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Car reviews - Kia - Rio - SLi 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Design, cabin space, standard safety features, dash layout, performance, benign dynamics, family-friendly practicality in baby package, six forward speeds
Room for improvement
Hard ride, poor rear vision, road noise, steering could do with more feel, 1.6 auto lacks sparkle of manual equivalent

6 Dec 2011

SO YOU THINK you can dance, Rio?

With its $22K starting price before on-roads, the flagship SLi auto means Kia’s smallest model is no longer in the light-car little league but instead slugs it out against segment pros like the Volkswagen Polo 77TSI, Ford Fiesta Zetec, and Mazda2 Genki.

That’s heady stuff for a series that, until September 1, was cheap and cheerless and priced from $13K.

To paraphrase The Omnipotent Q: Con permiso, Kia: The hall is rented, the orchestra engaged. It's now time to see if your Rio can dance.

Kia’s fifth-generation light car is anything but a wallflower these days. With an attractive exterior overseen by ex-Audi enfant terrible Peter Schreyer, and a cabin created in Germany, the Koreans have obviously looked internationally for visual and functional inspiration, and with excellent results too.

No rival – perhaps except for Fiat’s beautiful but now discontinued (in Oz) Punto – is as suave and handsomely proportioned, with the SLi’s polished alloys adding to the sexy supermini’s street presence.

Some of the exterior’s striking styling is hinted from inside the car too, when looking out through the divided A-pillar window, while the Rio’s muscularity is prevalent with the upswept shoulder line.

But while there’s a sense of solidity and attention to detail emanating from the cabin architecture, the drab monotones makes us think Kia went to bit too Deutschland. Where’s the colour and gaiety, especially in a car with a name as, um, festive as this?

The flipside, of course, is that the build quality is more Kraftwerk than the Bucks Fizz of the old Rio.

An attractive steering wheel that tilts as well as telescopes is a great start, as is its spoke-mounted Bluetooth phone and cruise control switchgear.

Behind that, the triple-canister instrument dials look good day or night, with the white markings clearly visible and the red digital readouts adding a sporty flavour, while moving to the neat centre console, large simple knobs and buttons that are a cinch to use reveal how grown up the Rio has become.

Kia’s tag line is ‘The Power to Surprise’, and indeed there are unexpected delights, including a very VW-like centre armrest that slides as well as hides a deep bin, a generous glovebox, lane-change indicators, Mini-style toggle switches with an appealing rubberised feel, and a pictogram of where the front wheels are pointing when you turn the key – a useful device when the wheels are as susceptible to scuffing as these 205/45 R17 Continental-shod alloys.

The good news keeps on coming, with a pair of front seats that not only slide back for taller folk to fit, but also manage to support over long as well as short distances.

Likewise, the rear seat is genuinely spacious for a B-segment hatch, with sufficient leg, head and knee room, as well as a place to slide big feet beneath the front seats. The backrest angle is comfy and entry/egress is easy to boot.

Beyond that, the boot area is deep despite the presence of a full-sized spare wheel beneath the floor, and is aided by a low loading lip and child-seat latches that don’t eat into luggage space.

Kia’s obviously done its homework here, and the Rio ticks all the big-ticket accommodation and cabin presentation boxes.

So, again, why can’t there be a bit more pizzazz with colour and trim? The unrelenting grey is gloomy. There’s nothing in here that says ‘SLi’ or flagship.

At this price level we expect a rear-seat centre armrest. And rear vision is poor – a corollary of the thick pillars and shallow glasshouse. But it’s no worse than in a Fiesta or 2.

The Rio, then, is off to a great start from a static point of view. But how does it zig and zag?

Before we reveal whether you ought to hang on to your dance card, let’s keep in mind who would be buying this Kia. Certainly a big majority would be younger folk, singles probably, either saving up for their first car, or trading in the clapped out Camry bought new by grandma when Happy Hardcore was (briefly) invading our clubs. They’re not trading down from a current Golf.

That said, the specifications certainly give any modern Volkswagen a run for their money.

