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JOHANNESBURG - Despite being in the final calendar year of its lifecycle, the previous (third-) generation Kia Rio sold in excess of 450 000 units globally. That figure speaks to not only Kia's continued popularity in various markets across the world, but also of the outgoing Rio's widespread appeal. It introduced the next evolution of a new and exciting design language courtesy of celebrated penman Peter Schreyer, added loads of kit to a spacious, well-built interior and bundled the whole package in palatable pricing. No pressure on this fourth-generation model to continue the successful legacy, then...

What's new?

Penned by Kia's design centres in Germany and California, the new Rio refines the previous-generation model's curvaceous bodywork into something more geometric and, dare we say it, upmarket. Featuring a wider Tiger Nose grille stretching into the projector headlamps (framed by U-shaped daytime-running lights) on the flagship TEC model, 17-inch alloys on low-profile tyres and arrow-shaped LEDs aft, the new Rio 1,4 TEC is one of the best-looking cars in its class (especially painted in the Smoke Blue hue of the vehicle in the images). Lesser models ride on either 15-inch steel or alloy wheels.

Sat on a revised version of the outgoing Rio's platform, itself already one of the longest in the class and now stretching 10 mm further between the axles, the new model has a larger cabin that provided just enough head- and legroom on the rear bench for my 1,85-metre frame to fit behind the front seat when set to my preferred driving position. And that's not something all B-segment hatches can boast. The boot, likewise, is one of the segment's biggest at a claimed 325 litres.

Up front, the biggest change on the new model is the inclusion of an easy-to-use seven-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay (Android Auto is not yet supported) and Bluetooth. The screen sits proud of a reprofiled facia featuring a soft-touch strip, tasteful brightwork on the climate control knobs and a lower-sited section with a 12 V socket, aux-in and USB ports and a stowage shelf.

Perceived quality is typically Kia solid, although some plastics don't feel like an improvement on those used in the previous Rio. That said, rattles and squeaks were absent on the vehicles we drove on the Reef-based launch that took in the Johannesburg CBD's pockmarked roads.

And on the move?

Sadly, Kia Motors South Africa has decided not to import the Rio with the company's new (and reportedly excellent) three-cylinder turbopetrol – although it is under consideration – and has chosen to stick with the familiar 1,2- and 1,4-litre naturally aspirated petrol engines. A diesel model was ruled out early on.

The 1,4-litre produces 73 kW (6 kW less than before, but the brand promises improvements in fuel consumption) at 6 300 r/min and 135 N.m at 4 200 r/min. That latter figure is telling; rival vehicles using small-displacement petrol engines, such as the Polo, Fiesta, 208 and Corsa, develop on average 35 N.m of torque more at far lower revs. And that means they feel more sprightly than the Rio, at least at oxygen-starved altitude. Judicious use of the slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox is necessary to keep the 1,4-litre engine in its 3 500-5 000 r/min sweet spot, but even then the Rio struggles to maintain momentum on slight inclines.

More impressive is the balance between composed handling and a comfortable ride. Body roll is well suppressed, the ride is fair considering the 45-profile tyres on the TEC model (there's some bump-thump, but the ride does feel more controlled than before) and the electric steering is progressive and excellently geared. The suppression of road and wind noise – which enjoyed considerable attention from Kia's engineers – is commendable.

Anything else to note?

There are four models in the new Rio line-up. The range kicks off with the 1,2 LS at R219 995 (the same price as before), moves on to the 1,4 LX (it introduces 15-inch alloys, LED daytime-running lights, a centre armrest, leather trim on the steering wheel and gear lever, among other items) at R234 995 and seems to hit a perfect balance with the 1,4 EX for R15 000 more (Kia adds that seven-inch screen, PDC with a reverse-view camera and LED rear lamps). The 1,4 TEC, at R274 995, chucks in 17-inch alloys, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, as well as cruise control, an electro-chromatic rear-view mirror, alloy pedals and leather upholstery. All models feature ABS with EBD and BA, two airbags (and six on the TEC) and Isofix anchorages on the rear bench. No ESC, sadly, but it does have a great warranty at five years/unlimited kilometres and a four-year/60 000 km service plan. All models are available with a four-speed automatic transmission at an additional R13 000.

So, what's the verdict?

I'm not quite sure, really... In a market that's overrun with immensely talented contenders (and, don't forget, the new VW Polo and Ford Fiesta are around the corner), the Rio remains a solid, viable option. But... In 2017, the 1,4-litre engine feels outdated in terms of its performance, general refinement – it gets noisy above 4 000 r/min, where it has to spend a considerable amount of time – and fuel consumption (I posted an average of 8,1 L/100 km over a weekend of relaxed driving following the press launch).

Lastly, R274 995 for this 1,4 TEC is difficult to justify when a range of excellent competitors are less expensive (and considering it finds itself priced among loads of C-segment hatchbacks). I suspect the 1,4 EX might be the Rio of choice, but taking into account Kia sold more 1,4 TECs in the previous Rio range than any other model, this flagship looks set to again capture the imagination of buyers locally and abroad. But I do wish Kia SA had launched with that 1,0-litre triple...


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