Named for the Spanish and Portuguese word for river, the subcompact Kia Rio has always been far more mundane than the images of exotic European and South American locales its name conjures. And yet, Kia has worked hard to make its entry-level model stand out in a crowded field populated by big names like Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta.
The Rio is all-new for 2018, sporting a redesigned body and cabin that ride on a nominally longer wheelbase, with Kia making the usual promises of better driving dynamics. More concrete bragging rights come from the availability of automatic emergency braking and a structure composed of 32 per cent more high-strength steel than the outgoing car, both of which bode well for the new design's crash safety.
Kia takes the controversial tack of calling the new car better looking than its predecessor, but we thought the outgoing car was more distinctive; by contrast, the sedan looks like a scaled-down version of the brand's mid-size Optima, while the updated hatchback bears a resemblance to the five-door of two generations ago.
But let's be honest: The majority of buyers shopping for a car with a starting price less than $15,000 probably prioritize practicality over appearance, and this new Rio is hardly unattractive. And indeed, standard features like a heated steering wheel, heated front seats and a backup camera are likely to be big draws at that price point. As nice as those features are, the Rio's entry-level status shows in its lack of rear disc brakes and a telescopic steering column, both of which are unavailable until you cross the $20,000 threshold.
Power comes from a 1.6L four-cylinder engine making 130 hp and 119 lb-ft of torque, which comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission that can be optioned to a six-speed automatic.
The entry-level LX trim comes with the stickshift, 15-inch steel wheels with covers, heated and power-adjustable side mirrors, power windows and door locks with keyless entry, tire mobility kit (there's no spare tire), automatic headlights, and a four-speaker display audio sound system with five-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth and USB and auxiliary inputs.
Another $1,600 gets you an LX+ model with air conditioning and cruise control. The only other addition to the LX line is the automatic transmission, which is standard in the rest of the model range.
Next up is the EX model, which comes with a compact spare tire, 15-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, fog lights, sunroof, chrome trim, LED positioning lights, tilt-and-telescopic steering (replacing the LX's tilt-only wheel), automatic climate control, passive keyless entry, seven-inch infotainment display with embedded telematics and a six-speaker stereo.
EX Sport gets 17-inch alloy wheels, LED taillights and rain-sensing wipers.
Finally, the EX Tech Navi model adds automatic emergency braking, leather seats and navigation.