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Car reviews - Kia - Rio - 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Value, style, comfort, zippiness and equipment levels
Room for improvement
Still noisy, rubbery gear change, leaden dynamics

16 Dec 2005

MAKE no mistake. With its complete clean-sheet redesign, Kia’s all new, second-generation, JB Rio is a far-better car than the frankly horrible BC Rio original.

But that’s like saying that the eliminated third-round Australian Idol hopefuls out-rank the first-round losers.

There are still simply better light cars out there – Fiesta, Jazz, Mazda2, Colt, Polo, 206, C3, Yaris, Getz… you name it.

Yet Kia offers the new Rio at $15,990 drive-away.

And the only models cheaper are also South Korean – the aforementioned (and recently revised) Getz and resurrected Daewoo Kalos with a 1.6-litre engine known as the Holden TK Barina.

So these are the rivals that, realistically, the Rio must joust with.

Getting the bad stuff out of the way first, the Kia is about an equal last with the Holden for dynamic aptitude and driving pleasure (but for different reasons).

The Rio simply feels less agile than it should since it leans too much around corners, with feel-free (though fast and agile) steering and tyres that squeal, scrub and then eventually slide the quicker you go.

Throw in a long and rubbery manual gearshift that’s too notchy and you have a recipe for dull and undistinguished motoring.

But, golly, the Rio is better than the last.

Sharing absolutely nothing with its previous namesake, the Rio’s underpinnings will soon arrive in Australia wearing another set of clothes and sporting the Hyundai Accent moniker.

At least it’s new. Scratch the surface of the old (2000-2005) Rio and you’ll find the 1994-1999 WB-WF Ford Festiva, 1990-1997 Mazda 121 ‘bubble’ and even the 1986-1990 Mazda 121 lurking underneath… no wonder Kia dubbed it the ‘BC’ Rio.

Thankfully, with the JB (AD Rio may have been more appropriate) model there’s a much higher degree of body control than before the chassis seems much stronger and rigid and there’s significantly less noise, vibration and harshness coming into the cabin. It also feels like a tighter and much-better made car.

And performance is a Kia strong suit too, thanks to a 1.6-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine nicked from the Accent and now the Getz.

Emitting 82kW of power at 6000rpm and 145Nm of torque from 4500rpm, it provides plenty of acceleration and a punchy overtaking attitude for a light-car contender.

Kia says it can hit the 0-100km/h mark in 10.2 seconds on the way to a 190km/h top speed.

Yet if anything the 1600 engine overwhelms the front tyres’ ability to grip the road, with messy take-offs and lots of torque steer in wet conditions to keep you concentrating hard.

For some reason this engine’s installation is also less pleasant than in the older-design Getz 1.6 GoAuto recently sampled. Occupants are too readily assailed by noise from just beyond the dash.

With the engine working at 3000rpm at just 100km/h, the Rio’s not the most relaxing highway cruiser either.

Fuel consumption is also not class leading – even if the power output just about is. Kia’s combined figure of 6.8 litres per 100km is soundly beaten by the new Yaris 1.3’s 6.0L/100km.

Externally the latest Rio is more of a looker too, with a squatter yet taller and better-proportioned stance than its piscine-like predecessor. And you can have fun playing ‘spot the influences’.

Take the nose (please), a reminder of the last Mazda 323’s. Fans of ‘70s and ‘80s Opels, VB-VH Commodores and JD-JE Camiras will love the plastic C-pillar triangle. And the tail-lights are quite Corolla-like.

Yet there are plenty of charming details. The chunky black bump strips add some Euro-chic, as do the cool plastic wheel covers and lively colour palette.

And the Rio’s cabin is surprisingly grown-up for such a small car.

No funky trim or cute aesthetic touches here. Instead there’s a functional, business-like approach to its execution and presentation.

Clear, stylish instrumentation, handy switch and button access, a good driving position that’s augmented by a height-adjustable steering wheel and driver’s seat and excellent ventilation all earn merit.

There’s plenty of occupant space if you’re not much taller than 190cm, sitting on front seats of adequate comfort. However the rear seats are a tad tight.

Compared to the previous model, the Rio II is shorter in hatchback form as tested but measurably roomier thanks to a stretched wheelbase, a wider track and more spacious body.

Equipment levels are superb for the starting price, including two seat-map and four door pockets, a bottle as well as several cup holders, three over-head grab handles – which are needed around corners.

There’s even a cheesy armrest on both sides of the driver MPV style, a nifty coat cook in the front seat headrest, a specific 12V outlet on the dash besides the cigarette lighter, a portable cylindrical ash tray, a bottle as well as several cupholders and a hatch door handle to keep hands clean.

But there are also curious omissions – namely the rear-centre headrest and the mobile phone pocket the Rio’s Getz cousin gets.

The rear backrest doesn’t fold flush with the floor, the headrest still has to come off and the parcel shelf is shamelessly cardboard-like in construction.

This Kia’s cabin presentation is not nearly as clever as the Jazz’s then.

Anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake Force Distribution are an option – at $870. FYI, the $14,490 Getz 1.6 has it as standard, along with four-wheel disc brakes.

And there’s still that residual cheapness about the way it smells that quashes any quality assertions.

So there you have it. The Rio is probably the most improved car on the Australian new car market.

We can now recommend it if you’re keen enough on the looks and cannot possibly afford anything else – something we could categorically not do with the first model.

Its $15,990 drive-away price means that only the lacklustre TK Barina five-door can offer a similar specification – including five doors – for the dosh.

For the record we’d rather go to Rio – at least it is actually a better car than the one it replaced – something you can’t really say of the latest Barina.

And interestingly not even cousin Hyundai can match the Kia’s ask with its keenly positioned (but better-resolved) Getz.

But – and this is a big but – the Rio is by no means best in class – not by a long shot.

The light cars competition is just too good these days for mediocrity to cut the muster.

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