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First drive: Budget motoring, Kia Rio style

More doors, same price: Kia Rio sedan and five-door matches three-door rivals on price.

Kia kick-starts the new year with a facelifted Rio to take on the light car masses

31 Jan 2003

KIA Australia has opened 2003 with a bang by releasing a convincingly facelifted version of its volume selling light car, the Rio.

The Rio launch coincided with Kia's major sponsorship of the Australian Open tennis tournament in January and will be followed on March 1 by the release of Kia's new flagship, the Sorento off-roader.

Kia has big plans for the heavily updated Rio, which is now available at $14,990 both in four-door sedan and five-door hatch guise - with both variants featuring new front and rear styling, extra equipment and chassis refinements.

Of course, pricing is the key at this end of the market and Kia is expected to make much of the fact its entry level four and five-door contender is priced line-ball with Australia's cheapest three-door hatches such as the Hyundai Getz and Accent, Proton Satria and Suzuki Ignis.

In fact, disregarding the 0.8-litre Daewoo Matiz ($11,990) and the 1.0-litre Daihatsu Sirion ($12,990), Rio is easily Australia's most inexpensive five-door hatch.

At $14,990 (plus $2000 for the auto version), the 1.5-litre Rio hatch is priced well below five-doors like the $15,990 Daihatsu YRV 1.3 and the gaggle of $16,990 hatches including the Daewoo Lanos 1.5, Honda Jazz GLi 1.3 and Hyundai Accent 1.5. Of course, five-doors like Honda's Mazda2, Toyota's Echo and the Holden Barina are more expensive again.

At the same time, despite its $14,990 sticker price no longer being "drive-away", the four-door Rio is similarly the cheapest light sedan on the market, easily undercutting the $16,990 Accent GL 1.5 and $17,990 Echo 1.5.

"Without a three-door, we're offering the four and five-door at $14,990 and don't think you'll find anyone else is at that level," Kia Australia boss Ric Hull told GoAuto.

"We won't sell it on size - we're trying to sell it on the convenience of four or five doors versus three."The single-specification 2003 Rio also impresses on equipment level as well as price and size.

Aiding to the "more doors versus three" cause, the central locking system has been improved, while air-conditioning is now also a standard factory item, as is a single-CD/six-speaker sound system and 60/40 split-folding rear seat.

Power steering, a driver's airbag and 13-inch steel wheels with wheel covers continue to be part of the Rio package and, while a digital clock is now included. Like its rivals Rio continues to be offered with manual mirrors and windows. Of course, remote central locking remains a dealer-fit option, while metallic paint ($160) and automatic transmission ($2000) are the only factory options.

Elsewhere, Rio has benefited from a number of both cosmetic and mechanical changes. Both sedan and hatch models have received a substantial sheetmetal reskin forward of the A-pillars and, while the five-door gets only detail rear-end changes, the sedan's tail is all-new. Both cars now feature a high-mounted LED brake light.

Inside, there's a new dashboard featuring a second, smaller glovebox on the passenger side, twin cupholders are added to the centre console, the front door bins are larger and contain extra bottle holders, the speakers are upgraded and tweeters have been added into the A-pillar bases, the interior light now incorporates an automatic dimmer and the standard central locking now operates via both front doors.

New variable density foam-filled seats are fitted, cabin noise has been reduced courtesy of extra sound proofing and, most significantly, Rio's MacPherson strut front suspension features 10mm longer struts and modified three-point mountings aimed at improving ride quality.

Meantime, the front anti-roll bar is 1mm thicker and is now bolted rather than bush-mounted, while Rio's torsion beam rear axle has been strengthened and the rear anti-roll bar increased in diameter by 3.6mm.

Rio's entire bodyshell is also said to have been stiffened. Redesigned door beams increase side intrusion protection and the front brake discs have increased in size.

Minor tweaks to Rio's M-Tech 71kW/132Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine are said to have increased engine refinement.

PRICING
Kia Rio sedan $14,990
Kio Rio sedan auto $16,990
Kia Rio 5-dr hatchback $14,990
Kia Rio 5-dr hatchback auto $16,990

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

AS the most popular Kia sold in Australia for almost three years, Rio is important to the Hyundai-owned marque not just in volume terms, but as the entry point to the Kia brand.

After spending a week in the better looking, better handling and better equipped 2003 Rio, it is safe to say entry level Kia ownership has definitely shifted up a gear.

Cabin ambience is improved thanks to a classier looking dash, which is now finished in a BMW-like animal skin plastic that looks great but still feels cheap and hard to touch. Extra cupholders, a digital clock, more useful door bins, an extra glovebox and sound system tweeters also add to interior convenience.

Cabin quietness has been taken a step up too with noise, vibration and harshness noticeably reduced at all times - as has driver comfort thanks to the better shaped but still short-cushioned front seats.

Handling - particularly in the steering department - is also noticeably better. The stronger, more linear front suspension has resulted in less torque steer, or steering wheel tugging under acceleration, and there's less kickback when the steering is loaded up over bumps.

This is no BMW in handling terms, but at least Rio now appears to be a better match for its South Korean and even Japanese light car rivals when it comes to cornering finesse.

The updated Rio also benefits from improved ride comfort and, although the noisy and coarse 1.5-litre four continues to propel the lightweight 1043kg manual Rio sedan with surprising enthusiasm, the overriding theme is that the new car is more competent, more refined and better value.

Despite the improvements, the 2003 Rio is unlikely to win customers away from more upmarket competition such as Barina, Clio, Polo, 206 and C3, but it seems budget new car motoring from Kia has just tightened its belt a notch or two.

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