Kia's city car has always been popular but now it has more to offer than just a low price tag.
The Kia Rio tenaciously clings to a status as the Korean brand's most popular vehicle despite a more expansive and more impressive line-up than in previous years.
As with most new-generation Kias these days, the Kia Rio is a far more complete offering than its predecessors.
Bolder and more appealing styling is a good starting point, though the smallest Kia you can currently buy needs substance against some fine rivals in the city car class that include the Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2, Renault Clio and Volkswagen Polo.
It’s certainly not necessarily competing just with the lowest price tag.
Although you can get into a Kia Rio from $15,290 for a three-door body style, it can be more expensive than some rivals across its range. You can pay up to $21,690 plus on-road costs if you opt for the sedan version.
Here, we’re testing the range-topping five-door hatch – the SLi costing from $19,990.
The SLi includes 17-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights and auto headlights over the $18,990 Si’s standard equipment comprising 16-inch alloy wheels, foglights, electric folding side mirrors, leather steering wheel and gearlever, cruise control, soft-touch dash and console bin.
All Kia Rios come with stability control, full-size spare wheel, six airbags, Bluetooth, and USB/iPod connectivity.
As with the bigger Cerato, the Rio’s base model gets a smaller, less powerful engine: a 1.4-litre four-cylinder with 79kW of power and 135Nm of torque.
The 1.6-litre four-cylinder produces 103kW to be the most powerful engine offered in the city car segment, backed by 167Nm of torque.
The optional auto is also a six-speeder rather than the four-speed available for the 1.4-litre.
It’s a good if not great combination. The engine’s maximum torque doesn’t arrive until high in the rev range – 4850rpm – so building momentum isn’t as effortless as in the rival Polo 77TSI or Clio Expression that both use 1.2-litre turbocharged engines with maximum torque from 2000rpm or below.
The auto also had a tendency to change up gears early for the benefit of economy but to the detriment of momentum, and it becomes indecisive as speeds rise and hills and corners come into play.
Having to work the engine harder at times contributed to an on-test fuel use figure of 8.6 litres per 100km versus the official 6.1L/100km.
The Kia Rio is an easy car to drive in traffic and around suburbs, though, especially when few hills are involved. A responsive step-off and smooth braking (despite a firm brake pedal) ensure commuting in rush hour is a more bearable experience.
Kia continues to refine the engineering of its cars, while Kia Australia also goes the extra yard to tune steering and suspension for our roads.
The Kia Rio isn’t quite as good as the newer Cerato but is vastly better to drive than old models.
Steering remains a work in progress because it is relatively slow and responds inconsistently as you turn the wheel, meaning it needs constant attention rather than just being held in one position to negotiate a bend at whatever speed.
An intrusive stability control system and not-quite-perfect chassis balance means a Fiesta, Mazda 2, Clio or Polo are better choices for those buyers looking to derive the most fun from their city cars, but the Rio SLi handles respectably and generates good grip from its 17-inch tyres.
The latter can get loud on coarse chip surfaces, though, and wind noise around the A-pillars is noticeable at freeway speeds.
Ride comfort is generally good, if a touch busy in the city if the Rio is traversing roads with larger-than-average bumps. The driver’s seat also offers plenty of comfort as well as some semblance of support.
Generous proportions for a city car of 4045mm in length and a 2570mm wheelbase are put to good use inside with class-leading rear head and leg room.
The rear bench is angled upwards to help under-thigh support though the cushion could be a bit deeper.
For a top-tier model, there’s no centre armrest, surprisingly, and storage is limited to seatback nets and bottle slots in the doors.
Storage options are great up front, and the 288-litre boot is up there among the largest in the segment (and expandable to 923 litres if the 60/40 split rear seatbacks are folded down).
Interior quality and design don’t set any benchmarks, though the Kia Rio cabin is nicely put together and presented. The dash is afforded better materials and plastics than the doors, and while the red monochrome infotainment display in the centre stack is on the small side it looks quite cool.
So do the red-striped needles of the instrument dials.
Running the Kia Rio over three years will cost $841 for servicing through the company’s capped price program, or $1366 over five years.
And five years is the length of time the Rio is covered by Kia’s generous, higher-than-average factory warranty.
You’ll get the same from the i20 by sister company Hyundai, though the Rio is the better city car of the two.
The Kia Rio now has the substance in the way it drives and accommodates its occupants to match its affordability and popularity.
We’d be tempted to save another $1000, though, and choose the Si rather than SLi trim grade.
Kia Rio Video Review