by Frank A. Aukofer

Translated from Spanish, the 2018 Kia Rio means “Kia River.” A better name would be Kia Alegre, which translates into frisky, merry or joyful.

It even could qualify as a Kia Perrito, or puppy. That’s the sense you get chasing around in this new compact car, which comes as a four-door hatchback or conventional four-door sedan. It is entertaining and eager to please, though with a few faults like any puppy.

As South Korea’s Kia has evolved into a full-line manufacturer of cars, crossover sport utility vehicles and even a minivan, the Rio hasn’t received much attention. But it is the company’s top seller world-wide, owing to its low price, tidy dimensions and good fuel economy.

2018 Rio

In the U.S., the Rio competes against an array of subcompact and compact economy cars: Chevrolet Spark and Sonic, Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris and iA, Nissan Versa, Fiat 500, Mitsubishi Mirage and Mini Cooper.

The fourth generation Rio presents new styling, a carryover but improved 130-hp engine with 119 lb-ft of torque, new suspension system tuning and a choice of a six-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox.

Unfortunately for enthusiasts who might want the stick shift, it only is available on the base LX trim level. Though the LX is hardly a hair-shirt proposition, it lacks some desirable features like cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, alloy wheels, split folding rear seatback, power windows, fog lights, heated outside mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, and lighted vanity mirrors. Then again, it has a sticker price of just $14,795.

2018 Rio

In a rarity deserving of a standing ovation, all Rio trim levels come standard with SXM satellite radio. Economy cars from other manufacturers require the buyer to buy a more expensive version simply to get SXM. There’s no navigation system but you can run one through your smart phone with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

At the national introduction in Baltimore, MD, Kia offered only the fully-equipped top-line EX four-door hatchback with the six-speed automatic transmission. There was no opportunity to test the notchback sedan, manual gearbox version or other trim levels.

With a base price of $19,595 and a special launch edition price of $20,095, which included two-tone black and red leather upholstery, the Rio EX hatchback was uncommonly well equipped for a compact economy car. That’s a smart move because there are any number of buyers out there who want a small car for its fuel economy, maneuverability and ease of parking, but don’t want to stint on the amenities.

2018 Rio

The Rio EX has plenty of those. Though its standard upholstery is a handsome embossed cloth — preferred by many, including this reviewer — a leather package is optional. Also part of the EX package: full safety equipment with autonomous emergency braking, seven-inch center screen with infotainment functions and a rear camera, 15-inch alloy wheels, tilt and telescoping steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel, tire pressure monitoring and power windows with one-touch up and down on the driver’s side.

In urban traffic, the Rio EX has a frisky personality, quick moves and, with its strong power train, a capability to easily pop through gaps in traffic. With four-wheel antilock disc brakes, it also stops with authority. The LX and S trim levels have front disc brakes and drum brakes on the rear wheels.

2018 Rio

Driving at high speeds on freeways is another matter. Though the tested Rio had no trouble merging from ramps and keeping up with traffic, the steering had a loose feel with a tendency to wander, requiring frequent steering corrections. That could become tiring on a long trip.

However, the Rio hatchback had little difficulty tracking on curving roads. It obviously is no sports car but its steering and suspension system combine to hold a decent line around corners as long as you don’t move too fast. At the same time, the ride is not punishing except on very rough roads.

Inside, there’s decent comfort for four people, though there are seatbelts for five. The front seats deliver long-distance support and the back seats offer ample headroom, though knee room is in short supply. As with most cars, the center-rear seat is an unyielding, uncomfortable cushion.

Kia has plenty of decent cars for the masses. Abetting the Rio, there’s the best-selling Soul, now with a turbocharged model (unfortunately only with an automatic transmission), and the superb Forte5 turbo hatchback, which also offers both a stick and an automatic, and is one of the better performance machines around.

2018 Rio
2018 Rio

Specifications

  • Model: 2018 Kia Rio EX four-door hatchback.
  • Engine: 6-liter four-cylinder; 130 hp, 119 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
  • Overall Length: 13 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 91/17 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 2,714 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 28/37/32 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $19,595.
  • Price as tested: $20,095.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

2018 Rio

Photos (c) Kia.