Anodyne decency. Small cars don't get much more generic than the Kia Rio. It doesn't matter whether you're looking at it, sitting in it, or driving it: Kia's subcompact four- or five-door car is a butler of a machine, all service and no personality. It doesn't let you down but you'll never be reaching for the keys out of sheer pleasure.
Like anything else, it has its core competencies: the Rio is good on gas, easy on the wallet, and comfortable to live with. It just doesn't embellish these qualities. We find this disappointing, but we should note that our predilections skew more towards tire smoke and donuts than comfortable and fuel-efficient. Compared the Nissan Versa, Mitsubishi Mirage, and Hyundai Accent, the Kia Rio is likely exciting enough for most shoppers in this price-conscious segment anyway.
Strong value in a weak market. The Kia Rio - along with its sister car, the mechanically-similar Hyundai Accent - are the two major players in the industry's bargain corner. Others that still have skin in the game include the Chevrolet Spark, Mitsubishi Mirage, and Nissan Versa.
The Kia Rio holds its own against those model, but its price puts it in an awkward spot. The Rio's aforementioned competitors start around $15,000 or so after destination; the Rio kicks things off closer to $17,000. To add a little more perspective, compacts like the Honda Civic begin around $20,000 or so.
On first blush, this makes the Rio look like either a great deal relative to a compact or just an overpriced subcompact. On closer inspection, it becomes the clear the Rio is priced relative to its size and features rather than its dimensions. Kia builds every Rio with power features, 17-inch wheels, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. That sort of connectivity is some of the most advanced in the segment.
The Nissan Versa is likely the toughest competitor here. All-new last year, the Versa brings modern amenities and contemporary style to a segment typically unused to such luxuries. It only gets a 7.0-inch touchscreen that requires a cord for smartphone compatibility, but it does come with standard automatic emergency braking and other active-safety goodies. The Rio? You'll need to pay extra for that lifesaving equipment - and it's only available on the pricier trim.
Space out. The Rio has an ace up its sleeve: a hatchback body style. The Mirage and Spark also continue to offer a hatchback design, but the more pertinent competitors - the related Accent and the recently-redesigned Versa - do not.
Opting for the hatchback makes a significant difference in how practical the Rio can be. As a sedan, the 13.7 cubic feet of cargo space leaves us cold. We should note that this figure is good for the class, but who wouldn't like more room for when their lifestyle demands it? The hatchback gets this. It offers 17.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats and a total cargo area of nearly 33 cubic feet.
The cargo area of the Rio's hatch handily outdoes the 27 total cubic feet found in the Spark hatchback. The five-door Mirage takes the cake, however: it boasts almost 50 cubic feet of cargo area.
The pecking order is a bit different for sedans, with the Versa coming out on top with a generous 15 cubic feet of trunk space. The Spark's trunk is smallest at just 11 cubic feet. The Rio's trunk splits the difference.
As for legroom, you'll find 33.5 inches worth of it in the Rio's back seat. That's more than the Versa's 31 inches, about the same as the Spark, and less than the Mirage's 34 inches of rear legroom.
Efficient, unexciting. The Rio is powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder pushing out a meager 120 horsepower. Is it fast? No. Is it refined? Yes, relative to the price point. This engine won't be making its way into a Mercedes but is more than adequate for a $17,000 car.
Happily enough, refinement is not a concern; only the lack of thrust has us miffed. 120 horsepower isn't much, and neither is 112 lb-ft of torque. Without a turbo, that torque has to be gradually encroached upon. Speed takes time to build and passing maneuvers take time to execute.
A CVT transmission delivers the power to the front wheels. Some CVTs drone, moan, and groan; this is not one of them. We did notice it was a bit more sluggish to react than some competing CVTs, though.
The miserly 33 mpg city, 41 highway, and 36 combined is our favorite characteristic of this powertrain. The Versa isn't quite so good on the highway or during combined driving, and the Spark trails the Rio on all three categories. Only the Mirage is more efficient - but we'd rather pilot the 120-hp Rio than the 74-hp Mirage.
The Rio's ride and handling are fine - and nothing more or less. Bumps are squashed nicely; corners are handled with diplomacy. It's easy to drive because there is nothing in the way of zest or zeal. When people think of A to B transportation, they're thinking of the Rio.
Final thoughts. Let's face it: the writing is on the wall for small cars. Popular choices like the Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris have all been given the axe recently due to shrinking sales and razor-thin profit margins. What remains of the segment is a small collection of cars that most folk would only consider when they're standing at the rental counter.
And yet for all the ominous foreshadowing the Rio still offers an appealing value for those buyers that appreciate a plain, affordable car. For not a lot of money, the Rio offers the technology shoppers want in an efficient and comfortable package. All that's missing is Kia's suite of standard safety features.
Check prices for the 2021 Kia Rio »