It takes a sturdy hold of a magnifying glass to recognise the 2015 Kia Rio from the light hatchback that launched locally back in 2011, though that’s no bad thing when the facelifted four-year-old still looks fresh and funky.
Beyond the mildly tweaked front and rear bumpers, fresh alloys, and black gloss across the dashboard there is also a revised model range lineup including a new variant tested here, the Rio S Premium.
The Rio S Premium is available solely in five-door format, priced from $17,690 for the six-speed manual and $19,690 for the more popular four-speed automatic tested here (both plus on-road costs).
Adding ‘Premium’ to the end of the entry-level Rio S only increases the price by $700, yet the standard equipment list is boosted by 15-inch alloy wheels (instead of hubcaps), front fog-lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise control, auto-folding door mirrors and six stereo speakers instead of four.
While six airbags, stability control, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, remote central locking, and power front and rear windows are also included across the range, the Rio hasn’t moved the game as far along in other areas compared with competitors in recent years.
For example, the similarly priced Renault Clio Expression has satellite navigation standard, while cheaper Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris models score a reverse-view camera – neither of which isn’t available on the Rio S Premium. In a segment where these hatchbacks will likely be squeezed into tight parking spots, not even rear parking sensors available.
On the flipside, Kia has added an enormous seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty to the standard equipment list of every car it sells, a massive drawcard that is the untouchable benchmark in the class.
In addition to that long-term security there is also the peace of mind of long-term running costs aided by a capped price servicing plan that costs $2383 over the life of the warranty, or $907 for three years – definitely among the cheapest in class.
Position-wise in the range, the Rio S Premium essentially moves to where the previous Rio Si was, a grade that asked $1300 more but crucially added a more contemporary and efficient engine and automatic transmission. The Si now gets more kit and takes up the position of range flagship.
The 1.6-litre four-cylinder and six-speed automatic from the previously middle-grade Rio Si is now reserved for the auto-only $21,490 ‘new’ Si range-topper. Instead, the 1.4-litre four-cylinder and four-speed automatic that used to be reserved only for the entry-grade Rio S now also powers the S Premium.
So there has definitely been some range reshuffling going on, but it at least now means there is a middle-grade Rio automatic available for below the crucial $20,000 barrier.
The Kia Rio has always been a hugely likeable little car that represented a big step forward for the South Korean brand when it launched four years ago, and in many ways its virtues still shine brightly.
As soon as you close the front door of the S Premium it feels, well, premium, closing with a ‘thunk’ that belies its size. The feeling of strength and sturdiness continues to define the experience, with tight panel shutlines in a modern and handsome cabin that continues to be among the roomiest in the class.
The Rio simply doesn’t feel like a tiny, tinny car, with broad and comfortable front seats matched by rear pews that afford excellent headroom and legroom.
The boot is among the most sizeable in the class, measuring 288 litres, and doing so with a full-size alloy wheel spare tyre underfloor, too. There’s also the option of dropping the rear backrest to triple the rear space.
Excellent storage is another highlight of the Kia cabin. The glovebox is huge, there is a tray for your phone ahead of the transmission lever – although the iPhone 6 is now too large for it – and bottle holders in each door. There isn’t a proper centre console storage bin, however, only a tray that allows larger or weightier items to fly around.
Kia has switched to hard dashboard plastics where the pre-facelift model used the squidgy variety, but that’s no bad thing at this end of the market, and the the new piano black fascia looks neat anyway.
All the controls are easy to use, the red trip computer and audio displays are clear, and the Bluetooth is easy to sync and re-engages quickly on start up. There’s actually quite good audio quality from the four speakers and two tweeters, however – a surprise for the price.
You may need to crank the sound system to drown out the 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, which demands plenty of throttle and revs to shift the Rio, which at 1221kg tips the scales as the heaviest hatchback in the class (clearly this Kia feels solid for a reason).
Both the 79kW of power and 135Nm of torque the engine produces are delivered at a peaky 6300rpm and 4200rpm respectively. The 1.4-litre is a flexible engine, though, that skyrockets the tachometer needle into the upper regions very quickly when you floor the throttle to nab that quickly disappearing gap in traffic.
There is no avoiding the gaps inside the transmission, though. Amazingly the four-speed automatic reacts as quickly as the engine does to grab a lower gear, but equally it has little intelligence to hold lower gears, so even on slight inclines the auto will move from fourth, to third, to second, only to fall straight back into fourth as soon as the throttle is lifted – only that routine happens immediately again as you struggle to maintain urban arterial speed (70km/h) in fourth.
As for economy, the Kia Rio claims to use 6.3 litres of regular unleaded per 100 kilometres during combined conditions, but we only saw the trip computer read that figure on the freeway; add around town running and it shifted to 8.4L/100km.
Otherwise the Kia Rio continues to be a nuggety, fun little hatchback.
The steering suffers some ‘wander’ at freeway speeds, requiring small corrections to keep straight ahead, and when you’re winding on lock quickly when parking the electric motor sometimes doesn’t feed in enough assistance in time, causing the steering to momentarily go heavy. But for the most part the steering is quick enough to feel agile, and pleasantly medium weighted.
The ride around town on chubby 65-aspect 15-inch tyres is demonstrably superior to higher-grade models wearing lower-profile 55-aspect 16s. The Rio can dart across the city, over speed humps and across lumpy surfaces, and always feel firm but comfortable, and well controlled.
Its handling isn’t in the same league as the Mazda 2, Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo or Clio that are the pick for those looking for an entry-level sporty hatch, but it remains tight, secure and planted.
So in terms of the drive and its spacious interior the Kia Rio remains largely impressive, and though the 1.4-litre struggles against newer rivals and the lack of technology is disappointing, it does come with a benchmark warranty.
We can’t help but think a model with the comfort of 15-inch wheels with the extra driveability of the 1.6-litre engine would be close to ideal for the price, but in lieu of that would recommend bargaining hard on an Si that remains the most impressive of the Kia Rio range.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos.