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Car reviews - Kia - Rio - S 3-dr

Our Opinion

We like
Design, cabin space, standard safety features, dash layout, benign dynamics, family friendly practicality in baby package, value, safety
Room for improvement
Firm ride, poor rear vision, road noise intrusion, steering could do with more feel

20 Apr 2012

KIA is a killjoy.

We loved laughing at the old Rios. Even at $13K driveaway, they were a comically cheerless way of getting into a new five-door hatch, albeit one with airbags, air-con, power steering, central locking and a five-year warranty to help sweeten the deal on latter iterations.

But we wouldn’t anyway … not with the rubbery on-road manners, toxic-shock interiors and dorky styling. Built down to a price, all previous Rios were underachievers. Like a slacker without any sex appeal, they were best left well alone for a used Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Honda Jazz, Mazda2 or Suzuki Swift instead.

Of course, that’s all history since the latest UB model burst on the scene last September, instantly erasing all past Rio atrocities with seductive good looks and pulling off a makeover magnificent enough to warrant its own reality TV show.

One newspaper group even awarded the newcomer a ‘Car of the Year’ gong – a win that surprised some critics (including us) who baulked at the little Kia’s big price jump (especially on the impressive 1.6-litre GDI direct-injection models), volume-selling 1.4-litre auto’s dreary performance and outmoded gearbox combo, stiff ride and leaden dynamics.

That was confirmed again recently when we tested the range-topping $22K SLi GDI six-speed auto five-door hatch, although we still rated the Rio highly as a tremendous improvement over its predecessor.

Now we’re looking at the opposite end of the Rio range – the base three-door S 1.4 manual at $15,250. With two fewer doors, 200 fewer CCs and almost $7000 off that list price, we wondered how squarely the Kia sits in a hotly contested light car scene.

We have already raved about the handsome exterior design (ex-California) and functional interior layout (ex-Frankfurt), but the biggest surprise for us is how similar the S feels in isolation to its expensive SLi sibling inside.

There’s still the same hefty door thud closing behind you the dashboard look and feel still imparts solidity and quality and the surfaces won’t have you recoiling in revulsion.

Plus, the appealing steering wheel tilts and adjusts, the instruments are as comprehensive as you would hope, and nothing is too far away – including the standard six-speed manual (that’s right – six!) shifter. It’s a great start for the least expensive Rio.

While we’re throwing bouquets around, the front and rear seats sit four people comfortably (and a fifth at a squeeze) – even over long journeys there are storage spaces aplenty both front seats return to their previous positions when their one-touch fold and slide mechanism is utilised rear-seat access is fine (though the seat-belt extender can trip up the unwary so beware) the boot is reasonably long and deep considering a full-sized spare wheel lives beneath the floor and the child-seat anchorage points are located immediately behind the split/fold backrest so as to not impede cargo capacity.

But like the rest of the Australian-bound Rio range, the interior is rather gloomy and monotone the thick pillars impede the driver’s vision (especially when reversing) and … and … that’s it really.

And then there’s the 79kW 1.4-litre engine.

Again, in isolation, it isn’t terrible at all. Work that smooth and easy six-speed manual gearbox, and the smooth little powerplant proves eager and revvy all the way to the 6500rpm red line.

We loaded it up with three adults, two children, and a hatch full of holiday luggage, and even with the air-con on, the Rio S sailed along happily on the straights. Of course, overtaking required some planning and a pedal-to-the-metal attitude, with many downshifts required when an incline was arrived at, yet the Kia never felt gutless or under-endowed.

We averaged between 6.0-litres per 100km and 7.5L/100km over a series of test runs that had the Rio subjected to lots of heavy city traffic conditions.

The now-antiquated four-speed 1.4 auto was driven late last year and seemed lifeless by comparison, but if you’re contemplating the manual then the performance shortfall compared to the 103kW 1.6-litre direct-injection GDI is far more palatable.

Note, however, that key opponents such as the Mazda2, Nissan Micra, Proton Satria and Holden Barina all offer larger capacity engines for comparable cash.

On the dynamic steering front, the Rio three-door feels as benign and faithful as its larger-wheeled five-door sibling, going exactly where it is pointed and hanging on doggedly to the chosen cornering line when pushed hard.

But it lacks that feeling of precision and feedback that are evident in other light cars such as the Fiesta.

While there was no rack rattle to report, there was some looseness evident from somewhere within the front-end area, but at that point the Rio was being driven demandingly.

The ESC stability control engages intrusively – although that’s no issue since it does react quickly, cutting power to the front wheels with a few-second delay afterwards to ensure that everything is back in control.

Riding on 185/65 R15 tyres, the suspension soaks up most urban irregularities and bumps well enough, although an underlying firmness is always present, while bigger speed humps might have some owners questioning if there is a lack of sufficient wheel travel. But there’s less road noise intrusion in this base S than there was in the SLi driven over identical roads.

Unlike most rival light cars, every Rio is fitted with four-wheel disc brakes – as well as the now-mandatory ESC stability control – for effective repeated stopping performance.

After a week in the S three-door, we came away feeling warmer towards the Rio than we did when we had the flashier SLi, despite the obvious power and equipment gap between the two.

In fact, the larger engine with the manual gearbox is the pick of the bunch, but we’re talking $19K-plus for the cheapest version, so we still think Kia is being too greedy with its pricing.

Nevertheless, even with 79kW, the base S is an honest and appealing overall package, helped out enormously by high design and useful standard features such as audio streaming, Bluetooth telephony and a five-year warranty.

So we’d cop that $15,250 price tag (although, haggle hard to get it well below that figure), put up with a 1.4-litre engine and three-door inconvenience and happily drive a Rio S.

Just a year ago that sentence would have immediately been followed by a sarcastic snigger.

Thanks Kia! Time to look elsewhere for unintended laughs.

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