5.5 / 10
If you’re in the market for a city car and you’re partial to a three-door, you may be surprised to know that the Kia Rio is one of your few remaining options.
Long the norm in the class, the three-door body style has all but been abandoned by mainstream brands in favour of the more practical five-door shape, which has been overwhelmingly preferred by new car shoppers in recent years.
A pragmatist to my bones, I’ve never seen the appeal of three-doors, but I know some people do. Some of those people are even my wife, who used to own a 2002 Holden TS Astra three-door, and had nothing but praise for the shape of our high-grade Kia Rio Sport test car when she saw it for the first time.
I can somewhat see her point: its faster body lines, strong side contours and silver and black alloy wheels make it something of a standout visually – or maybe it’s just that Digital Yellow paint, which is the only one of three Rio Sport colours available that’s free (metallic red and blue cost $520).
It’s a different story on the inside, however, where ‘visuals’ are its downfall. That three-door shape means the rear pillar of the Kia Rio is much broader than that of the five-door and impedes your view significantly when you’re reversing out of driveways or perpendicular parking spaces. The rear window is also small and set very high.
It’s simply unacceptable then that the Rio Sport doesn’t get a reverse-view camera or even rear parking sensors to help offset these limitations.
This fact becomes even harder to swallow when you consider the Rio Sport’s price. At $21,490 before on-road costs, it’s at the upper end of the city car spectrum. For more than $6000 less, you can get a Honda Jazz or a Toyota Yaris with a reverse-view camera. Alternatively, Kia’s sister brand Hyundai regularly offers the size-larger i30 Active X auto for $21,990 driveaway that comes loaded with gear.
The Rio Sport also misses out on a touchscreen infotainment system, making do with only a small, basic red-lit screen on the dashboard, which naturally also means no in-built satellite navigation.
The cupboard is far from bare, though, with Rio Sport getting a healthy spec boost over the three-door Rio S, which costs $15,990 with the six-speed manual and $18,090 with the optional four-speed auto.
In addition to a larger engine and a markedly superior six-speed automatic transmission (more on those soon), the Rio Sport benefits from those aforementioned 17-inch alloys (S gets steel 15s), auto projector headlights, cornering lights, LED daytime running lights and tail-lights, electric folding side mirrors, leatherette seat upholstery, cruise control, alloy pedals and a number of other elements that lift the ambience a few levels off ground floor. The rear sensors, auto wipers and climate control standard in the five-door Rio SLi would be welcome at the Sport’s price point, however.
Though basic, the Rio’s dashboard layout is clean and its controls are easy to navigate. Interior storage is excellent for a car of its size, with a big glovebox, accommodating door bins, a useful console box and other handy stash spots for phones and wallets.
The front seats do a decent job, being adequately comfortable and supportive for the shorter urban trips most Rios will spend most of their lives doing.
Clambering into the back is made reasonably easy by the large aperture created by sliding the front passenger seat forward. There’s seating for three in the second row where the headroom and legroom available is as surprising as the view, which is impressive thanks to the large windows. The rear seats themselves are ordinary, however, with bases in our test car somewhat reminiscent of a 20-year-old couch, feeling under-padded and sunken, with bunchy leatherette as a result.
The three-door Rio matches the five-door in the boot, offering a competitive 288 litres of cargo space, and 923L with the 60:40 split-folding rear seats pushed forwards.
At the other end sits Kia’s familiar 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. With 103kW available at 6300rpm, it’s one of the most powerful engines in its class. It feels perky around town, getting off the mark quickly and reacting promptly to prods at the accelerator pedal. The six-speed auto deserves credit here too, allowing the engine to rev freely and delivering timely gear changes.
The Rio can’t match the driveability of many in its class beyond the city, however. With its 167Nm of torque unavailable beneath 4850rpm, it lacks the pulling power of some other its better rivals, whose low-capacity turbocharged engines produce more torque across broad bands. The auto is less convincing at higher speeds too, being too eager to grab lower gears rather than taking advantage of its revvy nature.
We struggled to come close to the Rio’s official combined cycle fuel consumption rating of 6.1 litres per 100 kilometres over our week of testing, seeing double-digit measures in urban conditions and averaging 8.9L/100km with some highway and country kilometres thrown in – a result consistent with an earlier test of the Rio’s 1.6.
While not class leading, the Kia Rio offers decent ride comfort. The suspension does a good job of ironing out smaller bumps and ruts, and around town they’re generally heard more than they’re felt. Coarse country roads and higher speeds bring out some heavier thunks, though again it’s more comfortable than some mainstream rivals.
It feels composed out here, though, no doubt helped by its hefty 1286kg kerb weight and its Continental Conti Sport Contact tyres, which are grippy, but noisy on coarse surfaces.
Never a Rio strong suit, the steering continues to be the car’s biggest dynamic disappointment. Previously needing little corrections on the highway, the latest steering setup feels oddly and unnaturally sticky around the straight-ahead position, requiring effort to turn it off centre. It’s also slow, forcing plenty of arm twirling when navigating car parks and tight streets, and lacks the tactility of the more engaging city car steering systems.
Where the Kia Rio is unmatched by any city car is aftersales protection. It comes standard with a seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, matching roadside assistance (if you service your car with Kia), and capped-price servicing for seven years or 105,000km, completed at 12-month/15,000km intervals that average $389 per service.
It’s that aftersales package and its rare three-door body style that are the Kia Rio Sport’s only USPs, however.
And while they hold some appeal, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Rio Sport is lacking expected technology, hard to see out of, and dynamically off the pace of many in the city car class, and therefore difficult to recommend at its price point.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.