Under the SLi’s snub bonnet is a gem of an engine – Kia’s all-new Gamma series 1.6-litre twin-cam multivalve GDI (Gasoline) Direct-Injection unit, delivering a whopping 103kW of power at 6300rpm and 167Nm of torque at 4850rpm.

For the record, top speed is 180km/h while the 0-100km/h-sprint time takes 10.3 seconds.

Having driven the standard six-speed manual, we know how punchy the GDI is, particularly at take-off, providing peppy low-down performance as well as a propensity to rev right up to the redline.

You can wring the power out of it easily, with the engine sounding unbreakable. In fact, it feels quite ‘warm hatch’ in nature.

Sadly the six-speed auto seems stifled a little by comparison. Okay, no supermini – not even the dual-clutch items in the Fiesta and Polo – match their manual brethren for fun, but the Rio auto loses some zing and effervescence.

Make no mistake, the GDI/auto combo is fast for what it is, and the Kia is miles ahead of most self-shifting competitors, with smooth upchanges, but the ‘stick’ is miles superior.

By the way, slotting it into manual sequential mode is pretty pointless, particularly as the gearbox won’t hold on to a lower gear once the limiter is approached.

We came nowhere near matching Kia’s economy claim either, hovering in the mid-nines instead of the average in the low sixes – though there was a lot of spirited urban driving. And you wouldn’t exactly call it tiny either.

Dynamically the Rio is okay but not in the Fiesta league. Yes, the steering is linear and responsive, so it goes where you point it without hesitation or drama, while the tyres stick steadfastly to the road, but there isn’t much feedback, or involvement, or finesse… when the sporty, masculine styling suggests this could turn and handle like a pseudo GTI.

We’d go as far as describing the wheel as feeling wooden, but better than the tiller in the latest Holden Barina and Toyota Yaris.

But will buyers care? Nope. Most would have come from ropey old bombs with worn-out bits. Against these, the Rio is dynamically accomplished - and you could never have said that about this series in the past. It’s just not a driver’s car, that’s all.

Kia spent some months honing this car on Aussie roads, and it shows. On loose gravel the Rio feels composed, with safe and secure traction underlined by an aggressive (if slow to reinstate full power) stability control system.

Bad surfaces, too, are expertly dealt with, without the car feeling skittish or underdone, backed up by a set of eager disc brakes all round (still a rarity in this segment).

Where the SLi suffers is in its choice of wheel size. They’re simply too big, ruining the ride.

A lot of road rumbling combined with an underlying hardness means you soon forget about the looks and lament at the lack of sufficient pliancy. You feel it everywhere where the roads aren’t perfectly smooth.

Do you spend the extra $1000 over the well-equipped Si for the SLi then?

Beyond the gorgeous but ride-wrecking alloys shod with 205/45 R17 Continentals instead of 16-inch Kuhmo-shod items, the SLi also adds LED daytime running lights, projector headlights, static cornering lamps, LED tail-lights, auto-on/off headlights, and larger front disc brakes.

Collectively, they make the range-topping Rio feel a bit special, going some way to justify that $22K ask.

But to live with, the Si might be the better bet. Among its many features are cruise control, power/folding exterior mirrors, 16-inch alloys, a centre console armrest and storage, foglights… and a more comfy ride.

Better still, save yourself $2000 and enjoy the superior six-speed manual, as well as five-star ANCAP safety that all Rios rate, without foregoing remote Bluetooth telephony with audio streaming, power windows all round, a multi-function trip computer, electric heated outside mirrors and – of course – a five-year warranty.

So while the Rio is significantly more expensive than its predecessor, at least Kia does not scrimp on the specs.

Yet we still feel the price is too steep. The SLi is outclassed by the unbelievably refined Polo and dynamically out-manoeuvred by the Fiesta Zetec.

It may look a million dollars but the top-of-the-line Rio isn’t quite Fred Astaire or John Travolta yet – more like a footloose and fancy Kevin Bacon.

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