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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2018 Kia Rio Hatchback Euro-Spec

The lowest-priced subcompact from the Korean brand has made remarkable progress with each generation, and the car itself is a reflection of the maturation of a brand that has become a global player.

We just spent two days on the winding roads near Lisbon, Portugal, behind the wheel of the fourth-generation Rio, built upon the global Hyundai/Kia KP2 architecture. In a few months, the new Rio will launch in the United States.

Europe gets only the four-door hatchback, while U.S. customers will get a choice of the hatch or a yet-to-be-unveiled four-door sedan. If the previous generation is an indication, the hatchback will be the better-looking of the two body styles

ompared with its predecessor, the Rio has become a serious car—maybe by a touch too much. The outgoing hatch—which Kia calls the Rio 5-Door—is one of the funkier designs in its class, with an aggressive body-side line and a stance a bit like a concept car’s. The new model looks staid by comparison, with an upright front end and a rather prosaic shoulder line. The plastic strip between the headlights is painted black, simulating a conventional grille opening, and the side mirrors, which used to be mounted on the door, have moved to the A-pillar. We suspect, though, that most customers will appreciate the utterly conservative look of the new Rio. A lamentably low number of customers in this segment buy their car as a design statement

Rio customers prioritize low cost and lots of equipment, and this is where the new one eclipses its predecessor. Kia claims that 90 percent of the car is new, including the body. The fourth-gen Rio also is said to be slightly lighter despite more content, larger dimensions, and additional safety equipment and structure.

Most of the weight loss comes from the use of high-strength steel in the front structure, A-pillars, and roof. The added rigidity—there’s a stiffer front subframe, too—helps alleviate one of its predecessor’s weak spots: its mediocre handling. The new Rio exhibits considerably less understeer, and its electrically assisted power steering offers more feedback than before.

The cockpit leaves little to be desired except, perhaps, the stylistic purity of the previous design. On the other hand, this one feels a generation ahead. Every switch is where it belongs, and the infotainment system looks rich and upscale. It operates flawlessly, too. While it is a small car, the Rio offers plenty of space for four passengers.

In the European market, the Rio can be fitted with a suite of upscale features, including lane-departure warning, automated emergency braking, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, as well as luxury elements such as a heated steering wheel. How many of these amenities make it to the U.S. market remains to be seen—we’re guessing most of them—but they demonstrate the potential of this entry-level car.

We drove cars powered by three different engines: an 89-hp turbo-diesel 1.4-liter inline-four, a 99-hp turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder, and a naturally aspirated 1.2-liter four good for 83 ponies. Each engine was mated to a crisp-shifting manual transmission, and all left a thoroughly favorable impression. (We’re not sad that we didn’t sample the four-speed automatic that Europeans are offered.) These engines are zippy, and they sound somewhat sporty—even the entry-level 1.2.

That bodes well for the U.S. version, which will be powered by a naturally aspirated 1.6-liter four-cylinder that’ll far exceed the power rating of any of the models we drove. (The current U.S. Rio is rated at 138 horsepower.) The U.S. engine likely will be mated to a six-speed automatic; Hyundai/Kia also make a more efficient and quicker-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, but that transmission won’t trickle down into the Rio any time soon.

It’s fun to drive the Kia Rio, and on this first impression it strikes us as a car that’s far more than an appliance. With the three-cylinder turbo and the full tech package, it exceeds the boundaries of its segment; the somewhat more modestly equipped U.S. version should represent a significant leap forward, even if its design doesn’t.

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