 Kia Rio review
The new Kia Rio
The new Kia Rio arrived for the 2018 model year with a conservative restyling and a bigger emphasis on drivability. The Rio is still powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4, but the new motor made more power lower in the rev range for stoplight grands prix. The engine's ratings were lower than the year before, only 130 horsepower, but the same 32-mpg average regardless of transmission.
Available in either a hatchback or sedan, the 2018 Kia Rio was among the most-affordable new cars available to shoppers, but it keenly missed some safety features other automakers were making standard. Only the top-trim Kia Rio EX came equipped with automatic emergency braking, and base versions skipped a rearview camera.
Despite lacking some common-sense features, the Rio was made better with more sound deadening material and a smoother drive. The automaker shipped the cars with its newest infotainment system, dubbed UVO 3.
Although the small compact car segment is dwindling in the U.S., Kia says the fourth-generation Rio will be the best-selling car for the brand over its life. Kia said worldwide sales of the Rio would top well over 1 million cars.
Kia Rio history
When it was added to the lineup back in 2001, the Rio became the third Kia model to be offered in the U.S. after the Sportage small crossover and the Sephia sedan (a car later succeeded by the Spectra, and most recently the Forte). That first Rio used a 96-hp, 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine (upgraded to 104 hp for 2003), along with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. At a price below $9,000, we found it well-built but coarse and unrefined, with substandard interior materials. In 2002, a Rio Cinco five-door hatchback (or, arguably, a wagon) joined the lineup, offering low-priced cargo volume and versatility.
In 2007, the second-generation Rio shared its running gear and underpinnings with the Hyundai Accent (Hyundai owns Kia, though the two brands operate fairly separately in the U.S. market). The revised Rio had had one of the better interiors in its class—even though it wasn't that exciting in design—as well as much better ride quality. It caught up with competitors on several levels and remained one of the better-equipped subcompacts in the class for several years. A smooth new 110-hp, 1.6-liter four gave it more gusto, while transmissions remained a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic. Unfortunately, despite its standard side airbags (hardly ubiquitous at the time), its crash-test ratings were some of the lowest in the class. A Rio5 five-door hatchback model was introduced for 2008, although only in the somewhat more expensive LX trim.
The 2012 model year marked the beginning of the third generation for Kia's Rio. While it is priced considerably higher than the 2011 car it replaced, the latest Rio is not only sportier and more stylish inside and out, but also much more engaging to drive. Crisp details, lots of body sculpting, and a European-inspired interior bring the nicely proportioned Rio into full competition with rival models. The sedan is a particular standout, with a design that doesn't look bulky and awkward like many of its competitors' four-doors do.
Only one engine was offered. The smooth, 1.6-liter, direct-injected 4-cylinder engine made 138 horsepower and is paired with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. The Rio's safety ratings improved, but were still middling—four stars overall from the NHTSA, and one "Marginal" and one "Acceptable" rating from the IIHS, among "Good" ratings in other categories.
One black mark on the otherwise cheerful Rio's record is that it was one of several vehicles for which Kia (and also Hyundai) were found to have overstated fuel-economy numbers. Kia self-certified that the Rio automatic achieved 30 mpg city, 40 highway, 33 combined. The manual was rated higher at 34 mpg combined. But after complaints from buyers, the EPA tested several vehicles and found that the actual numbers should have been 28/36/31 mpg for the 6-speed automatic, and 29/37/32 mpg for the 6-speed manual. Perhaps more embarrassing, the 2013 Kia Rio Eco model was busted down from 34 mpg to 32 mpg combined, with its magic 40-mpg highway number falling to 36 mpg as well.
Kia will reimburse owners of all the affected cars for the extra gasoline costs reflected by the more accurate lower ratings. (The company attributed it all to test-cycle errors on its part, and apologized profusely and repeatedly.) Owners can register with Kia to receive reimbursement for the gas consumed above and beyond expected levels; more details are found at KiaMPGInfo.com.
For 2013, the only change to the Rio lineup was the arrival of a long-delayed engine start-stop option, priced at $400. The impact was about a 1-mile-per-gallon increase for the Rio's city fuel-economy rating, though we're not convinced the option will find many takers.
For 2016, the Rio received a mild facelift. The changes consist of a restyled front end, revised lighting elements, and some new color options.