It was pouring in Baltimore, and the weather report said it was going to stay that way for the entire day. This meant our entire behind-the-wheel time in the all-new 2018 Kia Rio would be in the wet. But considering we all rely on our cars, whether the sun is shining or on those "there's a thunderstorm and I spilled the coffee and I'm already late for work" days, this is the ideal way to evaluate the Rio. So, stowing our umbrellas in the Rio 5-door hatchback, we were ready to tour Maryland.

Bigger, more refined and fuel-efficient

Along with the Rio's new looks, which are more mature and arguably more conservative than the model it replaces, the subcompact benefits from notable improvements. Both the sedan and hatch receive the same new platform, which uses high-strength steel to increase torsional stiffness, which in turn improves ride and handling. It also helps with how the car fares in crash testing; Kia's goal is for the Rio to be an IIHS Top Safety Pick and earn a 5-star rating from NHTSA. The Rio's dimensions increase by essentially the same amount in the hatchback and sedan (a touch longer, on a longer wheelbase, lower and wider), and both have a new suspension, and an updated engine and interior. Short of a bit more headroom up front in the 5-door, the vehicles are essentially identical.

Starting our trek, the first thing we noticed wasn't specifically about the Rio but the roads we were on. Some were cobblestone, such as in the Fell's Point area where we started our day, and some were poorly maintained, unforgiving stretches of highway. That's a tough test for the suspension of any car, and the Rio did an admirable job with a ride that was stable, not jittery. The Rio felt solid.

Accelerating to get on the freeway, the Rio used every ounce of the engine's 130 horsepower and 119 lb-ft of torque. No, this 1.6-liter 4-cylinder isn’t a race engine and it's down a few horsepower and torque from last year, but the benefit is better fuel economy. Considering this is a commuter car, getting mpg as good as 29 in the city and 37 on the highway will offer a bigger benefit than high horsepower in the long run. The engine did fine getting to freeway speeds, thanks to the work of the 6-speed automatic transmission. (A 6-speed manual is also available with both body styles.) Brakes are discs up front and drums in the rear, which is not that unusual for the segment, but the 2017 Rio had 4-wheel disc brakes. Overall, this subcompact proved competent in wet weather.

Also: Get your first look at the new and redesigned cars of 2018

On the Inside

The cabin is redesigned, with a cleaner, more upscale look than before, but there are still plenty of hard plastic surfaces to be found. Offered in base, LX, S, EX and limited Launch Edition trim, our upper-level EX model came equipped with just about every feature available in a Rio. The Rio comes standard with a 5-inch display, but our EX had a 7-inch screen with UVO3 infotainment which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. A rear-view camera is also available. If you want navigation in the Rio, your sole choice is the EX with UVO3. There is no nav system offered at all and you have to get UVO3 to get CarPlay/Android Auto. The Rio is one of the few subcompacts offering this capability.

After several hours behind the wheel, there was little to no fatigue. The seats, which have been improved for 2018, offered decent support. The Rio's interior is pleasantly quiet, thanks to some aspects of the new chassis. It was easy to carry on a conversation at normal levels. And the cabin is relatively roomy for a subcompact car. When it comes to storage, the sedan’s trunk offers 13.7 cubic feet of cargo space, and the 5-door provides up to 32.8 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats folded.

Value

Kia hasn’t announced full pricing on the Rio, but here's what we know for now: the Rio is expected to start at $13,990 for the sedan ($400 lower than the base price of a 2017) and $14,290 for the 5-door ($300 higher than last year), both with the manual transmission; add $1,000 in either body style to get the automatic. These prices do not include destination, which hasn't been finalized yet, but that additional charge should add about $900 to the bottom line.

The base price for both models is impressive, on the lower end of the subcompact spectrum (lower than the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris and higher than the Nissan Versa), but keep in mind that the base LX sedan doesn't come with power windows, Bluetooth, USB charger (only a USB port), or a 60/40-split rear seat. The good news is that these features are all available on higher trims, and the Rio offers options you can't get on other subcompacts, such as autonomous emergency braking. Kia anticipates that about 70 percent of the Rios sold in America will be sedans. The 2018 Rio is expected to go on sale in some regions in early October, and nationwide by the end of the year.

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