Tim O'Brien | Feb 10, 2012 | 8 Comments


What, or who, is going to slow Kia? In every market, everywhere, its rise and rise is relentless.

And, on the back of interesting, well-styled and dynamically capable products, it's quietly picking off, one-by-one, those who stand before it.

Take the Rio. In just one generation it has jumped from being an also-ran to a light-car segment leader for style, accommodation and dynamics.

It looks great, it's enjoyable at the wheel, it feels very robust and, in its segment, runs rings around most of the established badges for style and value-for-money.

We put the edgy 1.6 litre SLS three-door hatch with six-speed manual, and the 1.6 litre Si four-door sedan with six-speed automatic, through their paces in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney.


The interior

The $19,990 SLS hatch comes very nicely loaded with standard features.

Open the door and you're greeted by well-shaped leather seats, a really good leather-wrapped multi-function wheel, smart-key entry with stop/start button, climate control, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, 17-inch alloy wheels (shod with 205/45 Continental tyres), LED daytime running lights, soft-touch dash, six-speaker CD (with USB, aux-in and iPod conectivity and Bluetooth.

The $21,690 Si sedan with six-speed auto ($19,690 for the manual) is less well-equipped, but certainly not lacking.

It gets cloth-trimmed seats instead of leather (but with the same sports shaping), sits on smaller 16-inch alloys and also misses the smart-key and stop/start button.

But it gets the same multi-function leather-wrapped wheel, appealing dash layout, audio and Bluetooth system, electric folding mirror, cruise control, air-con and most of the other features that matter.

For interior accommodation, there is little to complain about with either model. Both have the same stylish dash (with smart-looking toggle switches on the centre-stack), the same deeply recessed chrome-ringed instrument cluster, and the same quality switch-gear and surfacing.

The leather of the SLS is certainly the more appealing. I found the cloth-trimmed seats of the Si a little 'hot', as though the foam cushioning didn't allow enough breathing - but for shaping, for my stumpy frame, I otherwise found them quite surprisingly comfortable.

2012 kia rio 01 sls three door launch review australia 05

There is a 'vault-like' feel to the Rio's interior that is a bit unusual in this segment where light-weight trim can contribute to a hollow and insubstantial feel.

That's not the Rio; the centre-console, dash and door trims are very secure and robust. It gives the impression it could take quite a bit of a pounding without complaint.

Styling? Well, that's your call, but to these eyes the fresh-faced little Rio is one of the best looking in the segment with clean, punchy and well-balanced lines - even the sedan.

The four-door's big boot and rear wheel-arch integrates seamlesslessly with the lines of the hatch and doesn't have that awkward, high, bustle-back look of other light-sedans.

The boot is huge for a small sedan, 389 litres, or enough for three sets of golf clubs. Ample for a small family or holidaying couple. The hatch also has a useful 288 litres - the larger Golf hatch for instance offers 350 litres.


On the road

On road - and some very bad ones at that - in both sedan and hatch, we have good things to report.

The 1.6 litre GDi direct injection DOHC four-cylinder petrol engine under the bonnet of both our testers is a willing and nicely balanced little unit (in Wards US top ten engines of the year). Putting 103kW and 167Nm on tap, it gives the light little Rio very useful punch on road, especially when mated to the six-speed manual.

The auto saps a bit of its vigour, only noticeable away from the line, but there is ample there for brisk safe overtaking and for powering out of a corner. The auto has a 'tip-tronic' style shift that can paddled manually for some extra zing.

The 1.6 thrives on revs and will happily sing its head off above 5000rpm. In the hatch, this makes for a sporty drive if you want to ask it the question.

At high speed, both are well-balanced and reasonably untroubled by broken or hollowed road surfaces. Of the two, the hatch (with its shorter rear overhang) feels firmest underfoot - some may find it a little too firm - but neither is jarring nor coarse.

You can throw the hatch into a corner - it points in well, there is very good feel at the wheel through the MDPS electric power steering - and drag it out with equal vigour.

Like any car, get on the gas too early and it will transition to understeer, but it's easily controlled, the front end stays flat and balanced, and is a lot of fun.

The back too will come around easily and progressively when really pressing on.

2012 kia rio 02 si sedan launch review australia 03

The SLS hatch, shod with Continental tyres and with real zest under the bonnet, would have qualified as a genuine hot-hatch not too long ago.

Full marks here to the Australian tuning to the MacPherson strut front suspension and semi-independent torsion-beam rear.

Over a range of driving conditions, the on-road behaviour of the Rio betters most in the segment and is a close second only to the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo.

We would like a little less road noise, both sedan and hatch generate some noise from the tyres on coarse-chip surfaces, especially from the rear (I'd suspect the hard-mounting of the stabiliser bar contributes here); both could do with a little more underfloor deadening.

And while the multi-function wheel is a beauty - with a really nice sporting grip - I found the electric assistance a little unusual. At the dead-ahead it's woolly but in the five or ten degrees away from 12:00 o'clock is overly firm (as though you're pushing against a detent). It's fine when pressing on, the weighting at speed is just right, but a little more tuning to the calibration is needed for when poking around.

These are minor niggles to a very good car though.

In both sedan, three-door and five-door hatch, it's laden with safety features, comes with a 5-Star safety rating, has disc brakes all round, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and, a nice touch for younger drivers, hill-start assist control.


Our 'first drive' verdict

We're very confident in recommending this one to you. If shopping in the light car segment, put the Kia Rio - in any configuration - high on your list.

As Tony Barlow of Kia Australia said at the launch of the sedan and three-door, "When we launched Rio, we said it was the next big thing for Kia, and it's proved more than that."

He's right; sedan or hatch it's good buying and a car you'll enjoy owning.


Drive a new Kia Rio from $15,990*

Name required
Last Name should be a hidden field. Please delete if you are a real person.
Valid Phone required
Valid Email required
Valid Postcode required
Thank you for your enquiry.
One of our accredited supply network will be in touch in the next 24 hours.
Or Call 1300 438 639
To get a great deal from our national accredited supply network.