The outgoing Rio established Kia as a maker of desirable city cars. Does the new one build on that legacy?
Since its launch in our market some 17 years ago, the Rio has developed a reputation as a reliable, spacious vehicle that offers good value for your hard-earned cash, further cementing this Korean brand’s standing as a maker of cars that now, at the very least, rivals the offerings of Europe and Japan’s big players.
There is, therefore, a lot to expect of this, the fourth-generation model. It makes use of a fresh design and the Kia-Hyundai GB platform that debuted on the current Hyundai i20 (and will also be used on the Kia Stonic and Hyundai Kona crossovers). Penned by Kia’s California and German design centres headed by Peter Schreyer, the new Rio has sharper, more angular lines than its predecessor and the result is a car that looks upmarket and wholly in keeping with Kia’s current design language. It is longer and lower – by 15 and 5 mm – as well as 5 mm wider, giving it a more purposeful stance. Add to this our test unit’s Smoke Blue paint job and the 17-inch alloy wheels of the flagship TEC model, and the new Rio cuts a dashing figure.
Inside, the Kia offers a generous standard specification list. For starters, the attractively designed dashboard is occupied by a neat touchscreen infotainment system with MirrorLink functionalities for your smartphone, and it’s a standard feature along with a rear-facing camera to complement the park-distance control. This function adds to a tastefully designed cabin of high perceived quality, enhanced further by leather upholstery on the seats, steering wheel and gearlever.
With regard to packaging, the new platform benefits the Rio in utility space. While the boot space remains at 248 litres, the Rio’s utility measurement has increased to 1 008 litres (64 more than before), which is substantially better than the likes of the Polo or the i20. Similarly, the Rio trumps the Polo in passenger space, but the 5 mm drop in overall height has seen a slight decrease in rear headroom.
While the chassis and design are new, interestingly, the engine line-up has not been refreshed. Under the hood you’ll still find the naturally aspirated 1,4-litre four-cylinder engine – dubbed the Gamma – which delivers 74 kW (5 kW less than before) and 135 N.m of torque. Countering the decrease in power, however, is the fact that our scales show this new Rio to be 18 kg lighter than its predecessor. According to Kia, part of the reason outputs have dropped is a quest for improved efficiency; borne out by this model posting 6,6 L/100 km on our fuel route versus 7,8 L/100 km previously.
Surprisingly, the new car is also quicker, with our test figures indicating it needs 1,2 seconds less to reach 100 km/h than before, with a time of 11,31 seconds. The Rio also recorded improvements in overtaking acceleration. Here we should note that the new model was tested on a much cooler day, which aids performance.
However, while these figures are an improvement, they still lag behind those of the turbocharged rivals in the B-segment, especially in terms of in-gear acceleration. Annoyingly, the engine has a dearth of torque at low revs, which necessitates winding it up at pull-away, especially on inclines. That, in turn, exposes the less-than-predictable clutch action, which saw a number of testers stall the vehicle when driving off. Thankfully, the gearlever has a slick, short action.
A further dynamic bugbear is the quality of the ride at low speeds. TEC models are shod with 17-inch alloy wrapped in 45-profile tyres and those allow a touch too much fidget through to the cabin. Experience with lower-spec Rios on smaller wheels and plumper tyres indicated a commendable level of bump absorption in the chassis. The soft-compound Continental ContiSportContact 5 tyres do add to the Rio’s dynamics and had a positive impact on the braking times.
Together with the front ventilated discs and rear drums, the ABS system allowed for an excellent average stopping time of 2,86 seconds. The rubber also generates little road roar, but this is countered by only average wind suppression. Nevertheless, the sound-level reading of 39 dBA at idle is impressive. Those grippy tyres complement the Rio’s improved electrically assisted power steering system, making for a nippy and engaging experience. We’re glad to note with every new South Korean vehicle we test these systems keep improving.
However, good tyres come at a price. At R2 130 a pop, the Continentals aren’t cheap to replace. Alongside a parts basket that’s tripled in value since our 2015 test (mainly because of the new headlamps), it would appear that maintenance on the Rio 1,4 TEC might catch some owners by surprise. Thankfully, it comes standard with a four-year/60 000 km service plan and one of the best warranties in the market.
The new Rio is prettier, feels sturdier, is more luxuriously equipped and better to drive. However, it is also burdened with some flaws such as a gruff powertrain with little low-end punch that will only be exacerbated on the Highveld and, at times, a ride quality that lacks that final bit of polish.
Persevering with the Gamma engine rather than making use of Kia’s new turbo-triple 1,0-litre is a (cost-driven?) compromise and an unfortunate one given that its rivals offer these more powerful and fuel-efficient powertrains. And with this model costing R274 995, it’s already on the pricey side regardless of its long list of standard convenience and safety features.
That said, there is much to praise here, and if you’re of the persuasion that features, design and practicality trump the latest cutting-edge powertrain tech, the Rio might just suit you perfectly. We would, though, advise you to also investigate some of the derivatives lower down the range that have most of the TEC’s features, but at more palatable prices.
*From the October 2017 issue of CAR magazine