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2019 Kia Rio: An Opposite Lock Rental Review

Happy Friday Oppo - have a review! Some new cars are good cars. A new Kia Rio is not a good new car. But is it a bad new car? I spend the last 4 days in the eastern suburbs of Oakland, California with one investigating.

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Full disclosure: Kia wanted me to drive a Rio so bad they convinced Hertz that it is a “Mid-Size” (that’s a lie it’s a subcompact) and made sure that it was the only car left in the row that I could choose any car from so that I had no choice but to take it. My job is paying for this rental and the gas.

Also I wrote some of this on my phone at an airport so it will probably be full of typos and bad autocorrecting. Also all the photos from my phone too. Taking photos for a review was an impromptu thing when my meetings wrapped up earlier than expected, so I did what I could.

What Is It?

The Rio is Kia’s smallest, cheapest new car. It starts at $16,395 with destination which sounds expensive, but all Rios are automatics. It competes with the Mirage, Versa, Yaris, Fiesta (RIP), Aveo Sonic and its own corporate twin the Accent. Some of those have starting prices significantly lower with manual transmissions, but by the time you check the automatic option box the Rio’s price is very competitive. I had the upgraded S trim that adds a 7” touch screen with CarPlay and Android Auto, a folding rear seat, cruise control, and remote door locks to the base LX for $800 more. The S can also be had in colors other than black, white, and silver. If you were actually buying one of these with your own money upgrading to the S seems like a no-brainer.

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Exterior

The Rio is fine. It’s looks good for a subcompact but overall it’s anonymous in traffic. A decent set of factory alloys would help a bit, but Kia only offers it with steel wheels and hubcaps. (Oddly, a sharp-looking set of alloys are in a few of Kia’s press photos - they must have been an option at some point, be available in other markets, or a dealer-installed accessory.) The headlights are bad. Driving this thing at night is a pain. Projector headlights are available as a part of the only option package on the Rio for $800 that also includes a few active safety features. They should be considered required equipment for anyone driving a Rio after dark with any regularity.

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Interior

An attempt was made. For a cheap little car the interior looks OK. In fact, I quite like the styling of the dash, door cards, seats, and steering wheel. Unfortunately the materials are bad. Yes, this is one of the cheapest new cars that you can buy in the US, but everything that you touch feels it. There is no doubt that this is a cheap car as soon as you sit down in it. The fit and finish is decent. We’ve come a long way from quarter inch panel gaps in Chevy Cavaliers, but the fit and finish is noticeably worse than the next class of cars up - the Focus and Corolla crowd. That said, everything felt solidly attached and rattle free with 7,000 presumably abusive miles on the clock.

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The driver’s seat is lightly bolstered and covered with a material that looks good from a distance but is coarse and scratchy to the touch. It does seem durable and does and good enough job holding the driver in place for a car like this. I was able to get into an acceptable seating position quickly. The longest stint I had in the car was about an hour and the seat was comfortable enough. Subcompacts aren’t really meant for long trips, but the seats in this one seem better suited for it than those in others like the Fit. The overall driving position is worse than average. The windows are narrow and the windshield sits too far from the driver’s eyes, symptomatic of many sedans these days chasing an extra MPG or 2 through aerodynamics. The dash styling makes the cowl appear lower than it really is. This is one of the more awkward cars to drive, and I never really got comfortable changing lanes or darting into gaps with it over four days. Still, I got more comfortable with it than the current generation Nissan Sentra which is seemingly impossible to find a position that provides acceptable visibility and comfort at once.

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The steering wheel is a Kia corporate design that I am quite fond of and liked that last time I had an Optima as a rental. Unfortunately, the material on the Rio is awful. On a base model that is expected, but a leather (or even fake leather) wrap should be here on this higher trim even if it would make the jump from base a little pricier. Also, this is a car with zero sporting pretenses that would be better served without the bumps at 10 and 2. I found them annoying while making turns when stopped. The wheel tilts but does not telescope. On a base model this would be OK, but was a little disappointing on the upgraded trim and prevented me from getting truly comfortable.

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Interior space is bad. With the driver’s seat set for my 6'1" body, I don’t really fit in the back. I tried it for you Oppo and my knees were well into the front seat material. One note is that there is a map pocket in the back of the passenger seat but not the driver seat, which is par for the course in this class.

