Car reviews - Kia - Rio - S Premium
Spacious interior, ride comfort, decent handling, perky drivetrain, class-leading customer care package
Room for improvement
Nauseating new car smell, a bit old-tech, heavy clutch and brake action, engine vibration
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17 Dec 2015
Price and equipment
In return for an extra $700 over the five-door version of the base S variant, the $17,690 (plus on-road costs) S Premium comes with 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, electric folding side mirrors, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, front foglights and tweeters bringing the audio system’s speaker count to six.
Not a bad list of upgrades for negligible extra money, but only the cruise control and nicer steering wheel really enhance the driving experience over an S and we would prefer to see more useful featured like parking sensors or a reversing camera.
Standard spec carried over from the entry variant includes air-conditioning, electric windows, Bluetooth streaming, USB and auxiliary inputs for the audio system, six-way driver’s seat adjustment, reach and rake steering wheel adjustment and a trip computer.
Considering Kia’s recent history as a value-for-money brand, the Rio S Premium’s spec sheet adds up to a less compelling package than light-car stalwarts like the Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris. Even European choices like the Volkswagen Polo out-point the Rio on standard equipment.
The S Premium is available in only the five-door body style and our test car was optioned with $520 worth of premium paint, but the $2000 four-speed automatic transmission option box was not ticked.
This job provides plenty of experience in new-car smells and the potentially harmful effects of the chemicals behind the evocative aroma are well documented.
But rarely do we suffer headaches and nausea as a result of driving almost factory fresh vehicles on a regular basis. We and our passengers suffered symptoms within 30 minutes of being in this Rio test vehicle.
A quick phone-around to Rio owners found no reports of the same problem, so perhaps we just had a particularly noxious example.
Smells aside, the Rio’s interior is basic and full of hard black plastics, and something about the dark grey seat upholstery makes it look faded and worn, even though our 2000km-old test car was obviously new and in good condition.
Piano black audio system surrounds and the silver airvent trims lift an otherwise dull cabin ambience and everything feels well put together, while the instrument panel is clear, most controls fall easily to hand and the audio system simple to use with quick and easy Bluetooth pairing.
We also liked the pleasant feeling, perfect diameter upgraded steering wheel of the S Premium.
There is plenty of space in here too, even in the back, where two six-footers can just about sit in tandem with plenty of head- and shoulder-room, meaning the Rio compares favourably against numerous cars from the next size up. For example, a Toyota Corolla feels far less roomy than a Rio.
The glovebox is huge, while a couple of large open centre console bins – the front one with a thoughtful iPhone-sized recess, two 12V sockets and USB/AUX inputs – provide additional storage options.
But door bins are almost exclusively for the use of drinks bottle storage, while the central cupholders are oddly sized and too shallow to be useful on the move. The boot carpet is thin (but full-size alloy spare beneath gets a thumbs-up) and the split-fold rear bench causes an annoying step in the otherwise deep load area.
The six-way driver’s seat adjustment and reach/rake steering column should in theory provide an ideal driving position but the notched backrest settings were either too upright or too laid back and the steering wheel didn’t come quite close enough for our liking.
Front seats provide plenty of side support and are comfortable enough for longer journeys, but taller drivers might struggle with the short squab’s lack of thigh support.
Visibility is fine so long as you are looking forwards or to the side, while the big door mirrors help overcome the tiny, high-set rear windscreen and thick C-pillars. With no sensors or camera available, the Rio relies on driver skill to avoid parking mishaps.
Engine and transmission
The S Premium shares its 79kW/135Nm 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual gearbox with the base S.
With linear power delivery and gearing that keeps it in a responsive sweet-spot at motorway speeds in sixth, this little drivetrain provides the Rio driver with plenty of flexibility to explore further than the city limits.
An engine vibration felt through the steering wheel between 2500 and 3000rpm on our test car marred the cruising experience somewhat, but this disappeared on 110km/h stretches of road.
Of course the Rio is happiest round town and more than capable of keeping up with traffic, although a tall second gear demands an unnaturally late up-change from first if bogging down is to be avoided, especially on hills, and the clutch pedal’s action is far too heavy.
A trip into hillier terrain was the undoing of the 1.4, turning the Rio’s usually relaxed character into a torque-deprived and exhausting rowing of gears that had us looking forward to the day Kia embraces turbocharging – something it is only just staring to dip its toe into.
However, on less steep but equally twisty roads, the revvy engine and slick, positive gear-change action were a satisfying combination.
Fuel use during our test averaged 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres, a litre up on the official combined figure. Different types of driving did not seem to have huge impacts on economy.
Ride and handling
If one thing about the Rio impressed us, it was the grown-up ride quality. The way it confidently soaks up bumps at urban or country road speeds without resorting to a floaty or wallowy feeling puts some larger cars to shame.
Completely numb steering marrs the Rio’s otherwise decent handling experience.
The sound of tyres starting to squeal, rather than anything transmitted to the driver’s fingertips, is the first indication that grip is running out.
Happily, the Rio is very responsive to throttle inputs and can usually be made to do exactly the driver’s bidding at the (admittedly low) limits of grip. The stability control even allows quite a degree of exuberance before gently stepping in.
It’s not the last word in polished dynamics, but we had a lot of fun chucking it about. Like the Holden Barina, there is a basic old-school charm about the Rio’s nimbleness.
We never got used to the pedal weights, with a light accelerator action juxtaposed by the heavy clutch and a wooden-feeling brake pedal with too much resistance high in its travel, making it difficult to judge how much pressure to apply for each braking situation.
Unless travelling into a head wind or on the coarsest of coarse-chip surfaces, the Rio suppresses unwanted noises admirably.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP awarded the Rio a maximum five stars, with an overall score of 34.99 out of 37. The frontal offset test score was 14.99 out of 16, while 15 out of 16 was awarded for side impact performance and 2 out of 2 in the pole test.
Pedestrian protection was “marginal”.
Standard safety gear comprises dual front airbags, side airbags, side curtains airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, electronic stability control, seatbelt reminders for all seats and front seatbelt pretensioners. The outboard seating positions have ISOFIX child restraint attachments.
Kia’s market-leading seven-year warranty, seven-year capped servicing, and seven-year roadside assistance package includes 12-month/15,000km service intervals, with the first 3000km service free of charge.
Unless you are in love with the looks, swayed by the seven-year peace-of-mind package or swing a corking driveaway deal, it is difficult to recommend the Rio in today’s ultra-competitive light-car market.
Yes it has character and feels like less of an appliance than some competitors.
But it feels a generation older than the best rivals (because it is) and is missing some crucial must-haves like parking sensors or a reversing camera.
Compare it to what the Europeans are offering for less money – although it might not last given the Australian dollar’s decline – and the Kia would have The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan exclaiming, “Tell ‘em they’re dreaming”.
Based on the quality of recent Kia products, we have a feeling the next-generation Rio will be one to watch. Until then, look elsewhere.
Volkswagen Polo 66TSI Trendline from $16,990 plus on-road costs
A classy European all-rounder with refinement and smoothness in spades plus a decent standard equipment list for a price that makes the Korean Kia look expensive.
Mazda2 Maxx from $16,990 plus on-road costs
The dynamic darling of Australia’s light car market, the multi-dimensional Mazda2 is quality through-and-through from cabin presentation to drivetrain sparkle. Like the Rio it is sparsely appointed, but unlike the Rio it is cramped and noisy inside.
Honda Jazz Vti from $14,990 plus on-road costs
Less expensive and better specified than the Rio S Premium and, with class-leading practicality, a strong contender in the light car segment.
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