A few decades ago, picking the smallest car in an automaker's lineup meant subjecting yourself to a noisy, bouncy and plastic-filled existence.
That's not the case today. Entry-level cars are often used by automakers to introduce young buyers to a brand. They deliver a high quality product with thin margins to build brand loyalty.
Hyundai does it well with the Accent. I recently had the chance to drive the Accent's cousin, the Kia Rio, and it's even more impressive.
I sampled the fully-loaded $20,225 Kia Rio EX Launch Edition.
Buyers in this segment don't spring for the crazy technology — this is a value-oriented market — but the Rio EX comes with keyless entry, a 7-inch display, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The entertainment system runs Kia's UVO software which is a favorite of mine. It's user-friendly and snappy.
EX models also get forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking, two technologies that are rare for the class and can prevent you from making unsolicited acquaintance with another motorist's back bumper.
The Launch Edition package includes a red and black, two-tone interior that's nothing short of lovely. The Rio is easily a class leader in interior design, but the fresh color really sells it. Bring your friends along and they certainly won't think you bought the cheapest Kia.
The Rio behaves at least a class above itself on the road, too. It's relatively quiet, with excellent chassis control over uneven surfaces and competent handling in the twisties. It doesn't have the tinny, hollow feeling that defined cheap cars for too long. Instead, it feels like a good car that just so happens to be small.
But not as small as you might think, as the hatchback design gives you a leg up in practicality over subcompact sedans. The seats fold flat, too, so you can do some serious hauling in the baby Kia.
If you want anything above the $14,200 LX model, you can't have a manual transmission in the Rio. That's a shame, as I've found small cars with lower power figures are best served by stick shifts. Instead, the modest 130-horsepower four-cylinder in the Rio EX is mated to an unremarkable 6-speed automatic transmission. Given the Rio's excellent chassis control, it would have been a lot of fun to shift it myself on back roads.
While the Rio has a great interior and is quite refined for the class, it's still a $20,225 car in fully-loaded guise. To hit that target while still providing four wheels and a motor, there has to be a lot of cheap plastics in the interior, and there is.
You also shouldn't expect to easily carry five adults. This isn't a Rio-specific problem, but prospective buyers should know that there's a reason this is the smallest full class of cars: it's about as small as you can get away with. If you have kids or a dog, you might want to step up a segment into a Forte, Civic or Corolla.
As noted, it's irritating that buyers who want to shift their own gears have to live with the base model, which lacks things like Bluetooth, keyless entry and cruise control.
With that in mind, the only Rio you'd reasonably want is the EX. While we liked the base option in the Hyundai Accent, the eclectic mix of equipment on the base Rio isn't in the sweet spot. You don't need the Launch Edition package I had, even though it adds a nicer interior color.
Your total as-configured price is a reasonable $19,595.
In the 1990s, the Honda Civic had a reputation for delivering a fun driving experience in an attractive package that would last for years at a reasonable price. After sampling both the Accent and the Rio, I'm convinced they're the modern day equivalents of those old Civics.
Both brands offer high quality, good value and generous warranties. Add the fun-driving nature of their compact offerings, and the parallels are clear.
The Rio is a truly great offering at a reasonable price. I highly recommend it.
Driving Experience: 4
Price as configured: $20,225