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2018 Kia Rio: First Drive Review

If you’re looking for information on a newer Kia Rio, we’ve published an updated review: 2019 Kia Rio Review

Earmarked as the brand’s gateway, the 2018 Kia Rio is mandated to convert the unwashed into pulpit-pounding believers. Kia’s strategy is to so overwhelm first-time car owners in general, and first-time Kia owners in particular, with so much value and quality that they stick with the brand for future vehicle needs. We think they have created exactly the right car for the task.

Kia product gurus at the fourth-generation Rio’s recent debut in Baltimore, Maryland reminded the motoring press gathered there that, although it doesn’t do as well in the U.S., worldwide, Rio is the brand’s best-selling model. With that in mind, Kia enlarged Rio’s footprint, upgraded the cabin, boosted fuel economy and increased technology. It’s still a small, entry-level car, but in many ways, it feels like more.


Despite Kia’s expectation that the 4-door sedan will account for 80 percent of Rio’s sales, we were smitten with the hatchback. In our mind, it looks more practical and certainly looks like more fun than the 4-door. A Rio sedan can be had for as little as $13,990 for the LX, before the yet-to-be-determined factory destination charge. No matter the grade, opting for the hatchback will add another $300 to the bottom line. Replacing the LX’s standard 6-speed manual transmission for the 6-speed automatic that’s standard in S and EX trim levels will set you back $1,000.

We like that Kia offers the bare-bones entry-level Rio. There are a lot of people out there who just need to get from place to place. That’s the role of LX: Appeal to the just-get-me-there crowd. Selecting the LX, however, leaves you to crank the windows and manually adjust the outboard mirrors. There’s air conditioning, but no Bluetooth connectivity, only four audio speakers instead of six, no cruise control and LX has a rear bench seat in place of the split folding one in the upper grades. Save for the LX transmission swap, Kia doesn’t offer factory options on any of its trims; so, there is no adding any of the missing frills to LX.

Kia has yet to announce pricing on the two upper grades or the limited-production Launch Edition. That will come closer to Rio’s on-sale date in the late fall. But look for the decked-out EX to approach $18,000. With that price will come extra niceties like alloy wheels, the third-generation Kia UVO infotainment system and autonomous emergency braking. See the 2018 Kia Rio models for sale near you

Boiler Room

Carried over from last year is an enhanced 1.6-liter Gamma GDI 4-cylinder engine. In tweaking it for the renewed Rio, Kia engineers shaved away 8 horsepower and 4 lb-ft of torque. In this iteration the engine delivers 130 hp and 119 lb-ft of torque. The good news: Tinkering with the engine did improve fuel economy by one mile per gallon across the board. No matter sedan or hatchback, with the automatic tranny, the 1.6-liter delivers 28 mpg city and 37 mpg highway. Staying with the manual transmission in the LX will add one mpg to the city number.

We didn’t get a crack at a Rio with the manual transmission in Baltimore, but the 6-speed automatic worked brilliantly with the engine. Down shifting right on cue, it provided a blast of speed when we needed to zip around slower traffic. Although the engine creates some racket under hard acceleration, it is surprisingly quiet when cruising or idle. A big thumbs up to Kia for retaining the manual tranny in at least one trim level. Too bad, though, it’s not available in the upper grades.


Referring to it as geometric, Kia execs told us that the overall design is European based. A realtor will tell you that the way a house looks to potential buyers as they approach it — good or bad — has a real impact on how they generally feel about the property. It’s called "curb appeal," and that first impression sets the tone for the rest of the home tour. Kia stylists took that to heart in penning the lines for the next Rio. There’s nothing boring about the design. There are enough creases and curves front to back to keep your eye moving. If Optima pops into your head as you gaze at the next-gen Rio, you grasp what the designers intended. This is particularly true from the front view where the Kia tiger-nose grille fades into the wraparound cat’s-eye headlights. In fact, Kia invested a lot of time into making the front and rear ends of the car appear wider and more planted.

Kia stretched the wheelbase just shy of half an inch. Both the sedan and hatchback are a bit longer (0.6-in) than the outgoing vehicle. Both configurations are slightly lower and wider, too.

Kia carries the whole mature theme a little far, in our opinion, with the available exterior color palette. There are no fun colors. Where’s the orange or electric green or even yellow? White, red, yawn, silver and a couple of more colors that would’ve been right at home on a 1962 Chevy Biscayne pretty much represent the choices. A handsome British-racing-like green is the sole color with some personality. And, it’s more regal than fun.

Living Space

All of those extra fractions of an inch Kia built into the Rio’s exterior translate into more passenger space inside. Not tons of it, mind you, but a noticeable increase to 90 cu ft., give or take a fraction of an inch. Front occupants enjoy a boost in head, shoulder and legroom; while rear-seat passengers see a small jump in shoulder and legroom. As should be expected, the hatchback offers more cargo room than the sedan. With the backseat in place, both have more cargo-carrying space than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan. With the second-row seat folded flat with the cargo floor, the hatchback delivers an impressive 32.8 cu ft. of load-hauling space. Think: 33 basketballs.

Workmanship in our test Rio was topnotch. Sure, we were piloting the high-end EX, but even knowing it was dressed in its best duds, we were impressed with the quality of materials in this entry-level car. It was comfy and user friendly.

Interior planners put the emphasis on technology: built-in and carry-along personal devices. S and EX grades have Bluetooth hands-free capability, rear-view camera, front- and rear-seat USB ports, and a 6-speaker audio system. Stepping up to the EX brings with it the UVO3 infotainment system with its stand-up, 7-in floating touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.


In the world of pipsqueak cars, the 2018 Kia Rio does stand out. We always expect Kia to tell a value story, and the Rio is the next chapter. But it’s not just about an affordable price. Kia has delivered an entry-level car that isn’t just filling space at the bottom of its lineup; it has the chops to lock first-time owners into the Kia brand. We think it will do what Kia needs it to do.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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