Car reviews - Kia - Rio - range
Modernised style, cabin design, impressive ride and handling, generous features, storage and occupant space
Room for improvement
Mis-matched engine and auto, very light low-speed steering
23 Jan 2017
By NEIL DOWLING
ON STYLE alone, the 2017 Kia Rio is a winner. Passers-by at the launch departure point in a sombre Bourke Street weekend turned heads, noting something familiar but yet now more polished and more European.
There’s a lot to like about the fourth-generation Rio and design is high up the list, particularly the way the car uses its more crisp edges to reflect a matured model and entice attention.
It has a longer bonnet than before, yet a smaller rear overhang. The C-pillar is thinner and more vertical, accentuating the short bonnet and allowing designers to increase the size of the boot opening.
It is marginally longer - a mere 15mm - but is lower by 5mm and sits on a 10mm longer wheelbase. These are small sums but the effect makes the Rio look more firmly packaged and closer in appearance to a European design such as one of its main competitors, the Volkswagen Polo.
More importantly, it is a design that has universal appeal. There’s no distinctive design element to turn away buyers and only the family grille - a pleasant broad slot now blanked by a gloss trim panel - links it to its Cerato, Optima and Picanto siblings.
The impressive lines continue inside the cabin with Euro-inspired dashboard shapes highlighted by a vertical touchscreen on the centre console, clear and large instrument gauges, small-diameter steering wheel and - for the Si and SLi models - a 3.5-inch screen within the gauges for additional information.
In its segment, it is the most attractive and intuitive driver control centre and also one that is packed with connectivity - Apple CarPlay and Android Auto plus voice recognition - to amuse and inform occupants. Even the hard plastic dash does not deter from the functionality and look of the controls.
Sitting in the Rio is unexpectedly appealing. It feels like a bigger car than its compact-car class and the extra room - the door panels have been pushed out and there’s more foot area - is a bonus to owners spending long periods on board.
Seemingly, nothing could go wrong, but despite the best intentions of Kia Motors Australia executives stating the carry-over engine and automatic transmission package would not concern buyers, on the open road through winding and hilly rural Victoria, it is a reminder that a low purchase cost has its price.
The 1.4-litre engine is now the sole powerplant for the five-door Rio after Kia deleted the previous generation’s 1.6-litre option because of supply constraints and - perhaps more accurately - because a 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol unit will become the flagship engine for the Rio in time.
Bolted to a six-speed automatic, the new engine will be a welcome addition to the range, although the proposed drivetrain will be more expensive, perhaps pushing Rio’s price to the $26,000 mark, it will satisfy buyers wanting performance in a light car.
On the road the 1.4-litre engine is willing but the large steps between the four-speed automatic’s ratios required a lot of effort to deliver power across a wide engine speed range.
This was aggravated in hilly terrain where it would either lug at low engine speeds in fourth gear or rev harder and noisily when changed to third gear.
Inner-city and suburban driving - the Rio’s natural habitat - where speeds are lower and demands on the drivetrain are minimal, rarely presented a problem.
This is the case of compromise where Kia is seeking to keep the car’s price and complexity low to appeal in a price-driven market.
The six-speed manual transmission model is a much better drive in the country, with an excellent spread of gears to suit the terrain, but would motorists take this option when faced with morning city traffic?If the automatic transmission was sometimes frustrating in rural setting, the stand-out of this car is the precision of the handling and the ride comfort that is better than most in its class and many in the small-car class above.
The Australian-developed suspension has been tailored for our unique motoring environment using special damper valves to control the rebound that translates to a comfortable ride and maximum traction.
From the factory, the new Rio has chassis upgrades including extra support to the suspension towers to increase rigidity, thicker cross braces, sound deadening and changes to the geometry of the front wheels, notably the castor angle.
In Australia, the dampers were changed, stronger anti-roll bars were fitted, the rear torsion-beam coils were re-rated and the steering was retuned.
Where the steering is light at low speeds, it is firmer at speed, relaying positive feel through corners and without any dead spots in the straight-ahead position - a trait of some less thoroughly developed electric-assist steering systems.
In answer to GoAuto’s remark about the low-speed steering feel being too light, Kia Motors Australia’s suspension consultant Graeme Gambold said the power steering devised by his team for the local cars was deemed too firm by Korea.
“We have to make it suitable for our market and for all buyers in this market,” he said.
“So it may feel a bit light at low speeds but that is designed for city driving. At higher speeds it firms up.”
Cabin comfort is one of the best on the market but that goes hand-in-glove with the ease of use of the Rio. The dashboard layout and the clarity of switchgear, instrumentation and the touchscreen action all reduced distraction while driving.
Seat comfort was good though there is some room for improvement. Like most in its class, the seats are narrow and not particularly supportive in the thigh area. This shows up on long trips though may not affect urban motorists.
The Rio now has slimmer door panels to make entry and egress easier, though still retains bottle holders on four doors. There is also an improvement to personal storage in the cabin with a two-tier shelf system in the centre console and, for occupants with devices, an additional USB charge point in the rear.
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