When gas was expensive, most automakers rushed to make their smallest, cheapest cars more appealing. From extra-roomy interiors to sporty handling to more elegant styling, these subcompacts were a way of saying that small cars don't have to be basic.
One model that followed this path was the 2012 Kia Rio. Its impressive interior build quality, surprisingly hushed cabin, European-inspired design and long list of available features made it clear that this little sedan or hatchback could be selected for its merits — not just its price.
Perhaps the strategy never worked. Or perhaps with today's gas prices, few consumers were willing to buy into it. And now, the redesigned 2018 Kia Rio appears to retrench into traditional subcompact strengths: It's cheap, and it's not too terrible, and that's about it. There's little evidence of design inspiration and few efforts to truly excel. And the best-equipped trim level has been discontinued.
Of course, there's room for a basic small car, especially at the appealing starting price of $14,795 for a Rio sedan or $300 more for the five-door hatchback. And based on a recent preview drive of a fully-optioned EX hatchback, the 2018 Rio is hardly dreadful.
Aside from engine noise during acceleration, the ride is decently comfortable and not excessively noisy. The little Rio is maneuverable and its small size gives it some automatic measure of agility, but it doesn't use its light weight to achieve any appreciable fun-to-drive quotient, at least not based on a quick preview drive. Its 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is rated for a respectable 130 horsepower, which delivers acceptable performance but is a downgrade from last year's 138.
Inside, the front seats are decently comfortable and two adults can fit into the rear more comfortably than in some subcompact competitors, such as the Ford Fiesta and Toyota Yaris iA. The Rio's available hatchback-body style lends it respectable cargo versatility, though not nearly as much space or seat-folding cleverness as a Honda Fit. The exterior design is uninspired, looking similar to last year's Rio but with slightly sharper angles.
The tested Rio EX hatchback does boast a stylish interior, with spiffy dark red cabin trim and leather upholstery. However, its sticker price pushes past $20,000 — other Rios are more plain, with a palette of grays and blacks instead of red. The 2018 Rio does use a trendy “floating screen” element on the dash, in which its infotainment touchscreen peels away from the rest of the dashboard. However, except on the top-of-the-line EX, the screen is a small 5 inches and surrounded by dull gray plastic.
Other features restricted to the EX are Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone connectivity and emergency automatic braking. The base LX does include air conditioning, power door locks and a USB port, but the mid-level Rio S (about $17,000) is the happy medium: It adds cruise control, power windows, a rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity and a remote-entry key fob, along with a standard automatic transmission (an extra-cost option on the LX).
While that's not a bad price, it's not exactly a screaming bargain. The winners for the basic-transportation award remain the even smaller Chevrolet Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage, as well as the roomier Nissan Versa. All are cruder than the Rio, though.
Another subcompact option to consider is the Toyota Yaris iA, a Mazda-built sedan previously sold as the Scion iA before Toyota shuttered its Scion brand. Its base price is $2,000 more than the Kia's, but the Yaris iA makes up for that deficit with extra standard equipment — including a host of advanced safety features, more than the Rio offers even on its EX model. The Yaris iA doesn't offer leather upholstery and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, but pretty much every other Rio feature is standard equipment on the Toyota.
Another value advantage to the Yaris iA is its fuel efficiency. The 2018 Rio is rated for 32 mpg in mixed driving — decently thrifty, to be sure, but nothing special. The Toyota is more impressive, hitting 35 mpg in EPA testing. The Yaris iA is also more fun to drive than the Rio, and its interior is more stylish. However, it suffers from a cramped rear seat and no hatchback version is available; Toyota does sell a Yaris hatchback but it's mechanically unrelated to the iA, with more space but reduced fuel economy.
For maximum versatility combined with decent refinement and value, also consider the Honda Fit. And if you're not wedded to a subcompact model, also consider some of the least expensive compact cars, including the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Kia's own Forte. Factoring in their extra standard equipment and frequent discounts, they might not cost as much more than a subcompact as one might think, especially if you're open to a sedan rather than a hatchback.