The small car market is populated with some pretty good cars and therefore is hotly contested in that segment. Kia’s entry, the Rio, has been an entrant since 2000 in the small car class and has undergone a few body style changes. In its current guise, it’s a three or five door hatch with a 1.4L engine (1.6L in the Sport) and archaic four speed auto (in the test car provided, there is a six speed manual as standard for the 1.4L and an auto only for the 1.6L). A Wheel Thing spent a week with the 1.4L, four speed auto, S Premium and came away more than a little surprised.
It’s a compact, almost boxy body, with the current iteration sitting on a 2570 mm wheelbase and is just 4045 mm in length. Toss in a 1220 kilo weight with driver and Kia’s claims of 5.7L (manual) and 6.3L (auto) of unleaded from a 43 litre tank seem feasible, with A Wheel Thing finishing on 6.9L, not far off (8.2L/100km highway, 5.2L/100 km highway).
The 1.4L engine pumps out just 79 kW at 6300 revs and a seemingly undertorqued figure of 135 Nm (4200 revs). That light weight makes the difference but a four speed auto simply dulls it down to a lacklustre feel. Acceleration, overtaking, aren’t measured in seconds but by calendars.
It’s not an unattractive car, especially in the Deep Blue paint ($520 option…); there’s the signature Kia “tiger” grille, somewhat goggle eyed headlights, plastic inserts at the front bumper extremities (driving lights get fitted in the Sports model) and, in profile, the nose rises gently to meet the A pillars in an almost constant line, with a couple of subtle crease lines joining front and rear.
The roofline rolls off nicely to a vertical and pert backside. Considering the overall size of the Rio, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a very usable 288L of cargo space available with the 60/40 split fold rear seats up, which increases to 923L when they’re laid flat. Wheelwise, the Rio S Premium sits on 15 inch alloy wheels and they’re clad in 185/65 rubber. Forward motion is hauled in by 256 mm vented front discs and 263 mm solid rears, with surprisingly competent brake feel.
The interior in the S Premium (model tested, there’s an S below and Si/SLi above) is spacious enough however lacks an amount of pop and sizzle. It’s a standard steering wheel nowadays with audio controls but does include Bluetooth and cruise, seats are manually adjusted and there’s more a sitting on than in sensation. The centre console is bare and the radio screen is old school, with red dot matrix lighting, sitting above some delightfully simple aircon dials and aircraft styleflick switches.
The dash dials housed in the binnacle are as basic as they come, with two large ones for speed and revs with fuel and temperature housed in two separate, small sections to the right of the speedo, which houses a similarly red matrix display. No auto headlights is also a no-no nowadays and only the driver’s window is auto up and down. There’s some class, with piano black surrounds for the audio and ventilation controls, some alloy look highlights for the gear selector and steering wheel and tasteful shades of charcoal and off white for the rest of the cabin.
Driving the Rio S Premium turned out to be a mix of fun and frustration, erring on the fun side, showing you sometimes don’t need power or speed to enjoy a car. Hamstrung, as it was, by a comparatively underpowered and undertorqued engine, it still managed to raise a smile with sheer grit and tenacity. How? By exhibiting life, character, verve in its handling. It’s not surefooted, it’s not well planted, it’ll rebound a few times in freeway undulations, it’ll kick the rear around and get unsettled easily but it involves the driver in the driving, not isolating you and leaving you six inches away from the tiller.
There’s bump steer (and the steering tends towards understeer), needing instant attention, some body roll and a bit of sponginess, yes, but it brings you, the driver, into its world and asks you to be part of it. Absolutely, you need a water bottle, a cut lunch and a calendar if you’re thinking of overtaking but that’s the fun, the involvement because the driver is no longer waiting on the expectation of the car to do what you think it will do. There’s planning, calculation involved and that can only be a good thing.
Once the engine is wound up, there’s a bit of a rasp, a sense of rortiness, from the front, as the speedo does its impression of global warming by moving glacially at first then starts to pick up speed. The gearbox is smooth enough under normal driving but the hole between first and second is noticeable as the revs fall right off and you have to start again.
It might be a small car, but it doesn’t scrimp on safety, with a full array of airbags across the range, hill start assist is also standard but only the SLi gets rear parking sensors. There is ISOFIX child seat mounting points and pretensioning seatbelts as standard in all models.
The car provided was listed as $19690 plus $520 for the metallic paint, totalling $20210, with the S Premium starting from $16990 (manual). Compared to cars it’s not in direct competition with, that’s a fair amount of coin to ask and A Wheel Thing struggles somewhat to reconcile that figure with what is delivered. Not everyone will see the fun factor the Rio has however the economy will be a strong point in its favour. Lacking a more modern looking dash, again, may not faze some, but that’s no excuse to offer something that the 1980’s quickly forgot about.
For pricing and more details, click here: 2015 Kia Rio 5 door