Car reviews - Kia - Rio - SLi
Generous standard equipment levels, well laid-out interior, seven-year Kia warranty
Room for improvement
Underpowered and thrashy engine, poor four-speed auto
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5 Sep 2017
IN RECENT years Kia has been on a hot streak of sorts, introducing an industry-best warranty program to go with a number of well-received new models such as the Sorento large SUV, Picanto light car, as well as the highly-anticipated Stinger, which is due to land later this year.
The Korean car-maker has gone a long way to shed its reputation as a cut-price manufacturer of vehicles with questionable quality, and the results are showing.
At the start of the year Kia introduced the fourth-generation version of its Rio light car, a model with plenty of rivals to contend with in a busy segment that focuses on value and safety.
We tested the top-of-the-range Rio SLi variant, which retained its pricetag of $22,990 plus on-roads, but has added a bunch of standard equipment while deleting the old 1.6-litre engine in favour of a smaller 1.4-litre unit.
Can the new Rio continue the Kia renaissance?
Price and equipment
When the Kia Rio range was updated at the beginning of 2017, the Korean manufacturer managed to keep the price of the top-spec SLi steady at $22,990 plus on-roads.
Its asking price is about par for the course for a top-spec non-performance automatic light hatch, and is similar in cost to other auto offerings such as the Ford Fiesta Sport ($22,525), Honda Jazz VTi-L ($22,990), Mazda2 GT ($23,680), Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo ($22,990 driveaway), the newly repositioned Volkswagen Polo Urban+ ($22,490) and the Toyota Yaris ZR ($22,470).
Only the Hyundai Accent Sport ($17,490) clearly undercuts its rivals.
Changes to the new Rio include a reduction in engine size from 1.6- to 1.4-litres, and a boost in standard equipment to give it greater clout against its light-car rivals.
Additional equipment includes a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, 3.5-inch digital instrument cluster display, climate control air-conditioning, electric sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights and aluminium sports pedals.
Outside the SLi gets 16-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, chrome grille surround, automatic folding and heated door mirrors and rear roof-mounted spoiler.
Standard safety gear includes ABS brakes, brake assist, electronic brake force distribution, traction control, electronic stability control and rear view camera with parking sensors.
Overall the Rio SLi has an impressive amount of standard equipment, which wouldn’t be out of place on pricier, larger rivals.
While other manufacturers try to insert quirky, hip or trendy interior styling in their small hatchback models, Kia has kept it clean and simple with the Rio’s cabin, resulting in an easy-to-use and pleasant experience.
The Rio SLi’s interior is befitting of a car above its price range, with gloss black and silver trim and leather-like flourishes giving the cabin a more premium feel than its pricetag suggests.
Some hard cabin plastics remind passengers that it is, in fact, a $23,000 Kia, however the generous equipment levels make up for its shortcomings.
A 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability kicks off the standard equipment in the SLi, which also includes satellite navigation and an interface that was simple to use and well laid out.
The voice command function is also able to easily distinguish names and words, something that not all systems can achieve, regardless of price or brand.
Underneath the infotainment system is the air-conditioning unit, which is simple in its operation and looks smart, with symmetrical design and useful touchpoints. Rear passengers unfortunately do not get any A/C vents.
Media options include Bluetooth capability, auxiliary and USB inputs, and two 12V ports, one with a cigarette lighter.
In the crook of the centre console is a storage area for a wallet and phone, followed by a leather-wrapped gearstick gaiter with gloss-back surrounds.
Two cupholders and the handbrake both in hard black plastics let down the look of the cabin, but the leather-look centre storage compartment with contrast stitching goes some way to remedying that.
The SLi’s instrument cluster features a 3.5-inch multi-information display with a number of useful read-outs, while the leather-look steering wheel contains a myriad of button options at the driver’s fingertips. The steering wheel is tilt-adjustable, but cannot change reach.
Music is piped through four speakers in the front and two in the back, while cabin ambience is enhanced by the addition of a sunroof.
The leather-like seats offer ample comfort and adequate room, however venturing into the rear pews comes with a decrease in legroom, and in particular, headroom.
Rear occupants have access to a USB phone charging port, while the boot gets two shopping hooks, a tonneau cover and a flimsy floor that opens to a space saver spare tyre underneath.
The Rio gets a tick for its uncluttered and classy interior, which gives the car the image of one more expensive than it really is.
