First Drive: 2018 Kia Rio 5-Door

The fourth generation of the Kia Rio 5-Door brings with it comfort, comfort, and… more comfort. Oh and also connectivity. To maintain a sub-$15K price tag, however, the Korean subcompact had a few sacrifices to make. But can you identify them? Good luck….

WENDAKE, Quebec – If you had told me, when I started this career at the turn of the millennium, that I would one day gush about the comfort, soundproofing, and efficiency in the smallest of Kia’s lineup, I would have laughed at you.

One of the biggest interior improvements of the new Rio 5-Door is soundproofing – far beyond the standard for its class.

Well, apparently it’s Kia who’s having the last laugh. Indeed, with the 2018 Kia Rio 5-Door, Kia dealerships in Canada are receiving one of the most complete, comfortable, and feature-equipped subcompacts in the market, past or present.

Here’s a look at how that comes together.

Inside and out

In short, the look of this new generation of Kia’s tiny hatchback has so many European touches that, at first glance, it might be confused with a Volkswagen Golf. We’re certainly loving the lines laid down by designer Peter Schreyer, a veteran of VW/Audi who’s been with Kia (and Hyundai) for almost 10 years now.

Inside the new Kia Rio, the dashboard is mounted at a slight angle. The design retains its clean and unfussy character, without looking simplistic and cheap, even in the base LX trim. The more upscale versions benefit from the addition of hot new tech, concentrated mainly on the centre-stack screen and in the instrumentation in front of the driver’s eyes, making them easy to see and operate – no distracting pawing at the helm while underway.

Speaking of pawing, fingers may land on some rough plastics on the doors and the bottom of the consoles, whether in the top-trim models or the basic variants. However, these plastics are skillfully concealed from visual inspection and, moreover, are a necessary evil in the category. Otherwise, you may as well buy a Lincoln!

Oh, but not so fast: one of the biggest interior improvements of the new Rio 5-Door is soundproofing – far beyond the standard for its class. Indeed, with the combination of the silence that reigns even at high speeds, the massive dashboard that cuts a clean line across the cabin, and the great stability demonstrated on the road (we’ll come back to this in a second), you get the impression of driving not a subcompact, but a compact, or even a small crossover.

Except – it’s still a subcompact. Though its interior dimensions are (slightly) more generous than the previous generation, we’re still playing in the same ballpark, with a wheelbase of 2,580 mm (barely 10 mm more than before). Rear passengers will be happy to tag along for short distances, but make sure they’re the cheerful type before embarking on any road trip.

Cargo-wise, its 37 litres of additional space looks good on paper. However, the reduction in roof height means someone like our friend Marc, owner of a 2012 Kia Rio and a set of loud, ear-bursting drums, will still not be able to stow his instruments onboard. You laugh, but if a set of drums cannot fit in there, imagine a baby stroller that you may loathe to fold….

On the road

The gradual – and seemingly inevitable – disappearance of manual boxes hasn’t yet obliterated Kia’s offerings: the stick-shift remains at the lower tiers of the Kia Rio 5-Door, allowing for a starting price of under $15,000. Even if it can’t claim to be the sportiest of manual boxes, it’s still the easiest to handle and one of the most forgiving on the market. Learning to drive manual, or haven’t quite gotten the hang of it? Buy a Kia Rio!

You will also be provided with more steering assist, compared to the heavier feel and stronger feedback of the automatic transmission set-up. The Kia Canada bosses confirmed this: they wanted to make things easier for someone who’s turning with one hand and managing the gears with the other.

You don’t need to be super-sensitive to see the difference, unlike the effect of the drive-mode selector which Kia (and Hyundai) have employed for the past few years. Oh, but wait: the Drive Mode Select system is gone! Regarding this point, the Kia Canada bosses added, very politely, “No one has complained of its disappearance….”

