When Kia announced that it would bring the fourth-generation Rio to the United States, we were rather surprised. The subcompact segment in which it competes isn't exactly hot here, and small cars have tight profit margins. It makes more sense to concentrate on tiny crossovers that are more popular and can sell for more cash. Ford seems to be taking this tack with the impending introduction of the EcoSport, and the delayed introduction of the new Fiesta in America. Even Kia itself has experienced success with sub-compact crossovers with the Soul.
Kia seems determined to stick with the segment, though. A Kia representative told us that, even though the U.S. subcompact market may not be booming, it still accounts for about 500,000 cars a year. Plus, if any manufacturers leave the segment, that's an opportunity to pick up some conquest sales. He also said that regardless of the size of the market, Kia still sees a portion of the car-buying public that will always want a budget subcompact, and that it can be a good introduction to the brand. So with that in mind, is the Kia Rio a good introduction to the Korean car company? In general, yes, and we were introduced to it in and around Baltimore, Md., where we were able to try out a top-level Kia Rio EX on everything from cobblestone streets to winding country lanes. And at first glance, the Rio is a handsome little machine. While the previous generation was round and bubbly, the new model looks more aggressive, and has a shape more akin to larger vehicles. Thank the longer, more horizontal grille, slender, swept-back headlights, lower belt line, large lower grille and jutting lip. The hatchback is the more attractive version of the car, but the sedan is far from ugly, which is no small feat for a subcompact. Compared with the European version of the Rio, and even the previous-generation model, though, there are visual differences that reveal the fourth-generation U.S.-spec Rio has succumbed to cost-cutting measures. The first tipoff is the wheels.
The alloys on the Rio EX, the only model with alloy wheels, are a minuscule 15 inches. Though admittedly adorable, and probably a boon to ride quality, they do look disappointing when compared to the available 17-inch units on the European model, or even those on the old Rio. The headlights and taillights are plain and simple, too. The headlights are reflector halogen lamps, and the taillights and turn signals use incandescent bulbs.
The European version has available projector lamps and have LED accents that give it a thoroughly modern look. The basic lamps on our version look out of date.Inside, the Rio achieves greater parity with its overseas twin. Overall, the interiors are identical, and there's no question that this is an affordable car. Everything is plastic, mostly of a hard variety. However, the textures are varied and quite attractive. In fact, the leatherette-textured plastic on the dash and doors are pretty convincing until you touch them. The controls are wonderfully easy to use, too. The climate control consists of your basic three dials with buttons for defrost and A/C. The touchscreen infotainment is fairly simple, too, and it comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. All of the buttons and switches feel weighty and solid as well.
Interestingly, though, navigation is not an option anymore. Instead, users will have to use their phones' map apps to find their way. Additionally, you'll want to avoid the base model LX due to a dearth of features. It goes without power windows, cruise control, a telescoping steering wheel, split folding rear seat, adjustable headrests, Bluetooth, or keyless entry. None of these are available as options either. In fact, the only option available on any Rio is the red leather accent package on the top-level EX. The lack of modern conveniences also makes it that much more disappointing that the LX is the only model with a manual transmission. The EX model we were in featured soft cloth upholstery with hexagonal embossed designs to spruce them up. The front seats themselves were somewhat flat, but the thick, soft cushions made up for the lack of shape. It was a breeze to find a comfortable driving position as well, thanks to the six-way adjustable driver's seat, and the EX's tilt and telescoping steering wheel. A tall driver can actually sit very low in the Rio if you want. Of course, most people will probably prefer raising the seat up.