The all-new 2018 Kia Rio is longer, lower, and wider than the outgoing model with cleaner lines, a quieter interior, a suppler ride, and an engine that's more responsive in around-town driving. It's held back by the bare bones entry-level model, underpowered engine, and an expensive top trim that sidles into territory occupied by larger and more competent competitors.

Best Value

Pricing for the 2018 Kia Rio begins at $14,795 (including destination) for an LX sedan (the one trim available in either a sedan or hatchback body style) with a six-speed manual transmission, and rises to $20,225 for an example like our test vehicle: a six-speed automatic-equipped EX hatchback Launch Edition, finished in Urban Gray, with red accent leather seating and optional carpeted floor mats.

Looking over the lineup, we'd pass on the hair shirt LX sedan that's outfitted with crank windows and manual mirrors – both rarities, even in the small car class. We'd also hesitate to spend our cash on one like our tester that sports a price that edges into territory staked out by larger and dynamically superior compacts like Mazda's Mazda3.

This leads us to the S trim, where our choice is the slightly pricier (by $300) – but better looking and more versatile – hatchback model. Stepping up from the base LX not only adds electric assist to the windows and mirrors plus an automatic transmission, but also graces the Rio's exterior with body-color door handles and heated outside mirrors. Inside, it ups the ante with an overhead console with map lights and a sunglass holder, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, adjustable rear headrests, a center console, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, front and rear USB ports, and remote keyless entry.

A rearview camera is standard across the lineup, and low-speed automatic emergency braking is standard – and only offered – on the EX trim.

Here's how we'd build it:

  • Model: 2018 Kia Rio 5-Door S (hatchback)
  • Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder
  • Output: 130 hp / 119 lb-ft
  • Transmission:Six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
  • MPG: 28 City / 37 Hwy
  • Options: Carpeted floor mats ($130)
  • Base Price: $17,295 (including the $895 destination fee)
  • Best Value Price:$17,425

Performance

Kia Rio

Revised springs and dampers offer a smoother, more compliant ride, while the reworked engine means more power at lower revs for better around-town performance. Major bumps as well as minor are handled with ease, the ride is quieter than the outgoing model, steering feel is improved, and four-wheel disc brakes are standard – a rarity in this class. In addition, with an EPA-estimated 28 miles per gallon in the city, 37 mpg on the highway, and 32 combined, the Rio holds its own against competitors from Honda, Nissan, Ford, and Chevrolet. Our own observed, vehicle-measured fuel economy was 34.3 miles per gallon in suburban driving.

But it's hardly perfection, as passing on the freeway can be challenging and steering feel is hampered by poor on-center feedback through the steering wheel. In addition, there's quite a bit of body lean in corners, while the narrow P185/65 R15 Continental ProContact tires do the suspension system no favors – squealing in protest during the slightest attempt at aggressive driving. At the same time, the brakes – though decent – are more difficult to modulate than they should be and there's little initial bite to the pads, while a manual transmission is only available on the stripped-down entry model, and the "Sport" button – a cure for the automatic transmission's tendency to hunt for the right gear when accelerating or decelerating – means taking a hit to fuel economy.

Style

The exterior's more chiseled appearance works best on the hatchback. Up front, the narrow "tiger nose" grille is nestled between the headlight enclosures and sits above a large, aggressive lower air intake. On EX models, vertical faux air intakes containing round fog lights bracket the lower grille. Along the sides, a mid-door character line and sculpted swage line break up the slab-sided look, while the wheels, pushed out even further to the corners, give it a more aggressive stance.

The Rio's subcompact exterior dimensions belie an interior with a combined 103.6 cubic feet (in the smaller sedan) of passenger and cargo volume, placing the Rio solidly in the EPA's compact class. The front seats are comfortable with decent bolsters, while four six-foot adults – albeit with a bit of negotiation – can sit behind each other. Instrumentation – as expected of a vehicle in this price range – is simple and straightforward. The controls are large, easy to reach from the driver's position, and intuitive to use with redundant buttons and knobs for all major functions operated by the touchscreen – if only most luxury vehicles were this simple.

At the same time, only the driver's seat features a vertical adjustment, neither front seat comes with a lumbar adjustment, while the leather seats on the pricey Launch Edition aren't heated – a big problem for those of us that live in the colder states. In addition, the trim, though nicely grained, is comprised nearly entirely of hard plastics, the door armrests – one of the few soft touch areas – aren't ergonomic, while the center console offers too little real estate for both front occupants to rest their arms simultaneously.

The Best and Worst Things

The Rio's comfortable, quieter cabin, and smoother ride make it more appealing than the outgoing model.

A powertrain tuned for around-town driving and steering that lacks on-center feel translates to a less than the ideal highway cruiser.

Right For? Wrong For?

Kia Rio

Despite a dearth of electrically-assisted features, the Rio's attractive entry-level price point could be appealing to value-oriented buyers.

A lack of advanced safety features means safety-focused buyers will be looking elsewhere.

The Bottom Line

Despite the base model's abbreviated list of standard features and a pricey top trim, the 2018 Kia Rio is a solid contender in the subcompact class thanks to its quiet, comfortable interior, smoother ride, and excellent fuel economy.