And no one should complain about the performance from its 130 horses and 119 lb-ft of torque – although that is 7 hp and 4 lb-ft less than before. Because even with the slight lag in the six-speed automatic, the power of 1.6L direct-injected four-cylinder Gamma engine doesn’t suffer. Overtaking did not cause undue embarrassment along Route 573 North, which leads to the Wendake Indian Reserve; neither did off-the-line acceleration leave us in the dark when the lights turned green. All this, accompanied by a beautiful engine note that, snubbing its nose at the competition, does not suffer from the drone of a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Fuel consumption? Official ratings have not yet been announced by Transport Canada, but our meandering  journey of nearly 200 km along the Côte de Beaupré showed an average of 7.1 L/100 km for the automatic and a frugal 6.4 for the manual.

Kia is quick to call out the increased rigidity (by 30%) of its new platform, the one currently in use in the Rio’s cousin, the Hyundai accent; pointing to the more abundant use of high-strength steel in achieving the big-car-like stability in its itty-bitty hatchback. We will simply mention that the organizers of this drive chose the worst roads criss-crossing the Quebec capital region… and the Kia Rio 5-Door did not rattle or shake us like the competition, despite also being equipped with a torsion-beam rear suspension.

Surprisingly, this holds true even for the Sport versions of the Kia Rio, which are equipped with 17-inch wheels.  Their well-disciplined shock absorbers smooth out roughness, but still manage to convey that all-important communication between driver and bitumen. And again, this gives the pleasant impression that one is driving a much larger car than a subcompact.

UVO – right when you need it

Above all, with the new 2018 Rio 5-Door, we see the first deployment of the Kia UVO service in Canada. A similar service to GM’s OnStar, UVO uses Bell’s cell network (and your cellphone) to communicate with your vehicle and remotely check in on its well-being. If something happens while you’re behind the wheel, the UVO system will contact the Kia call centre (located in Mississauga, Ontario, for those who are curious) and bring you in touch with the reassuring presence of someone who can assist you.

All for… well, nothing. As in $0. For the first five years of the subscription. Afterwards, it will depend on the particular services you sign up for. That said, even GM’s most generous offers with its OnStar service have never exceeded a free one-year subscription.

For this reason alone, we’d say a buyer shopping for a subcompact should take a close look at the new 2018 Kia Rio 5-Door.

But there’s more!

As we know, the Koreans marques are known to offer, even in their entry-level models, standard amenities that one would rather expect from a luxury vehicle. And here again, the Rio 5-Door delivers. The smallest of the Kia family offers: rear-view camera, Bluetooth, heated steering wheel, heated mirrors, and heated front seats. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, all for $14,995 (plus $1,560 in destination) – the exact same price as the previous generation of Kia Rio 5-Door. Keen shoppers will note that’s $1,000 more than its cousin, the Hyundai Accent – which, of course, has a different, more compact feature list at play.

Which Rio is right for you?

We’ve come a long way since the days of the econo-box, where only one version was on offer – one that generally didn’t do half the job that was needed. Times have changed, and with the Kia Rio 5-Door, you can opt to splash out – with an additional two-thirds of the base model’s asking price – for the EX Tech Navi trim, which comes with navigation and all the bells and whistles…

Unfortunately, it’s also the only trim to offer automatic emergency braking. At $23,795. Uh… who’s paying that much for a subcompact? Yet this almost essential safety feature is standard, or available at more basic trim levels, in both the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit. These two competitors also offer blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert – two other technologies which are becoming increasingly common, but are not even listed on the new Kia Rio’s spec sheet.

But say what you will, Kia has chosen comfort, comfort, and… more comfort. Imagine: it’s the middle of winter in Quebec, where nearly half of the Kia Rios sold in Canada find a home. Now ask yourself which of these would be the “must-have” feature: standard heated seats or a pre-collision system? Not crazy, these South Koreans.

Conjecture aside, the most popular, volume-selling trim of the Kia Rio 5-Door – and the one that provides the best bang for your buck, in our opinion – comes in at $20,945. This mid-pack EX model offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which obviates the expensive “Navi” option. After all, aren’t our phones the better navigators these days?

Furthermore, the EX comes with the same little details that make all the difference on a daily basis: a telescopic steering wheel (the base models only have tilt), a spare wheel instead of a tire repair kit, two-zone climate control, smart key, and push-button start.

As we’ve said from the start: comfort, comfort, comfort.

Comfort, comfort... and more comfort.