Review: Kia’s 2021 Rio offers a peppy ride

Our first encounter with Kia's subcompact, the Rio, was unforgettable ... but not in a good way. The diminutive 2001 Rio was seriously underpowered and uncomfortable for tall drivers, and it wasn't even all that fuel-efficient — 22 mpg city, 28 highway. On top of that, the "Check Transmission" warning light came on midway through a 200-mile drive. The good news is that performance, such as it was, wasn't affected by whatever was wrong with the transmission.

Since then, many of the minicars and subcompacts we've tested over the years no longer can be found in the showrooms, and even subcompacts are getting harder to find. The Rio is a notable exception. Not only is it still around after 20 years, but everything about it speaks to its manufacturer's willingness to invest in improving its performance, efficiency, functionality and refinement.

Yes, thanks to Kia, Hyundai and a few other automakers, you can still get a small, reliable fuel-efficient sedan or hatchback for under $20,000. The competition is limited to the similar Hyundai Accent; the Chevrolet Spark, the lowest-priced of the group; the Mitsubishi Mirage; and the Nissan Versa, which includes some desirable safety features as options. But Nissan and Hyundai, unlike Kia, Chevrolet and Mitsubishi, no longer offer hatchback versions of their smallest cars.

The car we tested was a 2021 Kia Rio S, base-priced at $16,990. An option package and delivery charge brought our test car's sticker price to $20,200. For 2022, the bottom-of-the-line version, the LX, starts at $16,150.

We found the Rio to be peppy and fun to drive. Leg room is marginal but acceptable for tall drivers, but very tight in the back seat. The Rio was fairly quiet on the highway but admitted considerable road noise into the cabin on some road surfaces. The interior materials, especially the door panels, were made of hard plastic. But the interior was stylish, and the controls were simple and straightforward.

While Kia does what it can to keep the Rio's price down, it honors the brand's commitment to provide long standard-equipment lists. Among the standard features on our Rio were an 8-inch touchscreen with rear camera; wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay with smartphone integration; cruise control; tilt steering; and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. An $1,800 Technology Package added numerous nice touches, including alloy wheels, satellite radio and automatic climate control. 

Also included in this package were several safety features, but blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic warning systems are not available in the Rio.

More Information

2021 Kia Rio S 5-Door


Price: $20,200
Engine: 1.6-liter inline Four, 120 horsepower, 112 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: intelligent variable automatic
Drive: front-wheel
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, coupled torsion beam rear
Curb weight: 2,765 lb.
Wheels: 15-in. alloy
Tires:  P185/65R15 all-season
Seating capacity: 5
Luggage capacity: 17.4 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 32.8 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gal.
Fuel economy: 33 mpg city, 41 highway
Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

The Rio's fuel economy is rated at 33 mpg city, 41 highway — a dramatic improvement from the first Rio we tested. We averaged nearly 41 mpg in mixed suburban and highway driving.

While the Rio didn't attain the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation, it earned the institute's top rating of "Good" in most categories and was judged "Acceptable" overall. Government crash-test data were unavailable.

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Brookfield, Conn.