The best thing about surprises is they come in all shapes, sizes and price points.
And also, you never see them coming.
The redesigned 2018 Kia Rio qualifies on all counts. Seems appropriate, considering Kia’s “The Power to Surprise” tagline.
Sometimes even Marketing gets it right.
Defying those low-rent expectations
The subcompact Rio is one of America’s most affordable cars, with sedans starting at $13,900 and hatchbacks at $14,200.
The price isn’t the surprise, though. The surprise lies in how thoroughly the Rio defies our low-rent expectations.
In spite of its bargain-basement positioning, the Rio is stylishly designed, has a comfortable and attractive cabin and has the feel of a car that’s sturdily built.
And if it’s not, there’s always that 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.
The Rio isn’t perfect. The cabin is awash in hard plastics. Backseat legroom is in short supply and the sedan suffers from an undersized trunk.
Planted and relaxed but disengaged
Kia stiffens the Rio’s body structure this year and tweaks its suspension. The suspension is rudimentary in nature — with struts up front and a torsion beam in the rear — but retuned dampers produce a settled and composed ride.
Its Euro-inflected street-presence suggests a VW-like elan, but the Rio is largely disengaged. Steering is numb and offers little feedback. In the corners, body lean is controlled but chassis responses are muted and uninspiring.
The Rio is a bit heavier this year than last and feels planted and relaxed at speed. More relaxed, in fact, than other, more engaging competitors.
The base LX trim is one of the few vehicles still available in the U.S. equipped with crank windows and without cruise control. Making its standard-equipment list are air conditioning, automatic headlights, a rearview camera, a trip computer and a height-adjustable driver seat.
The steering wheel tilts but doesn’t telescope.
Three trims, few options
The four-speaker sound system includes a 5-inch audio display, satellite radio (by subscription), a USB port and an auxiliary audio input jack.
Move up to the mid-level S ($16,000/$16,400) and your Rio fetches keyless entry, cruise control, heated power mirrors, a backup camera, center-console armrest/storage bin, map lights and a six-speaker sound system with Bluetooth connectivity.
The top-of-the-line EX ($18,400/$18,700) adds Kia’s UVO infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. It gets upgraded cloth upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and illuminated vanity mirrors. Its steering wheel adds the telescoping function.
It’s the only Rio with a forward-collision warning system and automated emergency braking.
Options on all Rios are of the light-duty variety — Black Pearl paint, cargo nets, floor mats and the like (the most costly is a $350 rearview mirror with built-in compass and Homelink) — so buyers don’t get much opportunity to customize their Rios.
Efficient and just quick enough
We tested an EX hatchback. The hatch is handsome and well-proportioned. With its chrome grille-surround, foglights and 15-inch alloy wheels, the EX has a bluntly likable presence.
Interior plastics are nicely textured and an energetic dashboard layout draws the eye along horizontal planes to the color display screen (5 inches in lower trims, 7 inches in the EX). Buttons and knobs are clearly marked and easily mastered.
Our tester included the EX-exclusive Launch package ($500) which jazzed up the works with vivid red leather accents and trim bits.
The Rio isn’t powerful — its direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine makes 130 horsepower — but it is efficient, with EPA-estimated ratings of 32 combined mpg/28 city/37 highway, and reasonably quick.
A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on the base LX, with an available six-speed automatic. S and EX trims can be had only with the automatic.
So equipped, the Rio scoots from 0-60 in an acceptable 8.5 seconds, or about a second quicker than its more powerful (138-hp) predecessor. Credit a retuned engine that produces more power at lower revolutions.
Taking aim at the market’s bottom end imposes a wad of necessarily rigorous limitations. Still, with a bit of imagination, surprises are possible. Kudos to Kia for stepping up to the challenge.
2018 Kia Rio EX Hatchback
Vehicle base price: $13,900
Trim level base price: $18,700
As tested: $20.225 (including handling and destination)
Options included EX Launch Edition (red accent-leather seat and interior trim); carpeted floor mats.
EPA ratings: 32 combined/28 city/37 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified