LISBON – Although it’s fair to say that Kia has made major inroads in terms of sales and product awareness in most market segments, few have regarded the Rio more than a value offering, never mind a VW Polo rival. Well folks, I believe it’s time we all had a rethink!
Having just driven 1,2- and 1,4-litre versions of the new B-segment hatchback, it is clear that the Korean car giant’s gifted design chief Peter Schreyer has left his signature on virtually every Kia passenger car from the newly-launched Picanto to the seven-seater Sorento. Schreyer’s design trademark can be summed up with the following excerpt that I penned from the comfort of my hotel bed: “Slim and extended ‘tiger nose’ grille, large swept-up headlights, raised shoulder line with thin glasshouse with chunky taillights at the back”; it works rather nicely, but the best executions are generally seen on larger models.
I think the automotive world has yet to launch a truly good-looking B-segment car. Fiat has probably come the closest with its Grande Punto, while Citroen's DS3 and Alfa Romeo’s Mito have their moments, but as for the rest… Sigh, well they’re all a bit middling, aren’t they? The new Rio is significant from an aesthetic point of view because it will be the first in its class to offer 17-inch rims on some models and feature LED running lights in the headlight clusters. Its front three quarter and side profile views are the most memorable, but the rear treatment is reminiscent of that of the now departed Seat Ibiza and the softer contours of a typically globular light hatchback don’t really flatter Schreyer’s cues that much.
Having said that, the Rio is undoubtedly eye-catching enough to get people into showrooms and, although I find the brighter non-metallic colour schemes a bit tart when combined with the chrome-accented 17-inch wheels (it might be a more prudent option to match a 16-inch wheel design with the Electric Blue or Wendy Grey metallic finish), it looks a bit more grown up, but not stodgy.
The new Rio might be a trifle longer, wider and lower than its predecessor and ride on a slightly extended wheelbase, but its interior is going to be a revelation to many. Although it is obvious that the newcomer has been trimmed and finished with budget constraints in mind, the product development team has been astute enough to ensure that the textured facia plastics and other tactile areas have just a little bit of give and aren’t too harsh on the eye or to the touch. The design of the dashboard is very elegant for a B segment car, with just a smidge of metallic accents on the minor controls, but the riffled ventilation and AC buttons that jut out from the metallic-look trailing edge of the facia seem a tad too chunky… I flicked on the front demister while hooking third gear on two occasions and my hands aren’t that large.
Let’s start with the bad news… Most of the cars available for the international press launch were specced to the nines and the hey-shoo-wow start-stop button, navigation system with rear camera, cruise control and automatic air-con functions aren’t likely to make it to our market. From there on in it’s all good news really, although the only real discernable spacial improvements are added front legroom and a more than handy claimed 288 dm3 of luggage space that can increase significantly with the rear seats folded (completely) flat, it is expected that automatically-activated lights and wipers will be on higher-spec models in our market, as well as Bluetooth connectivity. A multi-function steering wheel, air-conditioning with one-touch temperature control, auto-locking doors and USB and iPod sockets for the audio system should be standard for all models.
We didn’t really have the opportunity to test the dynamic limitations of the Rio on the busy streets on the outskirts of Lisbon, but I am happy to report that the newcomer’s steering feel has been firmed up appreciably compared with that of the Cerato, and the ride quality, although on the firmer side of supple, feels less insular in the way the suspension soaks up bumps. I also liked the progressive feel of the clutch pedal and the directness of gear changes through the shift gate. With a modest 153 N.m on tap, the 1,4-litre six-speed model performs fairly, but in its defence, the motor feels smooth, has a CO2 rating of 167 g/km and a claimed combined consumption figure of 7,0 L/100 km on the combined cycle… Suffice to say that I am keenly looking forward to Hyundia/Kia's promised engine development push.
In conclusion however, I find there is overwhelming evidence that Kia Motors SA will be in a position to seriously challenge the leaders of the B-segment when the new Rio arrives in the local market in a couple of months’ time. In terms of design, packaging, build quality and especially specification, the Rio has a helluva lot going for it. South Africa will be getting both 1,2 and 1,4 in LX and EX spec and, although at the time of writing the respective models’ standard equipment manifests were still being concluded, expect the entry-level product to start at around the R160k mark. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Kia Motor SA will back up its five-year/150 000 km warranty with some kind of inclusive service plan. I suspect that a service plan will be optional – but there should be a load of toys to sweeten the Rio as a purchasing proposition.