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Buying a light car on an extreme budget is something that thousands of buyers do every year in Australia, and here we’ve assembled two of the picks of the crop to see which value-focused five-door hatchback deserves your dollar.
The just-updated 2015 Kia Rio S has seen a range of changes inside and out – revised bumpers, a new-look grille and a re-trimmed interior being the chief talking points. It remains priced from $15,990 plus on-road costs, as represented by the entry-level manual car tested here.
Its rival, the 2015 Toyota Yaris Ascent, instantly comes in with an advantage – this model, released late in 2014, recently saw a price drop as a result of the Japan Free Trade Agreement. It now kicks off from $14,990 plus on-roads, and it’s that base-model manual version we’re testing here.
We should note before we begin that the Toyota Yaris and Kia Rio are joined at the hip by being best in base form, and it is worth noting that there are more impressive performers in the light hatchback segment if you're willing to spend towards $20,000 instead of shopping closer to $15,000 - and for more on those entrants, read our big small car test here.
Both of the cars assembled in this contest are big sellers for their respective brands. The Kia Rio is the consistent top dog for the South Korean maker, and posted 7925 sales in 2014, accounting for 28 per cent of the brand’s overall volume despite Rio sales dipping by 13.5 per cent last year.
The Yaris easily outsold the Rio last year, as it has for every year that they’ve been competing. A total 12,779 units were sold in 2014, meaning Yaris made up 6.3 per cent of total Toyota sales last year despite also being down on its usual level (it dropped 11.5 per cent in a tough city car market).
It’s clear these cars are of vital importance to their respective brands, then, and cheaper models in the ranks often form the basis for buyers to come back when they’re looking for a new, larger car.
In short, cars like these need a hook.
And what better bait at the budget end of the market than value for money, which is a key buying decision for any car and even more sensitive when your talking about vehicles where every single dollar of the asking price can make or break a deal.
The Yaris clearly has a price advantage, coming in $1000 cheaper based on list pricing. On top of that, it doesn’t scrimp on equipment.
The Yaris features kit such as a 6.1-inch touchscreen media system with Bluetooth phone connectivity that also doubles as a display for the car’s standard reverse-view camera.
The Rio doesn’t get a touchscreen system, nor does it get any form of parking assistance in its cheapest form – indeed parking sensors or a reverse-view camera aren’t available as standard on any model in the Rio range at this point (the flagship SLi arriving soon will have rear sensors).
It is disappointing given this is a city-focused car, but if the need is great, buyers can option parking sensors (front, rear or both), at a cost of about $450 per end.
Its size shows how city-friendly it is, with the Rio measuring 4.04 metres long, 1.72m wide and 1.45m tall. The Rio is longer and wider than the Yaris, though, which spans 3.90m long and 1.69m wide, though it has a taller body (1.51m).
The Yaris’ more compact exterior dimensions are noticeable when you sit inside, and these two offer quite different environs.
The Toyota’s aforementioned 6.1-inch touchscreen media system catches the eye as soon as you turn the key. It is bright, colourful and features a simple menu system that is easy to learn. And for those teens that can’t be separated from their smartphone, the interface’s touch, drag and flick functionality will come as second nature.
On the topic of smartphones, the Yaris features full Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, as well as a USB input mounted above the cup-holders in front of the gear selector (but there’s no covered storage to hide your pricey toys). On top of that, if you stow your device in the caddy below, you’ll have cords dangling down, which looks untidy.
In the Kia, there’s no touchscreen – not on any model, as the current-generation car isn’t geared for such a system in the Aussie-market versions. That’s a pretty big downer for a car that’ll undoubtedly otherwise attract younger buyers, and even more questionable given the higher pricing of the South Korean hatchback.
That said, the Rio offers simple connectivity via Bluetooth, and its phone and audio streaming worked perfectly and reconnected quickly upon re-entry to the car. You can’t dial in a number to call using the little stereo knobs, but you can file through your contacts – though it is a bit fiddly.
The Toyota’s system has more wow factor, but it also won’t allow you to key in a number when the car is in motion, which is annoying if, for example, your passenger is trying to call someone using your connected phone. You can tap a number in at standstill, and at speed you can choose a contact to dial, too. The Bluetooth phone and audio streaming worked without issue in our test car.
Screen aside, the Rio has more space inside the cabin, and the level of perceived quality of the interior of the Kia is significantly better than that in the Toyota.
The Rio features neat, modern switchgear, a nice gloss black panel across the centre of the dash, and the plastics, switches, dials and knobs all feel of a higher quality to the touch, press, tug or otherwise.
That impressive cabin ambience comes despite the move to a hard plastic dash-top and door trims, where the pre-update Rio featured softer, padded sections.
The Yaris has hard plastic surfaces, too, and the ambience of its cabin is more on the bland side despite the seats being covered in a new fabric trim to help differentiate it from the pre-facelift model.
The controls such as the temperature dials, steering wheel and gear shifter don’t have the same level of quality in the hand as the Rio’s bits and bobs.
