If you haven’t bought an economy car in a while, it’s easy to get sticker shock. The cheapest automatic-transmission Honda Civic wears a sticker price north of $20,000, and it’s become common for a fully-loaded compact sedan to approach $30,000.
But if you’d like to follow a stricter budget, several subcompact models serve as functional transportation while providing contemporary features such as Bluetooth and USB smartphone connectivity, rearview cameras and touchscreen infotainment systems. And while they won’t match the artfully-refined driving dynamics and spacious interior of today’s Civic, these options don’t have to disappoint you for ride smoothness, driver comfort and cabin build quality.
One such option is the 2018 Kia Rio, which has been freshly redesigned and is available as a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback. It’s priced from $14,795 and is a perfectly serviceable commuter companion.
As part of this year's redesign, Kia stripped the Rio of its earlier design flair, leaving a plainer but more functional little box on wheels — trading verve for maximum value and improved visibility. That change speaks to the car’s attitude: It handles most tasks with competence, but offers little excellence. While many recent subcompact cars have tried to come off as sporty and upscale — notably, the Ford Fiesta and the last-generation Rio — Kia stuck with basic, functional and affordable.
The experience starts with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 130 horsepower. That’s a small engine by today’s standards, but it’s more horsepower than a Civic offered 15 years ago. The Rio feels peppy off the line — almost too jumpy, perhaps — but the engine sounds raspy and doesn’t have much surplus passing power at higher speeds. However, it’s EPA-rated for a decent 32 miles per gallon in mixed driving, and it returned 35 mpg in a weeklong test.
The Rio does feature respectable ride and handling. It’s not fancy or sporty, but unlike subcompact cars of ages past, it doesn’t feel halfheartedly engineered — the steering is well-weighted and natural, and the suspension absorbs bumps without too much drama. With a quieter engine, the Rio could have been a refinement leader in its class, though it’s still a clear cut above a Mitsubishi Mirage or Nissan Versa.
Inside, the tested Rio EX hatchback with every major option ($20,225) features a classy two-tone cabin with black and maroon on the dashboard and the leather-upholstered seats. But on any other Rio, the palate drops to a less appealing mix of black and gray. It’s respectably finished and ergonomically sensible, and the front seats are comfortable and supportive, but it’s decidedly drab to look at.
There’s a similar story with the Rio’s infotainment system. Only the top EX trim includes a good-sized touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, while the base LX and mid-level S — the affordable models that most buyers will likely choose — have a more basic system.
Unlike the competing Nissan Versa Note or Honda Fit, even the Rio’s hatchback version isn’t especially spacious. The rear seat can fit adults only in a pinch, and although there’s a decent amount of cargo room, it’s nothing like the crossover-rivaling Honda or Nissan. Kia saves that niche for its larger Soul, which is highly versatile and a great overall value but not nearly as fuel-efficient.
Given that the Rio doesn’t try to be sporty, funky or otherwise fun and desirable, a buying decision comes down largely to the dollars and cents. Here, it fares well against the competition — but doesn’t blow it away, either.
Depending on the individual deals you may find, the Rio tends to be more expensive than a comparably-equipped Chevrolet Spark, Ford Fiesta, Mitsubishi Mirage or Nissan Versa; of those, all but the Ford also get better gas mileage. If cost is paramount, one of them is your likely winner.
However, the Kia isn't without appeal. The Chevrolet and Ford have less interior space than the Rio, and all but the Fiesta feel like cheaper, more basic vehicles. Kia also provides especially long warranty coverage.
Also check out the most affordable vehicles from the compact class, one size larger. With larger discounts off their sticker prices, they’re sometimes little more expensive than subcompact models. Competent and often-discounted compact sedans are the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla.