Kia’s newest Rio light hatch represents a big change of direction for the South Korean small car. It's more serious, more upmarket and has more equipment while taking a big step backwards mechanically.
The last Rio, all curvaceous and cute, showed that Kia wasn’t playing a budget game any more with high levels of fit, finish, and equipment. Not only that, but high-grade examples featured one of the most powerful engines in a mainstream light hatch and an advanced (for the time) six-speed automatic.
Fast forward to 2017 and the mechanical package has moved drastically backwards with a smaller engine, pedestrian power outputs, and a stuck-in-the-90s four-speed auto. But on the inside you’ll find new smartphone connectivity and in-built satellite navigation - two absolute must-haves for any aspiring new car in 2017.
Vehicle Style: Light hatch
Price: $22,990 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 74kW/133Nm 1.4-litre 4cyl | 4sp automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.2 l/100km
Kia has simplified the Rio range, ditching the previous three-door models and sticking to a five-door formula with three trim levels including S, Si and the top-spec SLi tested here.
Pricing holds firm compared to the previous model starting at $16,990 (plus on-road costs) for a Rio S manual up to $22,990 (plus on-road costs) for the automatic-only SLi.
Perhaps most importantly, the design of the new Rio also allows for more space inside with Kia claiming more head and legroom both front and rear, with a bigger boot as well.
Unfortunately, the Rio misses out on all-important autonomous braking and other advanced safety systems, which throws its value off against cars like the Mazda2 or Skoda Fabia which include AEB across the range.
- Standard Equipment: Single-zone climate control, electric sunroof, cruise control, LED running lights, projector headlamps, leather-look interior trim, alloy sports pedals, auto wipers, rear privacy tint, 16-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch touchscreen, AM/FM/DAB+ radio, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, Bluetooth, 2x USB inputs, six-speaker audio
- Cargo Volume: 325 litres to rear seats, 980 litres to front seats
It’s a little difficult to know what Kia was playing at when it designed the new Rio; Yes, there’s new tech inside like a 7.0-inch touchscreen and the ability to pair a smartphone via Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, but take away that flashy new inclusion and things start to feel basic.
If you’re familiar with the last Rio you’ll know that the interior felt fairly premium with soft-touch surfaces, and “partial leather” trim. The new model, with a large dull slab of hard plastic across the dash looks less special, and this year’s “premium” seat covering is quite obviously vinyl.
The good news, at least, is that the interior still feels solid. There’s no light car feel inside the Kia as everything is solid, well constructed and weighty enough to feel more substantial than the class average. It may not match a Mazda 2 for luxe look and feel, but it’s certainly nicer than the flimsy feeling Suzuki Swift for instance.
The additional interior space is also welcomed. The previous Rio wasn’t exactly cramped, but with more room front and rear in every direction four adults can settle into the Rio more comfortably than before, and a squarer rear door aperture makes loading the back seats easier.
Kia is also one of the few automakers in this segment that bothers to install a proper centre console and integrated armrest between the front seats which makes a massive difference to the perception of both space and quality as well as creating an extra out-of-sight storage space.
Together with big door bins, a smartphone sized shelf in the centre stack and a reasonable glovebox, the Rio gets interior storage right. The 325 litre boot also finds the right balance of practical size.
The standard equipment roll-call includes single-zone climate control, a multi-function color instrument cluster display, alloy sports pedals, a powered sunroof, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, 16-inch alloy wheels, and the aforementioned touchscreen with navigation, Bluetooth, six-speaker audio and steering wheel controls.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol, 74kW at 6000rpm, 133Nm at 4000rpm
- Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
- Brakes: 256mm vented front discs, 262mm solid rear discs
- Steering: Electric power steering, 10.2m turning circle
- Towing Capacity: 800kg braked, 450kg unbraked, 75kg towball download
The bad news under the bonnet is that the only engine you can choose from is a 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol motor producing 74kW and 133Nm matched to a four-speed automatic.
That wouldn't be a bad thing in isolation except that most competitors do better, and Kia itself used to fit a zingy 103kW 1.6-litre to the last Rio but doesn’t offer that engine any more. A more torquey 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine has been promised down the track, and it can’t come quickly enough.
The Rio in its current form feels flat and ponderous. The engine has no zest; from a standstill it feels unwilling to push the fairly compact hatch into action, and the big ratio gaps of the four-speed auto only amplify the problem.
It’s not an uncultured engine by any means, running quietly in the background, but even urban runabouts need to show a bit of enthusiasm whereas the Rio fails to excite.
Wisely, Kia has deleted the 17-inch rims of the previous generation Rio in favour of 16-inch alloys wrapped in tyres with a more generous sidewall. That means that ride quality is improved over little bumps that would otherwise rattle occupants.
More than just wheel selection though, Kia has put the Rio through an Australian-specific ride and handling program with suspension settings designed to cope with local conditions resulting in controlled road holding and more compliance over the lumps and bumps of Australia’s rural roads.
Until Kia makes good on its promise to add a turbocharged engine to the range, the Rio gets by as an adequate urban commuter. Put it in a queue of grinding peak hour traffic and the soft throttle response and underwhelming engine feel just right for start-stop shuffling.
Introduce the Rio to a high-speed highway trip and some of the shine wears off. There’s little in reserve for overtaking, and uphill runs see the Rio either washing off speed at an alarming rate, or choosing a lower gear and revving like a threshing machine, throwing any semblance of refinement away as revs soar with the driver having little control over which method the car’s electronic overlords choose.
ANCAP Rating: The 2017 Kia Rio has yet to be tested by ANCAP.
Safety Features: All Kia Rio variants come with six airbags, load-limiting front seatbelt pretensioners, electronic stability and traction control, ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, a rearview camera and rear park sensors, and two ISOFIX child restraint anchor points.
Advanced safety features like autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, or driver fatigue detection are not yet available on any variant of the Rio range.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Seven years/unlimited kilometres
Servicing: Kia's capped price servicing covers the first seven years or 105,000km of ownership with 12 month/15,000km intervals (whichever comes first). Prices vary between $226 for the least expensive service up to $561 for the four year/60,000km major service which includes items like brake fluid and cabin filters (some competitors charge separately for these items). Your Kia dealer can explain full terms, conditions, and exclusions of the program.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Hyundai Accent is Australia’s favourite light car by a long shot and with its latest revision the range drops to one highly specified model with sharp pricing and a powerful 103kW engine (the same as used to be available in the previous Rio). Available as a sedan or hatch with a six-speed auto or manual transmission the Accent does well, despite its advancing age.
An updated Mazda2 range sees autonomous emergency braking added to all variants as standard, and at the top of the range blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert are also included, trumping the Rio. A more powerful engine, six-speed automatic, and lighter body also make the Mazda2 a more rewarding drive.
Another long-in-the-tooth light car, the Toyota Yaris has undergone a facelift (and bumlift) for 2017 adding standard AEB with forward collision warning in the top-spec ZR plus lane departure warning and auto high beam. Inside the Yaris can’t hide its age as convincingly, feeling basic even in its top trim and missing out on smartphone connectivity.
If it’s interior space you’re after, the Honda Jazz is impossible to go past. Not only is it spacious but the Magic Seat system in the rear makes it incredibly versatile. Unfortunately the Jazz’s age sees it miss out on both advanced safety systems and advanced smartphone pairing.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
With a more mature and sophisticated look compared to the cartoonish face of the previous Rio this new generation light hatch could easily be mistaken for something European, and at the same time is likely to court more mature buyers and less new drivers than the previous generation.
With an industry-leading warranty and roadside assistance offer, the Rio is still a very sensible buy with an extra four years of owner protection compared to most of its competitors including Ford, Holden, Suzuki and Toyota - that alone is hard to go past.
If only the Rio came with a level of standard safety and engine/transmission technology that matched its connectivity, then Kia could have owned Australia’s light car market. While the Rio is sure to do well, Aussie consumers - no matter the size of car they’re buying - deserve just a little better.