Two generations ago, the Kia Rio was a homely little plod that, if a set of duds, would be kept in the back of your closet unless gardening in a thickly-fenced back yard. It was cheap, and came with a long warranty.
Lots were sold despite its bag-over-face styling. The second generation was a complete overhaul. While not quite top-of-class, it was respectable transportation with at least some attention to style. Consider it a nice t-shirt.
The current third-generation is the car you wrap your arms around, flog down the fastest thoroughfare, and wheel up to your favorite club with pride.
You could in fact drive the Rio in Rio and flaunt its sexy body. Or cover it up in Signal Red paint, drape it over 17” alloys with low-profile tires, and tone its smooth but muscular cab-forward self.
It brightens any roadway with fog lamps, LED accent lights, and rear combination lamps. Dual chrome exhaust tips, power-folding outside heated mirrors, and body color trim finish off this fashion statement.
It’s really what’s inside that counts. Our test car came loaded with heated leather seats, satellite radio, USB input, Bluetooth phone connection, cruise, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, power sunroof, and push button starting.
Kia’s UVO infotainment system integrates a touchscreen for navigation and rear camera. Everything, including the padded dashtop and smooth gear selector, feel like they belong in much more expensive cars. Buying an entry-level Kia does not mean shopping in the bargain bin.
Moving this show forward is a 138 hp 1.6-L direct-injection 4-cylinder engine, connected to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The Rio is one of two cars in its class to offer direct injection, which increases power and enables fuel economy of 30/40-MPG city/hwy.
Rio is also equipped with “Active Eco,” which like a hybrid, shuts down the engine when the car is not in motion. Power is automatically resumed when the driver lifts off the brake.
You need a determined loafer to work the runway with the Rio’s powertrain, but once over the jitters, it moves along energetically. The 6-speed auto is pretty smooth and does a good job of keeping the engine in a rev range that balances ready power and efficient cruising. More power is always better, but the Rio is not about racing Camaros.
A couple of things stand out on the road. The stiff sport-tuned suspension, connected to variable-effort electric power steering, enjoys carving up smooth roads and does a good job of absorbing most city bumps. Larger crevices, will shudder the body structure.
Kia’s version of electric power steering is about as good as it gets, but still doesn’t provide the smooth feel of a hydraulic system. Overall, driving the Rio feels much like a small Volkswagen. It’s firm, but it’s supposed to be.
The Rio was styled by a team headed under Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi. If Kias look a little Euro, it isn’t by accident. From stem to stern, the small Rio sedan has that German solid look, and a firm road feel.
It’s my style of car, no matter the size or price. Fortunately, this one comes loaded for $20,545. Competitors include the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic, Nissan Versa, and Toyota Yaris.