Engine and transmission
Kia has dropped the old 1.6-litre engine that powered the more expensive variants of the Rio range, opting instead to proliferate the other option – an aspirated 1.4-litre petrol unit – across all variants.
The 1.4 develops 74kW of power at 6000rpm and 133Nm of torque at 4000rpm, teamed to a four-speed automatic transmission that sends power exclusively to the front wheels.
CO2 emissions are rated at 145 grams per km, and while Kia claims the Rio SLi sips just 6.2 litres of fuel per 100km, in our time with the car performing mainly urban driving, we recorded a much higher figure of 9.3L/100km.
For all the work that the interior and spec level does to give the Rio a more premium feel than its pricetag suggests, the engine and transmission is a way of reminding the driver that it is in fact a budget car.
There’s excessive engine noise not helped by the dated four-speed auto, which makes the engine rev hard even when accelerating conservatively.
Throttle response needs to be more linear, as from about 30 to 80 per cent throttle input, the engine seems to generate the same amount of power. It is only when the accelerator is put to the floor does the engine seem to wake up, and results in a noisy racket, a problem present on the Picanto micro car equipped with the four-speed box.
The initial throttle response off the line is perfectly adequate, however gearshifts are a tad clunky and power response even has a bit of lag, despite the engine being naturally aspirated.
Given the gearbox only has four gears, the tachometer has a tendency to sit at high revs, which could be a reason for the higher-than-expected fuel economy figure. When cruising at 100km/h, the tachometer sits at around 2500rpm.
The 1.4-litre unit is not necessarily a bad engine, but struggles to cope when teamed to the four-speed auto.
Even Kia has admitted the four-speed auto is not a great fit for the Australian market, as the launch of the Stonic small SUV in Australia was delayed due to the Rio SLi’s powertrain being the only engine/transmission pairing on offer.
The powertrain is the only element of the Rio that really disappoints, and the inclusion of a five or six-speed box or even a continuously-variable transmission would go a long way towards helping it climb towards the top of the sales ladder, and give the likes of the Mazda2 and Hyundai Accent reason for pause.
Ride and handling
One of the biggest reasons to buy a light car is it should provide an easy driving experience, in terms of handling and parking.
The Rio SLi is no different, offering sharp handing that is surprisingly sporty, and a precise steering response.
It responds well when thrown into corners, with minimal bodyroll and only a hint of understeer.
Driving at night, the SLi’s adaptive headlights prove to be a handy feature for a car of its price, turning a long way and illuminating the road ahead.
The calibration of the suspension is on the firmer side, but not enough to be off-putting.
Noise inside the cabin is minimal, as are any vibrations or rattles.
The Rio’s steering is light and nimble, and makes navigating tight spaces and parking a breeze.
In terms of ride and handling, the Rio is pretty much par for the course for the light-car segment. It is not particularly sporty or dynamic but its lightweight and small dimensions make driving an easy task.
Safety and servicing
One of the reasons Kia has been doing so well in Australia is its warranty program, which is arguably the best in Australia and certainly hard to beat among volume-selling brands.
The Rio and all other Kia models come with a seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, to go with seven years of capped-price servicing and roadside assist.
Service intervals occur every year or 15,000km, whichever comes first. The most expensive service comes after four years at $561, with average costs over the seven years equating to $349 per service.
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) has not safety tested the new Rio since its update in January. However the previous iteration received a five-star rating when it was tested in 2011.
Kia has put together an impressive package with the Rio. Its equipment levels, interior, ride quality and fantastic warranty program are all commendable features, and help give it a point of difference in a segment where value for money is paramount.
However its transmission and engine need improvement, and the noise and poor performance they provide distract from what is otherwise a top-quality car.
If Kia wants the Rio to be a heavy-hitter in its segment, a new six-speed auto would go a long way to help the struggling 1.4-litre unit cope far more efficiently.
Drivetrain aside, the Rio SLi is an attractive package for anyone wanting a sensible, affordable light car with generous amounts of kit and a bulletproof warranty that is unmatched by other competitors.
Mazda2 GT hatch from $23,680 plus on-roads
Mazda’s top-spec light hatch offers a quality interior layout, generous levels of safety equipment and a reputation for reliability. It is also towards the top of the segment’s price bracket, and the 1.5-litre donk is prone to being noisy.
Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo from $22,990 plus on-roads
The new range-topping Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo is the driver’s light hatch, with its rorty 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder engine and keen handling. It is let down by interior plastics and an infotainment system that it bested by rivals.
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