Henry Payne

Payne: The Kia Rio gets back to basics

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Ninety miles — and 250 years — south of Washington, D.C., on the Potomac River is Stratford Hall, the imposing 18th-century estate that was birthplace to Founding Fathers Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee and their descendents. It is a historic escape to a simpler, candle-lit time far removed from our LED-lit high-tech world.

Appropriately, I piloted a subcompact, 2018 Kia Rio hatchback to get there. It was back-to-basics in a basic car.

I had spent much of the month racing across the country in cutting-edge cars like the Cadillac CT6 plug-in and Tesla Model S. They are extraordinary electrified machines that look sculpted by the wind and can drive themselves for miles. The stubby Rio all but disappears next to these lithe runway models. It’s a duckling next to swans — but not an ugly duckling.

I’m happy to report, in fact, that the duckling pond is full of capable cuties these days. And like chicks at the pet shop, they are cheap, cheap, cheap.

I like hatchbacks, and they are plentiful in the subcompact segment at prices that are $2,500 under five-door subcompact sport-utilities:

There’s the sporty-choice (for nuts like me) Ford Fiesta with its athletic design and three engine choices. The pick of the litter is the peppy, turbocharged 1.0-liter which will return a healthy 35 mpg but never bore you. The 1,000-cc engine is the mouse that roared.

Less attractive physically, but proof that beauty is more than skin deep is the Honda Fit with its configurable magic seats. Fold the chairs flat and it sports 53 cubic feet of gaping, ute-like cargo space. Honda being Honda, the Fit ain’t bad in the handling department despite its tired, CVT-driven engine.

I love the Chevy Spark for its expressive, bling-tastic exterior and passenger-friendly cockpit with more storage areas than an antique roll top desk.

Missing from this menagerie is a handsome, nimble Volkswagen. But the German brand decided to leave its subcompact Polo on the other side of the pond.

Redesigned for 2018 from the ground up, the Rio nicely fills the German niche beginning with its trim, conservative wardrobe. Kia boasts of the Rio “delivering a new eye-catching design that is decidedly European.” Translation: German.

The upright design is markedly different from the Accent, which is the Rio’s subcompact corporate cousin. With the introduction of the sensational Audi A7-lookalike — the $40,000 Stinger GT — Kia has signaled a sharp break from Hyundai in style and appeal. If the Rio isn’t as beautiful as the Stinger, its heart is undeniably in Deutschland.

Begin with the square hatch which affords generous headroom (legroom is another story for us tall guys) and cargo space. Exterior design cues will be familiar to VW fans, too, from the wrap-around front grille to the big taillights. Look close and Kia’s signature “tiger nose” grille is nothing but a piece of black plastic. That and the soft creases (you could cut your finger on the European Polo’s sharp stampings) are evidence that Kia still has work to do.

My Rio EX tester was a pleasant sight when the sun dawned on Stratford’s rustic log cabins.

The base LX sedan is a little too rustic for my tastes. Though its $13,900 sticker price will catch your eye in internet ads, its creature comforts are barely above log cabin: crank windows, six-speed manual, cloth seats and no hatchback. The five-door option can’t be had for less than $16,185. There are plenty of low-mileage used cars on the market for $14,000 with much better amenities, so I’m not sure why anyone would bother with a base Rio.

Better to step up to the Rio S hatchback which comes nicely appointed with keyless entry, cruise control and backup camera for just $17,295. The S adds Bluetooth connectivity — but not the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity crucial to the millennials. Kia makes you pay (unlike Honda) another $3,000 to get the software in my top-trim $20,225 tester.

But with that kind of dough, you’re getting into larger Honda Civic or Chevy Cruze hatchback territory. Happily, Rio comes with a smartphone-size console cubby so you can follow your phone’s directions.

That’s important because Rio is a hoot to drive, and the next thing you know — without Miss Google reminding you where to turn — you’re blowing past your next turn.

Happily, Virginia’s gravel trails have been updated since Light Horse Harry’s days to paved roads. However, with the advent of SUVs we have regressed to the coach days — high-riding vehicles with high centers of gravity. Lighter, low-riding subcompacts, on the other hand, are optimal for the rolling roads of northwestern Michigan or eastern Virginia.

With its German-inspired suspension and chassis upgrades, Rio belongs in the subcompact handling club with the Fiesta and Fit. Sure, it employs a cheaper torsion-beam rear suspension (like its peers) but you won’t notice much unless you like to pogo-stick over railroad tracks at 60 mph.

The trip from D.C. to Stratford offers miles of twisted ribbon to stretch the Rio’s legs — and plenty of center, dotted lines to get around modern coaches.

Rio’s engineers put some spice in the 130-gerbilpower 1.6-liter engine for 2018; it matches the Fit and Fiesta 1.0-liter with a respectable 8-second zero-60 sprint. The Kia doesn’t reach peak torque as fast as Fiesta’s turbo, but drivers may find its six-speed automatic a more welcome companion over long drives that the Honda CVT.

Where the Rio can’t match the Fit is in rear cargo room. But my giant suitcase fit behind the Rio’s back seats, and the Kia’s 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty fits budget-conscious subcompact shoppers.

More easy-on-the-wallet news: Despite flogging the Rio mercilessly over my 180-mile round trip, I got an impressive 36 mpg — a whopping 4 mpg better than the EPA sticker rating of 32. Add it all up, and you get fuel-efficiency, hatchback space and nimble handling.

It’s refreshing to get back to basics.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com

2018 Kia Rio

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback

Powerplant

1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder

Transmission

6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic

Weight

2,714 pounds (automatic as tested)

Price

$16,185 base ($20,225 EX as tested)

Power

130 horsepower, 119 pound-feet torque

Performance

0-60 mph, 8.5 sec. (Car and Driver est.); 121 mph top speed

Fuel economy

EPA mpg est. 28 city/37 hwy/32 mpg combined (36 mpg

as tested under Payne’s heavy right foot)

Report card

Highs

German-inspired styling, handling; hatchback utility

Lows

Standard smartphone app connectivity, please;

tight back seats

Overall: ★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

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