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Executive Wheels: Top of the Second-Car Class

A review of the 2018 Kia Rio

Jeff Rundles //September 6, 2018//

Executive Wheels: Top of the Second-Car Class

A review of the 2018 Kia Rio

Jeff Rundles //September 6, 2018//

One doesn’t get excited when the word comes that the press pool will be delivering a Kia Rio for review purposes. After all, it’s a little subcompact model – admittedly from a top auto maker – and is aimed toward the younger, and less-affluent set. So it’s bound to be tinny and lack some of the finer things that a reviewer gets used to. Besides, I haven’t driven one in years and my recollection is there’s nothing to write home about, or to write about for public consumption.

But just minutes before the car was to be delivered, I saw a news article about the just-released annual J.D Power U.S. Initial Quality Study, based on the responses of new car owners after 90 days of ownership, and lo and behold the top three car makers in the survey were Kia, Hyundai and Genesis, the latter being the luxury division of Hyundai. It should be noted that the Korean car makers Hyundai and Kia share a great deal of ownership. Plus, I have driven many fine vehicles from both lines. Then, as I looked into the authoritative J.D. Powers study, the Kia Rio itself topped the Small Car category for owner satisfaction. A great pedigree and impressive credentials right off the bat.

And the Rio didn’t disappoint.

Hey, it’s no Lexus. But I expected it to be relatively noisy, underpowered and feature the kind of hurky-jerky handling that many subcompacts suffer from. It was none of those things. The car is quiet – very low road noise – it is surprisingly zippy, even on the highway, and it handled like a much larger, heavier car. I was duly impressed from the first drive and throughout the test-drive week.

Another thing I expected was to feel cramped in a small car – I have experienced this before. But the Rio is quite roomy, especially in the front bucket seats. The rear seating area, or so my passengers said, wasn’t huge, but adequate for adult males. Where this size issue really came into play is in the trunk in this sedan – it’s HUGE. I was very surprised and impressed.

peaking of the zippiness, this Rio – in fact, all Rios – is powered by a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine putting out some 130 horsepower. I know, that doesn’t sound like much is this day and age. But somehow the Kia engineers get a lot out of this little powerplant and it never once failed to have the power and punch that I needed for the occasion. Then add in the mileage rating: 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway/32 mpg combined. In this time of rising gas prices, having a car with this kind of efficiency is a big asset.

There are three Rio sedans in the lineup: The base model, LX, that carries a MSRP base price of just $13,900, then the S trim, MSRP at $16,100, and this top-of-the-line EX, carrying a base price of $18,400. Since they all have the same engine, the differences in the trims is just what is added as standard. The LX, at base, comes with a 6-speed manual transmission, while the other two carry a 6-speed automatic transmission – which is smooth shifting.

My test-drive EX only had one add-on – $130 for carpeted floor mats. So standard they put on some impressive stuff: All the air bags, of course, traction control, electronic stability control, power windows, door locks and mirrors, the Kia UV eServices Infotainment system, with a 7-inch touch screen handling AM/FM/satellite radio and all of the requisite apps for smart phone connectivity, Bluetooth, of course, for phone calls and music/podcast hookups, and voice command operation. There’s also forward collision warnings, rear-view camera, autonomous emergency braking, and fog lights. The seats are manually controlled. And, of course, there’s the Kia 10-year/100k powertrain warranty, with the 5-year/60k basic warranty and roadside assistance. Did I mention the great up-front-in-the-console cubby for a smart phone with all of the USB/AXX/PWR hookups?


The Kia Rio has been around since the 2000 model year, obviously built then by Kia having replaced a car they called the Pride which was just a rebadged Ford Fiesta that Kia used to get into the category. Now it its 4th generation (2018 is the first year of the 4th, the Rio shares a platform with its cousin Hyundai Accent. When it first started out it featured just 96 hp, then jumped up to 110 hp in later generations, and the 30 percent increase in horsepower since the beginning while maintaining high mileage ratings is a testament to modern auto engineering and market demand.

As I said, the Rio is no Lexus, but Kia has made this new 4th generation a little wider and a little longer, changed the look to the aggressive “Tiger Grille” that the line is famous for, and made this car into a solid, handsome ride. It is obviously well-made – all the fit and finish items seemed excellent. What I liked the most is how simple the Rio is. Everything – the radio, the apps, the climate control (great AC!) – is easy to use, intuitive, non-distractive, and the sound is amazing in the sound system.

In a perfect world, I would have two cars for my family: an SUV for hauling people and for road trips to the mountains, etc., and an economical smaller car for in-city commuting. This Kia Rio would be perfect as that second commuter car, with the added benefit that it performs beautifully on the highway and I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on a long drive.

Plus – and this is key – the Kia Rio is a very fun to drive. Responsive, quick, zippy, quiet, easy to handle and, well, as I said, fun. And, at a bottom line (with $895 in destination charges) of $19,425 for this top-of-the-line trim, it has everything a second, commuter car should have. Not all competitors do, which puts the Kia Rio in the top of its class.