The Kia Rio is a front-wheel-drive subcompact that comes in Rio Sedan four-door and Rio 5-Door hatchback versions. The Rio offers good looks, smooth operation, and is equipped well. The current-generation Rio was redesigned for the 2012 model year and has been updated for 2016.
The 2016 Kia Rio Sedan and 2016 Rio 5-Door get revised front and rear fascia that make these little cars look wider. The new grille adopts a geometric pattern, familiar from other Kia models. Foglamps gain satin-finish bezels for 2016, and the rear reflectors have moved to the far corners. Greater use of high-density foam promises to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness on 2016 Rio models. A rearview camera and UVO telematics are now part of the Eco package.
All 2016 Kia Rio models have a 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. A 6-speed manual gearbox is standard for the sedan, with 6-speed automatic optional. All Rio 5-Door models come with the automatic. These cars run smoothly, but the driver should not expect swift reactions when it’s time to pass or merge.
Fuel economy is average. Both powertrains get a 31-mpg Combined (city/highway) estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency. The Eco model scored 1 mpg higher in city driving.
Because the rakishly styled Rio is among the smallest subcompacts on the market, a snug back seat isn’t a surprise. Partially offsetting that shortage of space is the high quality of the materials in the cabin, which convey a premium feeling that’s uncommon in the subcompact field. Some interior details, such as the use of toggle switches for climate control, seem like relics of the past, but upper trim levels get a big touchscreen.
Safety scores are middling. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives Rio a four-star rating overall. But several cautionary notes were added, because of intrusion into the vehicle during crash-testing. Rio was rated Good, its highest praise, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in moderate frontal-impact, rear-impact and roof strength but only Acceptable for side-impact and only Marginal in the new small-overlap test, not great scores.
The 2016 Kia Rio LX comes with manual gearbox ($14,165) or automatic ($15,395), air conditioning, cloth upholstery, four-speaker audio, CD player, satellite radio, USB port, steering-wheel audio controls, tilt steering, split-folding rear seatbacks, power mirrors, and 15-inch steel wheels. Hatchback is automatic-only. An LX Power package adds power windows and door locks and remote keyless entry.
Rio EX ($17,755) has an automatic transmission, knit cloth upholstery, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, power windows with one-touch auto-up/down for the driver, power locks, remote keyless entry with trunk release, foglamps, a tilt/telescopic steering column, and 15-inch alloy wheels.
Rio SX ($20,755) adds 17-inch wheels, a sport suspension, bigger front brakes, paddle shifters, LED taillight and headlight accents, automatic headlights, sunroof, rearview camera, navigation, leather seat trim, and heated front seats.
By employing clean, almost European body lines, Kia stylists working on the Rio sedan avoided the tall-trunk appearance of some subcompact sedans. Still, the five-door hatchback has a more coherent look, resulting in a higher level of vitality than the four-door sedan. In comparison, the sedan doesn’t seem quite proportional, and looks slightly tall. Even so, the Kia Rio sedan profile appears more successful than some other subcompact sedans, including the Ford Fiesta.
More than the typical subcompact, the Rio’s contrasting grille, coupled with swept-back headlights and a neatly rounded rear end, suggest the lines of a classic hot-hatch rather than an econocar. Angular bodyside creases yield quite a rakish visual persona for a budget-priced car.
Because the Rio is comparatively small, occupants are more likely to feel cramped. Interior space falls short of several rivals, including the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa Note. A sloping roofline doesn’t help.
On the other hand, the Rio benefits from a well-coordinated, carefully appointed interior that imparts a premium, almost upscale aura. Comfortable front seats have relatively long cushions, as well as helpful fore/aft seat travel. Seats in the sporty SX have more bolstering than other trims, but are still on the mild side.
Backseat occupants will feel more snug than in a Fit or Versa. When front seats are pushed all the way rearward, there’s little space for passenger knees or feet. Headroom also is scant.
Honda’s Fit leads the subcompact pack in cargo versatility, but the Rio hatchback isn’t so far behind.
Adding the optional rearview camera would be prudent, because the five-door Rio suffers from some serious blind spots.
Rio is a mix of small-car bonuses and shortcomings. The 1.6-liter engine runs and revs smoothly, and sounds are largely subdued when underway. Though short of swift when driven gently, it’s not fully sluggish. Energy is sufficient as long you push the pedal somewhat aggressively when necessary. With either transmission, though, acceleration is relatively slow-paced. Think 10 seconds or so, to reach 60 miles per hour, which is lethargic performance.
For a small, economy-focused car on a short wheelbase, Rio handles surprisingly well, remaining composed and collected under just about every driving condition. Steering does not provide sufficient feedback, though it’s a little better with the sportier SX. Still, no Rio matches the Ford Fiesta in suitably weighted, responsive steering.
The ride is comfortable, lacking the bounciness, or overreactions that tend to be typical of small cars. Sporty SX trim brings a slightly stiffer ride, largely because of its lower-profile tires, but the difference is minimal.
As for fuel economy, the most thrifty Rio gets an EPA estimate of 27/38 mpg City/Highway (31 mpg Combined) with manual shift, or 27/37 mpg with automatic. The Honda Fit earned a Combined estimate of 36 mpg. An Active Eco button, optional on LX but standard on others, can soften throttle response. With an automatic transmission, it can alter shift timing as well.
The Kia Rio subcompact has an impressive feature and equipment list for the price, as well as a smooth powertrain and a more dashing design than most competitors. Those virtues are offset by meager safety ratings and a snug back seat. The Honda Fit has far more interior space, while the Chevrolet Sonic rides more smoothly, yielding greater comfort. The Ford Fiesta is more fun.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.