2021 Kia Rio Hatchback First Test: Scrappy and Sensible08/12/2021
It’s been too long since we last checked in with the Kia Rio. Four years ago, it won a spot in the finalist round of MotorTrend‘s Car of the Year competition, quite a feat for a humble subcompact. Facing off against heavy hitters like the Alfa Romeo Giulia, Tesla Model 3, and Honda Accord, the Rio hatchback earned praise not only for its feature-per-dollar value proposition but also for its refinement. After all this time, though, is there reason enough for us to still hold the 2021 Kia Rio in such high regard?
Meet the 2021 Kia Rio
While we were busy during the past few years carving canyons in the Kia Stinger and road tripping in the Telluride, the Rio saw several changes. First it received a new powertrain for 2020. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder makes 120 horsepower and 112 lb-ft of torque, down 10 hp and 7 lb-ft from the previous Rio. In exchange for less power, the Kia Rio hatchback gained efficiency, topping out at 33/41 mpg city/highway instead of the previous version’s 28/37 mpg. A continuously variable transmission replaced the old six-speed automatic. Then for the 2021 Kia Rio, the manufacturer endowed the car with sharper styling and a larger standard infotainment screen.
Rivals have stepped up their game, too. The new Nissan Versa features a comfortable ride and a much nicer interior than its predecessor. The recently discontinued Toyota Yaris, a victim of waning consumer interest in subcompact cars, left us pleasantly surprised last year with its sharp interior and smooth-shifting transmission. In other words, we’ve come to expect more from subcompact cars than we have in the past.
The Rio impressed us relative to those rivals in our acceleration tests. Although it doesn’t have much power, it makes good use of what it has. The scrappy small car ran from 0 to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds, beating the 2020 Yaris hatch (9.4 seconds) and Versa sedan (9.7 seconds) by a fair margin. It was a similar story in the quarter-mile test, with the Rio completing the run in 16.7 seconds at 83.9 mph, well ahead of the competition.
Try not to be alarmed by the Rio’s loud, feral snarl getting up to speed; the engine never feels as overwhelmed as it sounds. Merging onto the highway, it provides smooth, linear power delivery. Going up a hill requires a little more effort, though. The new CVT mimics the shifts of a traditional automatic, and it operates smoothly most of the time.
In our braking test, the Rio stopped from 60 mph in a reasonable 119 feet, though distances became longer after the first run. The hatchback exhibited good body control, but the car fell behind in our figure-eight test, a trial that helps us determine how well a car accelerates, brakes, and corners at its limits. Rounding the bends in 29.5 seconds at an average of 0.54 g, the 2021 Kia Rio hatchback couldn’t keep pace with the Versa (28.3 seconds at 0.58 g) or Yaris (28.1 seconds at 0.58 g).
Although the Rio underperformed rivals in this test, it was still a fun little car to toss around, with precise steering and solid brakes. It was tidy and composed around the skidpad, which made it enjoyable. However, the Rio would certainly benefit from more steering feel.
Ride quality was similarly composed. The suspension is well controlled so as not to allow road bumps to disrupt the peace inside the quiet cabin. Low windows help make it easy for drivers to see the road ahead. In the back seat, however, don’t expect much legroom, unless both the rear passenger and driver up front are short. Equally unsurprising, you’ll be hard-pressed to fit groceries for the whole family in the trunk.
In true Kia tradition, the interior is packed with technological goodies. The standard 8.0-inch touchscreen, which is large for its segment, is responsive and easy to use, plus it features wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It adds flair to the otherwise plain but respectable-looking cabin. There’s a convenient place to store your phone in the center console area, and rear passengers have access to a USB port. Cloth seats, a six-speaker audio system, and 60/40 split-folding rear seats are standard, but you have to pay extra for driver assistance features including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist, and automatic high-beams. These features are available with LED headlights, aluminum wheels (instead of steel), and other items via the $1,800 Technology package. Our tester, equipped with this hardware and a few other accessories such as carpeted floor mats, rang up at $20,200.
To put that into perspective, IntelliChoice estimates the average total transaction price of a new vehicle today is $41,549. It’s impressive to think you can get one for around $20,000 with a full suite of modern safety and convenience technologies.
The 2021 Kia Rio also benefits from low five-year ownership costs. Accounting for factors such as depreciation, insurance, fuel costs, repairs, and maintenance, IntelliChoice rated the 2021 Rio a Good overall value. Both the sedan and hatchback models received this designation, determined by comparing a vehicle to others in its class.
Ultimately, the basic essence of the 2021 Kia Rio hasn’t changed after all these years: It remains an inexpensive, value-driven small car that gets you from point A to point B without complaint. Confident and relatively comfortable, it serves as a good role model for other subcompact cars. Let’s hope that in another four years the Rio doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit.
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