Family resemblances are apparent with the Kia Rio. Certain styling cues are shared with the current-generation Optima midsize sedan, which underwent an extreme makeover from dowdy to dapper in its last redesign. Rio's looks aren't groundbreaking, but they are as contemporary as anything in the class.
Rio sedan and hatchback models share front doors and basic structures but surface cosmetics keep them separate. The sedan mirrors the Optima more, with the pinched center top grille and full-width lower air intake. The hatchback has a much smaller upper grille, almost like an engine air intake rather than cooling, and a deeper lower grille segmented in three sections where the angled side sections meet the flat center. Sedan and hatch models use different headlamp housings, and the SX version of each also gets unique lights, including LED daytime running lights. On both body styles the front wheels are well outboard of the headlights, adding a lower, more aggressive look; it's not mean, nor as comic-like as some small cars.
A pronounced wedge profile in side view shares a deep front door window, and ahead of the mirror, a small triangular piece of fixed glass that's quite useful for driver vision. The top crease of the scallop in the door panels echoes the windshield pillar line and fairs rearward, on the sedan leading directly to the top of the taillight. Combined with the slender roof pillar and minimal painted surfaces above the lamps, the sedan has an elegant, light, tailored look, disguising the substantial trunk height.
On the hatch the roofline tapers down, pinching the rear windows, one reason the Rio hatch does not have more rear-seat headroom than the sedan. The short rear panels wrap around into the hatch, the lights protruding slightly (but still well inside the bumper) for better all-around viewing and staying cleaner in bad weather. On SX models, the taillights have LED elements.
The hatchback's rear window is close to horizontal at the top edge, fitted with a small spoiler, and close to a semicircular arc along the bottom edge, reminiscent of the grinning grille on some Mazdas. A dark close-out panel sweeps up from behind the rear wheels serves to visually lower and widen both models. And on both cars the license plate is in this recess, not the hatch or trunk lid, so you never hear it rattle. With trunk or hatch open some portion of the taillights and low-mount reflectors remain visible to improve night-loading safety.
Compared with the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris, the Rio has a longer wheelbase but shorter overall length, and it's wider and lower than most. Extra wheelbase helps ride quality and stability, but a longer wheelbase with a shorter overall length also means shorter overhangs front and rear. All these dimension play into how the Rio comes across a bit sportier than most other subcompacts. The other aspect is that few competitors offer big 17-inch wheels.
The Kia Rio EX interior has a pleasant appearance with soft-touch dash and door panels you don't get on some cars a class higher, matte-silver trim, a lacquer-black finish to the ventilation control panel, and with substantial push switches along the lower edge. While it doesn't scream luxury, it doesn't scream economy car, either.
Cloth upholstery feels smooth and breathable to the touch; we never slid around or got stuck to it in muggy weather. The driver's seat offers height adjustment and all but the base model have a tilt and telescoping steering column to find a proper driving position. The front bucket seats have enough lateral retention for spirited driving and support sufficient for one-hour drives. Some long-legged types noted short seat cushions but found the cabin roomier than expected.
Rear-seat space is small, yet comparable to others in the class and is fine for kids or petite adults. Duck your head for entry if you're more than 5-foot, 9-inches and skip the back seats entirely if you're more than 6 feet tall. We did stuff most of a 6-foot, 3-inch tester in, but getting his second size-12 foot inside was mildly problematic.
A 13-button steering wheel (on the Rio EX) groups controls for audio, cruise, trip computer, and phone on four spokes, with standard stalk controls on both sides. The three-cylinder instrument panel provides the usual info, including an engine temperature gauge many manufacturers have relegated to warning lights. Crisp white-on-black lighting with red needles and central display ensures readability day or night. The traditional key was welcome, though at least once we had trouble pulling it back out of the ignition.
Audio inputs and power points are ahead of the shifter, the control panel top center. Our co-pilot had some issues requesting tracks by name through Bluetooth, but noted this problem has occurred before with the device out of its home continent. All the hard- and soft-key controls functioned as we hoped, as did the ventilation system. The automatic shifter has manual up/down on the driver's side where it belongs.
Cubby storage up front is good, with a variety of sizes and shapes; the glovebox is big and the box next to the radio will not hold many smartphones. Amenities include exterior temperature indication, map lights, and covered (but not lighted) visor vanity mirrors on both sides.
Cargo space is reasonably good at 15 cubic feet with all seats in place, and a roomy 49.8 cubes with the split rear seats folded flat. But to do the latter, you might need to temporarily move the front seats forward so the rear headrests can drop clear. The cars we drove had no spare tire, but there appears to be room for one if you don't want run-flat tires.
Relative to others in the class, the Rio has competitive seating dimensions and cargo capacity, trading the most generous front legroom for tightest rear legroom. It's important to note that standardized measures of trunk space vary by sedans and hatchbacks, so comparing sedans and hatchbacks using the cargo numbers can be misleading.