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I tried pulling the passenger seat forward so that I could fit in back and it is possible to make decent room back there I guess.

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But that put my knees into the dash up front. I get it, it’s a subcompact, but this thing is tight inside - it isn’t a Tardis like a Fit and I think there might be just as much space inside a Mini Hardtop. The next step up - think Elantra, Mazda3, etc, is a significant improvement in interior room. Considering that this thing doesn’t seem all that tiny from the outside, I can’t help but believe it could’ve been packaged to gain a few more inches here and there inside.

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It does have a decent glove box at least.

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And they even put in a teeny tiny armrest.

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With a tiny little storage bin. It seems silly, but it’s more than the Fit that I used to own had!

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The trunk is actually pretty large, which gets back to that feeling that Kia could’ve found more interior space if they tried harder.

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On this S trim, the rear seats fold to increase that space further. Well sort-of anyway. With the driver’s seat set for me there isn’t enough room to fold the seat with the rear headrest in place. Presumably it can be removed to accommodate front seats set for taller people. I didn’t try. The seats don’t fold flat with the trunk floor anyway and the pass-through is narrow. I’m not really sure why they even bothered, but I guess it’s better than nothing.

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Interestingly the rear speakers are in the doors rather than on the deck behind the rear headrests. Regardless, the sound quality sucks. This might be the worst new car radio I’ve heard in years.

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The rear door cards are pretty plain and have terrible plastics, but they do get a cupholder which is honestly a decent perk in this class. PS, the silver door handles are just painted plastic as expected in a car this inexpensive - I would have preferred plain black to be honest. The rear window is narrow and hard to see out of. There is a better-than-expected backup camera on par with what I’ve seen in most midsize cars rather than a tacked on afterthought. It also does well at night and in the light rain that we had one day that I had the Rio (VW could learn from this). Interestingly, the stereo volume is automatically turned down when the car is in reverse. I’m sure there are other cars out there that do this, but it is the first time I’ve experienced it.

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Powertrain

There is an engine of some sort under the hood. I didn’t read up on it, because the Rio only offers one choice, you are stuck with it, and there is nothing interesting about it. It makes a lot of truly deplorable noise that translates vaguely to power. The Rio is painfully slow and loud. It creates the illusion of speed by of running up to the redline and making lots of noise for several seconds, but then you look at the speedometer and see you’ve made it to 30. By my butt-stopwatch 0-60 probably happens in 9 seconds. Merging was scary. There is no significant power available anywhere in any gear or rev range. The car is capable of cruising at highway speeds once you get there, but passing takes planning. NVH, in general, is the worst I’ve experienced in a new car in years.

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The transmission is some sort of six-speed automatic unit. It’s default programming is to upshift at any given opportunity and generally feel broken. Taking your foot off of the gas results in all sorts of lurching from the transmission. If you are used to driving basically any automatic made before the last few years when they’ve become eco-obsessed, it will feel like something is wrong with the car.

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There is, however, a solution. See that “SPORT” button? Push it and it fixes the transmission. It doesn’t actually make it sporty, it just makes it feel like a typical automatic made before saving fuel become priority number one. Really, the sport mode should be called “NORMAL” and the default mode “ECO”. As far as I can tell the Sport button does nothing else except make the transmission behave like most people expect a transmission to behave. This would be fine, except that the Rio forgets that it was in Sport whenever you turn it off. The Sport button must be pressed each time you start the Rio.

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Ride and Handling

The Rio’s ride is punishing. I honestly can’t remember another post-2010 car I’ve been in that rides this harshly outside of some dedicated sports cars. The closest thing I can compare it to is my old 2008 Fit. Every imperfection in the road is felt. Expansions joints make the Rio shudder. Brace yourself for speed bumps. I hit one speed bump at 15 MPH and honestly thought that I may have broken the car. After that, speed bumps were taken very cautiously. The Rio’s structure quivers constantly and it gets old quick. To its credit, though, the Rio seems to take the abuse well.

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This rough ride would be fine if it resulted in something resembling sporty handling. At least the hard ride on my Fit was offset by quick reflexes. The Rio, by contrast, is slow to turn in. Steering is vague. It is highly boosted, has little road feel - more than really isolated cars like recent Hyundais, but not much. The Rio simply doesn’t encourage sporty driving. Body roll is decently well controlled, so it can move quickly through the twists if need be. You won’t want to try, though, because it steering and visibility make it a chore. The turning circle is good and the Rio is perfectly happy to make U-tuns from traffic lights and easy to deal with in a parking lot.

