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Car reviews - Kia - Rio - 5-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Design, cabin space, standard safety features, dash layout, performance, benign dynamics, family friendly practicality in baby package, six-speed auto on 1.6
Room for improvement
Four-speed auto with 1.4, poor rear vision, road noise, steering could do with more feel, 1.6 GDI needs heavy right foot to shine

31 Aug 2011

DID PORSCHE keep the old ‘356’ badge for its first 911 almost 50 years ago? Did Holden call its modernist Commodore of 1978 ‘Kingswood’?

No and no. And because so much has changed in Kia’s latest light-car offering, it is a shame as well as a disservice to retain the sullied Rio name for the utterly different and utterly better UB series.

Frankly it’s at least two generations ahead of what’s gone before.

Actually, in Kia’s defence of hanging on to that badge, the newcomer is good enough to erase memories of the cruddy old JB, as well as that model’s appropriately coded BC predecessor – a true shocker that barely bettered the horrible first-gen Mazda 121-derived Ford Festiva-badged cars that clogged up Australian roads in the 1990s.

Yes, we can barely believe it. The Rio is now suddenly a ripper little contender that more than justifies its march upmarket from the old model’s $13K driveaway bargain basement pricing.

Styled in California by Kia designer Massimo Fraschella (of new Sportage fame), the fifth-gen front-drive light-car from the 67-year-old vehicle manufacturer (and the third under Hyundai’s stewardship since 2000) chucks out stodgy looks for a swoopy wedge shaped hatch with broad shoulders, a wide track, and taut clean surfacing.

Early 2012 will see an attractive three-door and okay four-door join the range.

Rivalling the Fiat Punto, Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta as the most striking B-segment models produced today, the Rio five-door’s lines would do Volkswagen’s Polo proud. Fraschella says the UB’s appeal likes with its purposely-masculine attitude amongst overwhelmingly feminine-looking rivals, and we think he might be on to something.

Noting that only the up-spec Si ($19K) and SLi ($20K) cars were available for evaluation at the Rio’s launch in Adelaide (the boggo $16,290 S arrives late in September), the cabin’s German influence is – for good as well as bad – obvious from the go get (Kia’s Frankfurt studio was responsible).

Bad first. Why is it so unremittingly dark in a vehicle called ‘Rio’? Sadly, grey rather than gay dominates. We understand Kia’s desire for a more mature presentation to reflect the UB’s move up the price ladder, but it borders on oppressive when you take into account the relatively shallow side windows (which, along with an extremely thick C-pillar, render rear three-quarter vision nearly useless).

That’s a shame because pretty much everything else including build and material quality seems to be near or at the top of the Rio’s class – and we’re including the segment’s current darling, the Polo, too. More colours and less coal pit please!

But Kia’s managed all the basics correctly – easy access, lots of space up front, sufficient room in the rear, ample ventilation, great driving position, comfy front seats, storage spaces aplenty (including a massive glovebox), commanding forward vision due to thinnish A-pillars – and there’s actual ‘surprise and delight’ to be discovered inside as well.

Take the handsome wheel: it tilts and telescopes just like the Fiesta’s used to but hasn’t since its move to Thailand (Econetic excepted). The Si/SLi feature piano-black trim around the very Audi A1-esque heater/air-con controls, supported by stylish Mini-like toggle switches just below.

The brand-signature ‘three-cylinder’ instrument cluster in up-spec versions includes a detailed trip-computer screen among a very classy set of dials. And the hatch release is via a solenoid button. Nice.

In contrast, the old Rio had cheapo old-fashioned handles for all doors, a fiddly knob to raise the driver’s seat, the world’s sorriest looking steering wheel, pre-Perestroika plastic trim and a non-integrated radio/CD player that could have escaped out of the 1990s. It’s in the details and Kia now knows it.

Thumbs up too to the positioning of the child-seat anchorage points immediately behind the rear cushion, so there won’t be strap intrusion into the commendably accommodating hatch. Under the flat floor lives a full-size spare wheel, by the way.