The Yaris makes up some ground with its storage. There are big door pockets up front, with cup and bottle holders, too. The rear seats, however, miss out on door storage, but there’s a centre bin that can be used for bottles.
The Yaris has less rear seat head room (taller occupants may need to watch their head on the outer lining section), and the amount of leg room is also a tad short of that in the Rio.
That said, both can cope with four adults or big teenagers easily, and five will fit at a pinch. If we were buying one just because we knew it would to be fully loaded on a regular basis (I know my P-plate cars often were…) the Rio would be it.
And when you do have five on board, the Rio’s centre seatbelt that is built in to the back seat is more user-friendly than the Yaris’ middle sash, which drops down from the ceiling.
For family buyers, both models have ISOFIX child seat restraints, and the back seats in both cars can be folded down 60:40.
The boot battle is a close one, too – the Yaris has 286 litres of cargo capacity, where the Rio has 288L.
In the Yaris there’s a neat false floor if you need to hide something valuable, and the back seats can also be folded nearly flat, too. The Rio has a more open boot aperture that makes loading and unloading light items easier, but its big load-over lip means heavy items could be hard to get back out.
Under the bonnet, the Kia Rio S has a 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine with 79kW of power at 6300rpm and 135Nm of torque available at 4200rpm. Claimed fuel use is rated at 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres for the six-speed manual model we tested, while the four-speed auto version uses a claimed 6.3L/100km.
The Yaris Ascent has a power disadvantage on paper, with its 1.3-litre four-cylinder producing just 63kW (at 6000rpm) and 121Nm (at 4400rpm). Fuel use is claimed at an identical 5.7L/100km for the five-speed manual we drove, and the optional four-speed auto also mirrors the claim of the Kia (6.3L).
On our test – which involved several hundred kilometres of highway, back road and city driving – we saw consumption of 6.4L/100km for both vehicles.
With the upper hand in terms of power, the Rio should feel slightly more willing when you put your foot down hard. However, it is a fair bit heavier than the Yaris, tipping the scales at 1221 kilograms while the Toyota weighs just 1024kg.
As such, any benefit in terms of performance is negligible, and we certainly didn’t notice much between the two – apart from the fact the Rio has six gears to call upon where the Yaris has five.
That means you’re likely to work the transmission slightly more in the Rio, and its in-gear acceleration is average. The Yaris, however, feels slightly more tractable in gear, and while it’s no powerhouse, we found it more liveable in daily running.
Indeed, both engines prefer plenty of revs to keep things moving briskly, and you can expect to need to shift back a cog or two up steep hills.
Thankfully, both have decent gearshift actions, though again the Yaris feels a little smoother, where the Rio’s ‘box is a bit clicky.
In terms of the drive experience, the Rio is a step ahead, with gernally nice steering response meaning you can have a bit of fun on twisty roads, though any hint of pushing the car will see the Kumho 15-inch tyres squeal disconcertingly.
However, the electric steering system is fuzzy on centre, and it can also load up to become heavy and hard to turn when you want it to be light and easy to spin the wheel, namely around town during parking manouevres.
The company performs a tuning program on the suspension and steering of all of its cars, and that pays off in the Rio’s case. Its ride is comfortable for the most part and better at low speeds than on the highway, where it can be a bit jiggly over consistent bumps.
The Yaris is more user-friendly around town, with lighter steering making for easier manoeuvres into and out of parking spaces.
At higher speeds, the Toyota exhibits more body roll and the steering also loads up to become a tad too firm. Thankfully the 15-inch Bridgestone tyres offer better grip than the Rio’s Kumhos, meaning that while the Yaris moves around more on the road, it doesn’t feel unsafe.
On the topic of safety, both cars have good airbag coverage for outboard occupants: the Rio has six airbags (dual front, front-side, full-length curtains) while the Yaris has the same but adds knee coverage for the driver. Both have trusty electronic stability control.
In terms of ownership, Toyotas are known for their longevity but the Yaris only has a three-year/100,000km warranty. It also comes with a capped-price service program that spans three years or 60,000km, with visits due every six months or 10,000km. Each visit is capped at $140.
However, the ownership battle has a clear long-term winner, with the Rio attracting an industry-leading seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty. It also has seven years of roadside assistance and the same coverage for capped price servicing, with maintenance due every 12 months or 15,000km. An average estimated cost is $347 per annum based on previous data provided by Kia, though the company now requires all buyers to use their VIN to check how much their service costs will be using the public website.
As good as that warranty package is, the Kia Rio S simply can’t match its rival in terms of smarts. Lacking a touchscreen media system is a cardinal sin these days, and the fact you can’t get one on any spec level – nor a reverse-view camera – means the Rio comes in second place here.
The Yaris may not have as nice or as spacious an interior, but the value for money equation is unquestionable for those at the entry point to the market. While the Toyota fails to please in higher specification levels and particularly in automatic guise, it is at its best here in base manual form, notching up a well deserved win.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos.