2018 Kia Rio EX 5-Door Review – Can a Subcompact Car Be Good Enough in 2017 to Merit Attention?

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

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.