Skip to main content

2018 Kia Rio First Drive

This all-new Rio may be small, but it has a <em>grande</em> attitude.

The Kia Rio hasn't been setting the American market on fire recently, being handily outsold over the last five years by the Soul, Forte and Optima, but the Rio is Kia's best-selling car internationally. That means the little Rio carries a lot of big expectations, and our recent drive in the newly redesigned version made it clear how seriously Kia took the task of updating its most affordable model.

The Rio, available as a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback, is going up against some stiff competition in the subcompact segment. There's the Honda Fit, recently updated for 2018 with more technology and safety features, which is an impressively practical small car thanks to its trick folding rear seat. The Nissan Versa sedan sells well thanks in part to its incredibly low starting price. There's also the fuel-efficient Prius C, the cheerful Chevy Sonic, the upscale Mini Cooper, just to name a few. There's even Kia's own Soul hatchback, which has won fans with its funky styling and huge trunk.

So the question is: What sets the new 2018 Rio apart? Can it stake a claim for itself against so much competition?

New Look, New Attitude
The 2018 Kia Rio's pleasing proportions, especially in five-door hatchback form, mask its diminutive dimensions, avoiding the vaguely bubble-top look of many small cars. The car is lower, wider and longer (although not by much), the wheels have been pushed farther toward the corners, and the windshield has been made more upright. The overall effect, we think, makes the Rio the best-looking vehicle in its segment.

2018 Kia Rio

The inside has also been upgraded, and while hard plastics still abound, it feels very solidly built. The redesigned dash and gauge cluster manage to look upscale as well, so even though the Rio is a budget-priced car, it doesn't feel cheap. We think the interior presents itself better than cars costing thousands more.

Additional sound insulation, a redesigned suspension and revised steering help, too, making the new Rio feel buttoned-down and solid on the road. At speed on the freeway, the car has the sense of weight of a larger vehicle, but when the road gets twisty, it reveals a planted sportiness.

Kia talks about the new Rio being "grown-up," and that's a good way to describe it. It's a subcompact car where nothing feels flimsy or like a design afterthought. From the ground up, the 2018 Rio is a solid car that just happens to be very small.

2018 Kia Rio

Bigger on the Inside
The intelligently designed dashboard and center console, along with a windshield that has less rake, help the Rio feel surprisingly roomy on the inside. Rear-seat headroom is another surprise, as our 6-foot editor was able to sit upright comfortably. Rear legroom has grown 2 inches from the previous model, but front legroom has shrunk by more than an inch. That's still a net gain, but in the real world, rear legroom is still tight behind a tall driver.

The front seats are comfortable, accommodating and wide enough to give most drivers plenty of breathing room. The driver's seat is also height-adjustable, which means the Rio will fit a wide range of drivers. We liked the seating position, which feels a little lower and sportier than many subcompacts. Thanks to a lowered windowline, outward visibility is excellent, while the steering wheel also has plenty of telescoping range, something taller drivers will greatly appreciate.

With the rear seat up, the 2018 Rio 5-Door offers a respectable 17.4 cubic feet of storage room — thanks in part to the redesigned rear suspension, which opened up more space. Fold the seat down, and you'll get 32.8 cubic feet, which is notably less than some competitors. The sedan's trunk is 13.7 cubic feet, not bad for a subcompact sedan, but not the biggest in the class either.

2018 Kia Rio

Less Power, Better Driver
The Rio's standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine actually makes slightly less power for 2018. It now delivers 130 horsepower and 119 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. Kia's engineers decided to trade peak power for usable power, meaning that the Rio feels stronger at the lower engine speeds drivers encounter most often.

That translates to a car that feels livelier around town than the outgoing model. Kia is promising a faster 0-to-60-mph time than the outgoing model but hasn't released official numbers yet. Officially, the EPA rates the 2018 Kia Rio at 32 mpg in combined driving (28 city/37 highway). That's an improvement of 2 mpg over the outgoing model but isn't enough to top class leaders.

2018 Kia Rio

We didn't get a chance to try out the manual transmission — which is only available on the base LX trim — but the Rio's six-speed automatic, standard on the S and EX, works well. Shifts are handled quickly and smoothly, which is good because the Rio often has to downshift when passing or accelerating. The frequency with which the Rio has to shift is the one place where its small car character comes through, but it's nothing out of the ordinary for the segment.

Kia also completely redesigned the Rio's suspension to improve handling and high-speed stability, and the steering has been revised for better response and on-center feel. The result is a car that instills confidence in corners and feels rock-steady on the freeway. The ride is definitely firmer than that of a lot of small cars, but even on cobblestone streets it didn't come across as harsh. In terms of ride and handling, this might be the sportiest offering in the class now that the Ford Fiesta ST is gone.

Obviously, There's More Technology
On top of features such as keyless entry and cruise control, the top-tier EX gets Kia's easy-to-use and feature-rich 7-inch Uvo3 touchscreen system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration. Factory navigation is no longer an option since very few people opted for it on the outgoing model and Kia figures most people would rather use their phone's GPS at no added cost.

2018 Kia Rio

Uvo3 also supports a free smartphone app that offers diagnostic information in the case of a problem, tracks service intervals, and comes with other features that parents of young drivers will appreciate, such as a curfew notification.

The EX also comes standard with automatic emergency braking, a handy active safety feature that sets it apart from some of its competitors. Right now, only the refreshed 2018 Honda Fit offers more in the way of active safety.

There are three trim levels, and down at the entry LX trim level, it's a different story. To keep costs down, the LX comes with a 5-inch display that supports radio of the regular and satellite varieties, a USB input and not much else. It keeps all the strengths of the car's design and powertrain but ditches creature comforts to deliver a budget car. With a manual transmission, it's a surprisingly low-cost option. The midtier S trim adds back quite a few interior features, such as the center armrest with its storage box and reading lights, but also doesn't get the Uvo3 system or automatic braking.

Priced to Move
Pricing for higher trims has not been confirmed yet, but the 2018 Kia Rio LX sedan will start with an MSRP of $13,990 for the manual and $14,990 for the automatic. The Rio 5-Door exacts a $300 premium over the sedan. Considering how buttoned-down and grown-up the new Rio feels, not to mention how good it looks, that price helps make it an appealing contender in the subcompact segment.

The 2018 Kia Rio will be hitting showrooms soon in late 2017 at which point we'll get more seat time and a chance to test the car more thoroughly. Still, our first impressions were positive, and the new Rio came across as a comfortable, solidly built, and smartly designed small car with above-average driving dynamics for the class.

2018 Kia Rio

What our partners recommend


The world's first six-function MultiProTM Tailgate, plus an available 6.2L V8 delivers an impressive 420HP & 460 lb.-ft. of torque.
See More at GMC.comAdvertisement

Latest car news from our experts

See all car news