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The brakes are OK in that way that most subcompact brakes are OK because they don’t have much car to stop. The pedal feel is good and progressive - not overly touchy like some cheap new cars. They do seem connected to the road and confidence-inspiring, which was needed when I made the mistake of trying to go through Berkeley during rush hour resulting in several panic stops. In general, it is very appliance-like to drive. Like other Kias that I’ve driven in the last few years it does seem tuned to have more of a connection to the road than Hyundais which float and translate nothing through the steering wheel or brakes. When it comes to the Sonata and Optima, I prefer the Kia setup. At the Rio’s end of the spectrum, though, the Kia tuning doesn’t seem to work. The loss of comfort doesn’t result in any real benefit to the driver and the steering is still pretty disconnected from the road.

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Features

In typical Kia fashion, the Rio surprises with feature content at its price point. The first nice surprise is an auto-down driver’s window - in this case complete with mandatory California warning that your car is trying to kill you and the planet! Next up on the surprises are automatic headlights. There is a USB power outlet in the rear (looking like an afterthought stuck where a 12V outlet originally was, but still nice). A/C and cruise control are present and accounted for. There are a good amount of cupholders and storage cubbies scattered around for a car this size. All of the HVAC vents can be individually shut. There are vanity mirrors. To be fair, even the cheaper base Versa includes a lot of this equipment, but most of the cars in the class skimp on something here or relegate it to the top trim while the Kia has it all on the S at just $800 over the base price.

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The nicest feature is the inclusion of CarPlay and Android Auto. This is the first time that I’ve used CarPlay and I quite liked it. It was great to be able to plug in my phone and have navigation running on the dash screen within a few seconds of getting into the car when I was expecting to have to look at my phone screen to navigate in something this cheap. The screen is a 7" unit that is unfortunately a resistive touch panel that reminded me of an ARCHOS tablet from 2010. But it did respond to touch quickly. I especially liked that the music/radio and navigation instruction volumes could be set separately - I don’t know if this is a standard CarPlay thing or specific to Kia’s implementation. The stereo sound quality was terrible. But it could at least get loud enough to cover the high levels of engine and road noise that get into the Rio.

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A variety of driver-assistance aids are available as part of an $800 package. I was bummed my rental didn’t have it, because it also adds an LCD between the speedo and tach that I assume would have Hyundai/Kia’s awesome little feature that shows what setting the wiper stalk is in. (As an aside, why the Rio even has a tachometer is beyond me.) About the only convenience feature missing is keyless ignition.

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Conclusion

So is it a bad new car? Unfortunately, I’d have to say that the Rio is. It isn’t as bad as the worst new cars that I’ve driven recently (Sentra, Rogue), but it doesn’t really have much of anything to recommend it. Rather, the Rio just feels totally phoned-in. It does have a few redeeming qualities like a solid build and decent features for the price, but everything else just seems like the designers got it to good-enough and moved on. Or maybe they just had to quit refining it to hit the price point that the managers demanded. And while I can’t really blame them - the Soul outsells the Rio 5-to-1 so they put the effort there - it just isn’t a solid enough effort. Overall, it feels like a car that would’ve been an OK new car 5 years ago, but just isn’t today.

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So is there anyone that is really for? Enthusiasts have long had a soft spot for cheap basic cars - you can drive them around with the throttle pinned and extract some fun chucking them around thanks to tidy dimensions, low weight and basic transmissions. Yet the Rio squashes any pretense of fun by being not really that small outside, too small and hard to see out of inside, not really feeling all that chuckable, and having a bad transmission. It loses that basic car charm that some of the other subcompacts like the Sonic have been able to maintain. There is nothing at all here for the enthusiast. It does have a decent amount of kit and seems well-built, though - so should someone who just sees cars as appliances and wants a new car with a warranty get one? In the end, I’d have to say no for them as well - the value just isn’t there. The current crop of compacts is just so much better at nearly everything that buyers would be better served saving up the extra $2-3k to get into a new compact or buying a CPO compact for the price of this Rio. I know we’ve beat the “get the lightly used better car instead of an inferior new car for the same price” trope to death around here, but the Rio is a perfect reminder of why that advice exists in the first place.

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