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Car reviews - Kia - Rio - S

Our Opinion

We like
Maturity of design, dash design, interior packaging, multimedia spec, aftersales care, capable dynamics
Room for improvement
Duller styling, lumpy ride, no cruise control on base car, cheap looking (and smelling) cabin materials, no optional AEB

Kia logo27 Feb 2017

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

Price and equipment

PRIORITIES seem to have changed at Kia, and nowhere is that more evident than in its latest light hatchback.

You can be forgiven for thinking that the South Korean company has decided to forget emulating the Mazda2 and instead go after the more mainstream Toyota Yaris with the 2017 Rio. From funky to frumpy in one fell swoop.

Almost Germanic in its sensibility, the sober, more upright supermini banishes the youthful zest of the still-striking preceding version, for something far more mature. Like the designers went from something that looks like it’s moving when standing still to the opposite effect. Credit where credit is due, however, because much classy design detailing abounds about the nose and tail treatments.

Taking a peek into the spec sheet reveals further confusion, particularly concerning the ageing, carryover 1.4-litre four-speed auto powertrain when last year’s version offered a livelier 1.6/six-speeder combo (on higher-up versions).

Then there’s the price. From $19,090 plus on-road costs, the base Rio S auto as tested is certainly no price leader. Is Kia making space for the smaller (and admittedly far more youth-baiting) Picanto? That the entry level hatch has gained a reversing camera, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, a large central touchscreen, and a digital speedo as part of the complete redesign is commendable – and nobody can match Kia’s seven-year warranty – but losing cruise control on the S is an inconvenience many will rue.

And AEB Autonomous Emergency Braking is not available at any price, which is disappointing.

Interior

Make no bones about it. The latest Rio is the largest, strongest and most refined in the nameplate’s 17-year history in Australia.

Larger door openings make entering and exiting this car easier than before. For a B-segment hatch, there is heaps of space front and back, with four adults easily capable of finding comfort (or five at a squeeze if they’re not too broad). At 325 litres, the boot’s pretty big too, though some of that comes because of a space-saver spare wheel. Nevertheless, the packaging alone offsets the Rio’s higher-than-anticipated pricing.

The Rio’s cabin styling might be the brand’s best-ever effort as well, thanks to a dashboard design and layout that would please an Audi A1 fan. Melding sparse but appealing visuals with clever practicality, it features elegant yet comprehensive instrumentation, excellent ventilation, and plentiful storage (including bottle holders in the door cards).

Drilling down to the details, Kia’s latest touchscreen interface is fiendishly simple to operate the steering wheel looks great vision out is enhanced by a commanding driving position and there are USB outlets front and back.

So why do all the dashboard plastics look and feel so cheap – seemingly more so than the last model? The interior also smells low-rent in the way that Korean cars used to, which isn’t pleasant, while our particular car seemed to emit more off-gas than anything we’ve driven in years. Basically, from the inside, this Rio is like sitting beside a supermodel suffering from BO.

And, as we said earlier, the lack of cruise control in this not-so-cheap base version makes no sense when almost all rivals at this price point have it as standard.

Engine and transmission

It may date back to the Hyundai Getz of the early 2000s, and only have four speeds, but the latest Rio’s 74kW/133Nm 1.4-litre/four-speed auto combo is nowhere near as antiquated or off-the-pace as both of those facts suggest.

Indeed, performance is surprisingly sprightly and absolutely sufficient for an urban commuter, thanks to smooth and willing acceleration, backed up by a steady stream of eager responses throughout the rev range. Downshifts are pretty fast too, sidestepping the dull, droney inertia of many rival CVT Continuously Variable Transmissions.

Basically, there are worse gearboxes out there, despite the relative lack of forward ratios. And at least the Kia is fitted with a tip-shift function for some manual manipulation – an increasingly rare option in this class.

On the open road, the limited number of gears does mean that the engine can sound noisy and boomy when some quick acceleration is needed. At least it’s not coarse. And there isn’t the zing or zest of some of this car’s best rivals. It’s probably in this situation that the more contemporary powertrains found in, say, the Mazda2, Skoda Fabia, Volkswagen Polo or Suzuki Baleno 1.0T show the Rio up most. Time for that all-new turbo triple heart transplant, Kia.

Ultimately, a need for greater efficiency may dictate that. An indicated 8.3 litres per 100km is nothing to write home about for a supermini, and that more than anything shows the flipside of the dated drivetrain.

Ride and handling

Perhaps the Rio’s European breeding (at Kia’s German development centre near Frankfurt) is clearest in its steering and handling characteristics.

With expert agility and balance, the Korean-made hatch can be both fun and controlled around a twisty set of bends, resulting in smooth and confident progress. Even with a relatively small power and torque output on offer, the Rio can be hustled along very quickly and with very little drama. The supermini is just so effortless and easy to drive when you’re crawling or caning it.

But this all comes at the opportunity cost of ride comfort. The Rio has no problems coping with big humps, but smaller bumps, rougher roads, or train/tram tracks make it feel knobbly and unsettled. There’s nothing supple or lush about what’s going on here.

Such a shame, because there’s clearly plenty of driver appeal in the chassis below, backed up by a strong set of (four-wheeled) disc brakes.

We’re not fans of the Kuhmo tyres either, which are noisier than they need to be.

Safety and servicing

The Rio scores a five-star ANCAP crash-test rating.

Like all Kias, it is backed by an industry-leading, seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty (with the same period allocated for capped-price servicing as well as roadside assistance), as well as 12-month/10,000km service intervals.

Verdict

After the two original unappealing Rios from 2000 and 2004 respectively, as well as the beauty queen that was the 2011 Mk3 version, the fourth Rio has grown up to be one of the most mature and sensible B-segment hatchbacks on the market.

Roomier than average, well specified (AWOL cruise control excepted), dynamically as capable as ever, and with a brilliant seven-year warranty to boot, we wholeheartedly recommend the YB series to anybody needing a no-nonsense and dependable runabout. If these are your priorities, drive one before you buy anything else.

But there’s something amiss. It isn’t just the humdrum powertrain, stiff suspension and cheapo cabin materials. The alluring bloom of youth that set the preceding version apart has vanished for something sterner and a bit too soulless.

Maybe that’s what the Koreans deemed necessary to expunge in order to topple key competitors like the Toyota Yaris, Holden Barina, Ford Fiesta, and Hyundai Accent. Which the Rio does.

Us? We’d have liked a bit more Mazda2 life force, Renault Clio chic, and VW Polo refinement infused in there too. As such, we expected something greater.

Rivals

Mazda2 Neo automatic from $16,990 plus on-road costs
Look no further than here if you want a stylish, spacious, reliable, frugal and dependable supermini that mixes fun and efficiency effortlessly. Road noise apart, the Thai-built five-door hatch offers the greatest combination of talents, especially for the cash. Exceptional value. AEB is optional.

Skoda Fabia 81TSI DSG from $19,490 plus on-road costs
Like the Rio, cruise control costs extra, but Volkswagen’s chunky little Czech tearaway strikes back with standard AEB (the sole supermini to do that), a terrific 1.2-litre four-pot turbo, superb efficiency, excellent handling, decent packaging, and decent spec levels. Woefully underrated. A quieter ride would be appreciated, though.

Honda Jazz VTi from $16,990 plus on-road costs
Nothing in the B-segment offers such massive interior space and versatility than the Thai-made Jazz, thanks to ingenious packaging. Great all-round vision, easy to drive, punchy performance, commendable economy, and durable mechanicals are further enticements. But there’s not much fun for enthusiasts, while refinement levels lag behind the best.

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