Oh oh! Regular readers may remember that we were also impressed with Hyundai’s closely related and also just released RB Accent, declaring that – as a static object at least – it has plenty to get light-car punters excited… until the time came to drive the thing.

As the Rio’s design and cabin elevate it – as well as our expectations – well above what the Accent achieves, any on-road disappointments would have the high-flying Kia crashing down even harder in our eyes.

Well, again, bad points first.

Despite – or perhaps as an upshot of – the five-stage localisation program that saw prototype UBs undergo almost six months and 5000km of Australian steering and suspension tuning for an Oz-specific set-up, there is a noticeable amount of road noise droning inside the cabin, especially on certain types of coarse bitumen.

And thankfully that’s really about it – with the 1.6s at least. We expected the driving experience to be bland bordering on the bad, but found a fine blend of sportiness and suppleness instead.

Unfortunately none of this applies to the Rio that's expected to be the overall best-seller, the base 79kW/135Nm 1.4-litre S five-door (the upcoming three-door should kick off from $15K), because everything we experienced pertains to the Si and SLi.

We do know from the also closely related Hyundai i20, however, that the S’ 1.4-litre MPI petrol unit is a sweet and revvy little trier tied to a manual trannie, so we’re confident it will perform anyway. But we’re not expecting much at all from the 1.4/four-speed auto combo.

For now, the 103kW/167m 1.6-litre direct-injection GDI petrol engine leads its class on paper, yet feels curiously muted on the road.

Considering how much more power and torque it has over the fiery 89kW/151Nm Fiesta, for instance, we expected almost hot-hatch levels of step-off acceleration, but instead found that the desired push in the back only really came along once the engine was singing past 4000rpm. Subjectively, the Ford seems significantly sprightlier.

It is only once the Rio is on the move that it really begins to feel fast, and there is plenty of power in reserve for highway overtaking tasks.

So you have to be prepared to row that six-speed manual gearbox a little, which is no chore, while the six-speed auto (with a Tiptronic-style sequential shift plane – again unlike the Fiesta’s dual-clutch Powershift transmission) is also geared to keep the Rio 1.6 humming along nicely. No complaints there then.

But the Ford shows the Kia how it should be done when it comes to steering reaction and feel.

Yes, the Rio’s tiller is well weighted and turns into corners with an alacrity no Korean light-car has ever before managed on our roads, but there isn’t much sensory feedback through the wheel, and there’s also a moment’s delay in steering reaction time.

You soon get used to this though, and it's easy to build up a pleasing flow on fast winding country roads. The Rio's vice-free steering should suit most drivers down to a tee, but the UB isn’t quite up with the segment stars – Fiesta, Polo, Suzuki Swift, Mazda2 – even if it is a major step forward for the brand.

There are no issues with the amount of grip though, for both the 17-inch Continental tyres on the range-topper as well as the Si’s 16-inch Kuhmo rubber stick to the road like glue.

And the Rio’s ride quality is commendable too. Even the big-wheeled SLi dealt with the Barossa Valley’s many and varied surfaces without too much discomfort or bother, further proving the worth of local tuning.

So the latest Kia light-car – in up-spec five-door 1.6-litre guises at least – has undertaken a huge leap forward from bottom-end dross to a strong, dynamic and likeable contender.

As great design can’t really be measured in dollars, the Rio is already a front-runner on looks alone, which counts for a lot at this end of the market.

Throw in generous equipment levels and an expected five-star ANCAP safety rating thanks to a full suite of standard gear including Hyundai/Kia’s VSM Vehicle Stability Management system, which is unique at this price point, and the Rio makes for a very compelling light-car choice indeed.

We need to drive the base engine and experience the (disappointing on paper) four-speed auto gearbox on familiar urban and city roads before we can make the call that the Rio is up there with our segment favourites, but the 1.6s have shown what a promising contender the Kia is.

A company insider admitted a name change to K2 (as in some other global markets) would have been preferable. After two days of driving, we agree.

The UB is a groundbreaking car for its maker and that much better than any previous Rio.

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