The small hatchback sector is very competitive, especially with the likes of the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo being as good as they are. However, Kia's new Rio is now armed with fresh good looks and plenty of standard hi-tech features. I find out if it is as good as it looks.
Kia have come a long way from the days of uninspiring budget cars. Looking at the all new Rio, you realize that they have made a fantastic effort in trying to get the design of their cars right, and actually making their interiors a nice place to be. In addition to this, you still get Kia/Hyundai’s famous 7-year warranty, and all that improvement in interior quality and design hasn’t necessarily resulted in a dramatic rise in price – Kia is still very much a maker of affordable cars.
The styling of the new Rio looks like it could belong to a car costing much more than its base CHF 19,777 price would suggest. Its well-executed front-end design and swooping roofline give it a very contemporary look, making this one of the best-looking cars in its segment – looks which helped it make it to the Top 10 Standout Cars of 2011 list. The only thing that might look out of place in terms of design is the piece of white plastic lined within the headlamp units, but if you’re not as pedantic as I am, this won’t matter.
This test car is equipped with the top-of-the-range 1.4-litre petrol engine and Style trim, plus other options bringing its total cost to CHF 25,540. The base price for a 1.4-litre Rio with the Style trim is CHF 21,990, with power being rated at 109hp and 137 Nm of torque (101lb ft) – sent through a six-speed manual transmission to the front wheels. The Style trim does have plenty of standard features: you get 16-inch wheels, LED daytime running headlamps, LED rear lights, automatic wipers, automatic climate control, iPod/USB connectivity, auxiliary wiring, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, as well as electrically retractable side mirrors with integrated LED indicators. Its metallic paint is a CHF 550 extra.
The interior of this particular Rio – with the optional Luxury Pack (CHF 3,950) – is very inviting, and feels more than up to the task of competing with the likes of Volkswagen’s Polo in terms of interior quality. Not only is the quality good, but the layout of instruments and switches are pleasing to the eye as well. The steering wheel is nice to hold thanks to its good size and use of nice-feeling leather. The seats are leather as well, and the front ones do a good job in supporting its occupants during cornering. Other goodies you get with the Luxury Pack are: a seven-inch touchscreen interface with satellite navigation, heated steering wheel, heated seats, smart key access with push-button ignition, and a reverse camera.
The Rio has electric power steering, so when you’re moving at low speeds the steering is very light and weights up (only slightly) when you gather pace. It responds reasonably well to your inputs, but don’t expect go-kart levels of feel – it isn’t one, so it isn’t there. The ride quality is well-sorted too thanks to the suspension doing a decent job in absorbing bumps, and the car doesn’t lean too much during cornering either.
For a small hatchback, there are great levels of refinement. The engine is fairly quiet when you’re driving at normal pace, and there isn’t much road noise either. You also get a gear-change indicator, there to help you get the best fuel economy figure – by 60km/h it will be asking you to engage fifth gear. One reservation I have about this engine, though, is its relative lack of torque. Changing down a few gears is very common when you try to overtake on the highway. Luckily, Kia does have a diesel option which produces 220Nm (162 lb ft) of torque at 1,500-2,750rpm, which should at least be better at dealing with overtakes and in-gear accelerations.
The six-speed manual transmission provides slick gear-changes, making the driving experience that bit more enjoyable. The car also comes with an automatic hill-assist mode, and an auto stop/start function to cut down on fuel consumption. Speaking of fuel consumption, after driving around 600 city kilometres, the onboard computer showed a fuel consumption figure of around 8l/100km. Kia claims it will do 6.5l/100km in the city, and it most probably will if you drive it gently and with the air conditioning turned off. However, with summer 2012 turning out to be quite hot, driving without the AC was out of the question. Also, some mountain road driving meant ignoring the gear-change indicator, sticking to second and third gear longer than the car would like.
There is also a good amount of space for rear seat occupants, legroom issues will only arise if the front passengers are tall. At first, the descending roof line might also seem like it would intrude on headroom for rear passengers, but a six-foot passenger I had wasn't grazing his head on the roof line, and he remained as chatty as usual. Boot space is expectedly small though, only a few groceries and a small suitcase can fit in there. However, you can fold down the rear seats if needed.
The automatic climate control blows really cold air as well, it easily keeps the cabin cool and fresh on a hot summer day. The sound system, however, will be a bit of a disappointment for those of you who like windscreen-shattering bass. There is some, but for a new car it isn’t as gutsy as you would perhaps want. Getting your smartphone paired with the Bluetooth system proved easy and intuitive, and I did find that the sound quality was slightly better through Bluetooth. Scrolling through the functions in the touchscreen interface is easy, and the graphics on the satellite navigation is good too.
Having spent nearly two weeks with the new Rio, you can conclude that it is one of the best looking value-for-money cars you can buy. However, if it depreciates anything like its predecessor, new car owners will be disappointed when time comes to sell. But, this does mean that used car buyers will be getting a well-equipped car for little money, and as long as the car is under seven years old, the warranty is transferable to the next owner. Kia should definitely think about making a hot hatch version of the Rio to lift its appeal even further. Maybe fit it with a turbocharged engine producing around 180hp, make it lose some of its 1,240kg, bring the chassis up to standard, and ‘sportify’ the interior.
By Alex Kisiri