2021 Best Subcompact Car: Kia Rio / Rio 5-Door

It has been many years since the subcompact car segment was ruled by vehicles equipped like a penalty box at your local hockey rink. The best of today’s machines in this class have features to rival cars that are several sizes larger while actually looking like something in which you’d want to be seen. Toss in a set of driving dynamics that won’t spur early-onset somnambulism and you’ve the grounds for this year’s winner.

The 2021 Kia Rio sedan and its hatchback sibling encompass these attributes thanks to a team effort at the company that spanned the globe. This model is the product of Kia’s design studios in Germany and California, a pair of cultures that bring distinctly different strengths and priorities to the table. The result is a subcompact car that looks sharp but incorporates a few cheeky design cues for visual interest.

This year, the Rio model range has appeared on two other celebratory lists, and were featured in roundups of both Canada’s lowest-cost vehicles and the most fuel-efficient machines on sale today. We praised its “very impressive standard equipment” and a recent styling update that makes it “more up to date than many of its rivals.”

Speaking of equipment and features, even the base LX trim – priced at just $15,495 for the hatchback – includes the likes of heated seats and steering wheel, plus satellite radio capability. Certain so-called luxury trims from Germany often charge extra for those latter two items, underscoring the top-tier value the Kia Rio provides its customers. Adding air conditioning and cruise control is a simple matter of making the $1,500 walk to an LX+ trim. This helps the Rio secure a lock on value, one of the 12 categories our judges consider when voting on a winner.

Still, a plethora of features aren’t useful if they are blindingly difficult to use. Kia does a great job with the layout of the Rio’s interior, placing clear gauges ahead of the driver and a large infotainment screen on the centre stack. A trio of chunky dials stand ready to control the ventilation system and there is a real volume knob for the stereo. These are refreshing features in a world dominated by inscrutable touch-capacitive buttons and touchscreens.

No matter which Rio one selects, there will be a 1.6L four-cylinder engine under its hood making an agreeable 120 horsepower and 113 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is available on the hatchback, with the sedan remaining an automatic-only proposition. Fuel efficiency strays into the territory usually occupied by small gasoline-electric hybrid cars, checking in at just 5.9 L/100 km on the highway for models equipped with the automatic.

The automatic gearbox is what Kia calls an Intelligent Variable Transmission. In fact, calling it a gearbox is a misnomer, since the unit doesn’t have any gears at all. Its near-infinite number of drive ratios contribute to the always-right engine speed, one which prioritizes efficiency but does not necessarily throw a wet blanket on the idea of driver satisfaction. The transmission was a new addition last year and continues into 2021 thanks to positive feedback from both media and real-world customers.

Design can be an objective measure, but as a certain celebrity often asks, “Does it spark joy?” Even though it is one of the least expensive new cars on sale in Canada today, the Kia Rio does indeed spark a glimmer of joy, especially when compared to some of the dreary options in this subcompact segment. The five-door hatchback variant has a stubby tail that pairs well with its pug-nosed grille, while the sedan makes the most of its three-box profile without looking like a third-world taxi. Snazzy trim levels can even be had with 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in low-profile tires, which go well with that model’s projection headlamps and LED taillights.

It is also worth noting, especially in this budget-friendly segment, that Kia offers bright and interesting paint colours even on the Rio’s least expensive trim. Adding to its value proposition, every trim – even the base model – gets heated side mirrors that live in colour-keyed pods. A handy rear window wiper, arguably an important safety feature in most Canadian winters, is also standard on every 2021 Rio. This is more than can be claimed by the Porsche 911.

Our jury of more than 20 automotive experts from all over the country consider every single new car available for Canadians to buy in a segment and base their votes on a dozen different criteria ranging from safety and quality to efficiency and performance. These criteria are weighted with a critical eye to the segment’s intended purpose; for example, outright performance is not as important in this category as it is in others, while value and fuel efficiency and practicality are pretty important here. The Kia Rio was voted as the winner, beating out the Mini 3-Door/5-Door, Chevrolet Bolt EV, Nissan Versa, and Chevrolet Spark, all of which were voted as the best five in the segment. Last year’s winner, the Honda Fit, has been discontinued for 2021.

The 2021 Kia Rio embodies positive attributes in all our criteria, ranging from innovation and tech to user friendliness and design. For these reasons, it represents the best of its segment and is one we can confidently recommend to our family, friends, and readers.