The Kia Rio S 5-Door is a thought experiment. How much car do you really need? After a few days with one, $20,200, 38 MPG and all, I’m not sure there’s much else on my end.
Full Disclosure: Kia let us borrow this Kia Rio to see how the old standard of low-buck hatchbacks are doing these days. This one is actually a treat.
Testing Conditions: This vehicle did the yuppie cliche of escaping out of the city to some distant trailhead for a day of not-quite mountain biking. The Kia had a great time hauling two bikes, while I got a stick in my spokes and endo’d.
It’s Kia’s compact hatchback, like a Toyota Yaris. Oh wait, you can’t buy a Yaris hatch anymore. It’s like a Ford Fiesta. Wait, you can’t get that anymore here, either. Honda Fit? Shit! Uh, it’s a Chevy Spark but it doesn’t look or feel as flimsy. It’s usably larger than a Mitsubishi Mirage! I don’t know how many people have driven a Mirage, or if that car functions as a useful reference point for anybody.
Surprising things stood out with this Kia Rio, in part because there was not much else going on with it. I successfully paired my phone to it over the course of one red light. That’s a high mark for me in terms of infotainment usability, and a strong contrast to the Kia Telluride I tested a few weeks back. That rather large vehicle never once successfully paired with any one of three different generations of iPhone presented to it. The Telluride perhaps did not feel we were worthy. The Rio was much more accommodating.
The Rio also sports 15-inch wheels on four-lug hubs. Mazda was very keen on pointing out that the current Miata is a four-lug car, part of a strict weight-saving program. Kia has made less noise about the Rio being equally minimalist, though Kia doesn’t make much noise about the Rio at all. It is light, though, at just above 2,700 pounds. That also makes its 120 horsepower feel rather spry. This is a fast-enough car, and you do get to floor the shit out of it at let the twin-cam 1.6-liter four cylinder scream away. There’s no hybrid drive on this, nor is there so much as a single turbo. It is a car with a simpler ethos.
It’s still very efficient, though. The car returned 38 mpg while I had it.
As of 2020, Americans now spend on average $40,000 on a new car. The industry is generally funneling you towards that figure. Each new generation of a car grows larger and more well-equipped, flanked again by new crossovers and SUVs to justify yet higher prices.
The Kia Rio works as a functional antithesis to all of that. It’s not a crossover but it has plenty of room. It’s from a basic brand but it rides well. (That’s in part thanks to teeny wheels and high-profiled tires, again bucking industry trends.) It has no turbo but plenty of power, and it’s not a hybrid but it returns 38 MPG.
There really isn’t much to the Rio at all, so there isn’t much for any one thing to stand out from. If anything, it’s that the car has Apple CarPlay. It’s hard to stress how much of a gamechanger this is for a car like the Rio.
I remember driving around in my old coworker’s 2000s Mercedes S-Class. It was an opulent and truly wonderful vehicle, filled with leather and poise. And also it had a GPS screen the size of a PalmPilot.
That was top-dollar shit back in the day. If you wanted navigation, you had to buy a premium car to get it. And it was bad! No matter how much effort carmakers put into their nav, it was always years behind what you’d get from Google. Even as built-in nav made it down the ranks of car brands, the same problem persisted: you were paying extra for a built-in nav that was bound to become obsolete the moment Google pushed its next update if it wasn’t obsolete already.
Not a problem anymore. I plug my phone into the very straightforward infotainment system and the screen becomes my phone. My maps, my music, my everything.
That’s a basic structural change but a fundamental attitude adjustment. No longer does a basic $20,000 Kia have anything less of an infotainment setup than any other car on the market, luxury or not. Hell, the Rio was easier to set up than the last Subaru I drove.
The side issue is that the back seat is pretty narrow, so a family of five will definitely be fighting for a large amount of time on any long drive. A couple humans and/or pets will be fine, though. You do get a USB back there, too!
The main issue, of course is that the car doesn’t come in any particularly fun colors. You can get blue! It’s blue. You can get red! It’s a very plain red. All else you get is some kind of greyscale. A Kia Seltos buyer gets fun two-tones, while a Rio buyer gets zilch. Lame.
Beyond that there’s little to complain about. The buttons and knobs look a little big and cheap, but they’re also not pretentious.
The Rio is so easy to see out of you will be cursing other cars you’ve put up with. It’s a dream to buzz in and out of cities and mountain roads. On the highway you are a little boat in a big ocean supertanker semis lumbering away on the right. Maybe it’s not what everyone wants in a car, but I’m not everyone.
Few new cars are as happy when you absolutely floor it everywhere. The ride is good, too. You are riding on 15s with this car, 185/65s. They are almost vintage car tall, cushy, and squealy. Getting going to the point where you feel like you’re really wheelin’ this car isn’t hard.
The Rio misses a star for both front driver- and passenger-side crashes, and while it gets five stars overall for hitting a pole or barrier on the side, it loses a star on some of those individual tests.
More worrying is that the car has 37 non-crash related complaints registered on the government site, from excessive oil consumption to mysterious air bag lights. Look up a new Corolla and you will find no logged complaints at all. Of course, you find a near match of 31 complaints on the Porsche Taycan Turbo S. Make of that what you will.
You get CarPlay and Android Auto with the S trim, but not the LX. The hatchback only comes as an S in America these days, so this only applies if you’re thinking about getting a Rio sedan.
If you shell out even a few grand more than this Rio’s $20,000 price you get something much more substantial and sizable. You enter into Corolla territory. I like a Corolla these days. But a Corolla doesn’t exude the same sense that you’ve outplayed the car industry and got away with only buying what you need. No excess.
The Rio is nice in that it has all of what you need and none of what you don’t. It is also nice, though, that what it suppliers to you feels of good quality. Yes, it’s small. Yes, it’s basic. It’s also comfortable and very easy to live with, CarPlay being a big factor. The Rio is more than just a little box on wheels. It’s charming about it, too.