The Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, and Chevrolet Sonic are gone. Tiny crossovers have largely replaced subcompact cars at the entry-level end of automakers’ lineups. Used-car prices are skyrocketing, leaving buyers with fewer and fewer options for a decent set of budget wheels. Last time we checked, only a handful of new models on sale today carried starting prices below $20,000. But the Kia Rio remains, and the world is better for it.
Now in its fourth generation, Kia’s tiny sedan and hatchback are simple, well-executed compact cars without any sort of pretense. Although the Rio received a freshening for 2021, this is hardly a car you buy for its stylish presence on the road. The optional eight-spoke wheels measure just 15 inches in diameter, and the bright shade of blue on our test Rio S hatchback is cheekily called Sporty Blue.
But how much flair can you really expect for an all-in, fully loaded as-tested price of just $20,200? That includes the optional $1800 Technology package, which brings more features than you’d expect on such a basic vehicle—an 8.0-inch touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android auto functions, LED headlights, automatic climate control, proximity-key entry, and pushbutton start.
The Rio also drives with a sense of sophistication that belies its price. Its ride is compliant and well damped, its steering is nicely weighted, and the engine is impressively quiet and smooth at idle and when puttering around town. Things do get noisier at highway speeds as the 120-hp, 1.6-liter inline-four works hard to accelerate the 2893-pound Rio whenever you need to merge or pass.
The 2021 Rio has a different powertrain than the last Rio we tested, a 2018 model. For the 2020 model year, Kia swapped in a newer version of the 1.6-liter engine with less power and torque—down 10 horsepower and 7 pound-feet—but better fuel-efficiency estimates, with the EPA combined number rising from 32 mpg to 36 mpg. We averaged 32 mpg overall. The Rio also exchanged the previous car’s six-speed automatic transmission for a continuously variable automatic.
We didn’t measure much of a difference at the test track. The 2021 Rio was 0.1 second slower to 60 mph than the 2018 model, at 8.6 seconds, and a few tenths slower through the quarter-mile. Those aren’t impressive numbers, but they’re about on par with many small crossovers, hardly earth scorchers in their own right.
Measuring just 160.0 inches long, the Rio’s hatchback body is more practical than the sedan’s but still can’t be considered spacious. It’s far less space-efficient inside than the dearly departed Honda Fit, with a cramped rear seat and a small cargo area. We fit only four carry-on suitcases in the Rio with the seats up and 15 cases with the seats folded, compared with seven cases and 20 cases for the taller, boxier Kia Soul.
In fact, it’s not difficult to make the argument for choosing the roomier, more stylish Soul—which has a starting price of $20,365—over this particular Rio as equipped. But if you can forgo the niceties of the Rio’s Technology package, you end up with a car costing right around $18,000. For that kind of money, this hatchback offers a surprising amount of refinement, impressive efficiency, and a decent number of standard features. If you’re tight on cash but want a new car, the Rio is a solid option—and one of a dwindling number of true budget-friendly choices left on the market.
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