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As one of the market's most active 'challenger' brands, working harder than some to pinch sales from segment leaders, Kia has come along in leaps and bounds since its less appealing products of the early 2000s. Higher quality interiors, far nicer exteriors and more refined powertrains have, in recent times, become closer to the norm for the majority of the marque's models. Despite a recent facelift, however, the 2016 Kia Rio is still one behind the times.
Kia has shown that it isn’t shy of sharp styling and cutting-edge creativity – have a look at the Sportspace, GT4 Stinger, Novo, GT, and Niro concepts, for example. But, being based on the third-generation Rio that first launched locally back in 2011, the 2016 Kia Rio is no ‘showstopper’.
Joining the Rio line-up in January as part of a facelifted range, our test car is the Kia Rio S Premium.
Sitting between the $16,990 entry-level five-door S and $21,490 1.6-litre automatic-only Si, the Kia Rio S Premium starts at $17,690 when teaming its 1.4-litre four-cylinder with a six-speed manual transmission. Tick the box for our MY16 test car’s four-speed automatic and the price rises $2000 to $19,790 – $100 dearer than the identical MY15 equivalent (a variance Kia Australia puts down to “an increase in the cost of materials”).
Above the standard S’s remote central locking, power front and rear windows, six airbags, hill-start assist, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, the S Premium gains front fog lights, 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, and auto-folding door mirrors with integrated indicators.
A leather-like ‘Premium’ steering wheel and six-speaker stereo are also thrown into the mix, while a central gloss black dash insert, revised grille pattern and restyled front and rear bumpers feature as part of the early-2015 updates.
Seated in basic but comfortable front cloth seats, things feel very much ‘old’ Kia.
Unlike the variety of technologies seen in top-selling light car rivals such as the Toyota Yaris, Honda Jazz, Renault Clio and Volkswagen Polo, the Rio offers no touchscreen, no reversing camera, no parking sensors and no satellite navigation.
Instead, you get a simple in-dash stereo, hard dash and door plastics, low-rent indicator and wiper stalks, and flimsy-feeling door handles and rotary climate controls. Additional signs of cost cutting, such as only one centrally located interior light and a complete lack of vanity mirror lights, may deter some buyers.
Doing their best to lift cabin quality are silver and chrome highlights scattered across the doors, dash, air vents, steering wheel and gear lever, and the smooth leather-like material on the steering wheel rim and gear selector top. That said, our 1600-kilometre-old test car was already showing signs of wear on the latter.
Storage is a touch hit and miss, too. The Rio has a large glove box – a plus that should not to be ignored – as well as various nooks and crannies that include two shallow cup holders, small-ish door pockets and a neat little storage space below the centre stack housing two 12-volt outputs and inputs for USB and AUX.
There’s a little cut-out there too that’s an ideal size for an iPhone 5. A seemingly quite clever addition that leaves you with a flat storage area even with a phone in place, the affect immediately wears off once you realise that an iPhone 6 (or most other non-Apple devices) won’t actually fit properly.
Rear seat ingress and egress is made easy thanks to the Rio’s glasshouse curvature – not as steeply raked as the backend of, say, the Mazda 2 – and rear passenger head and legroom is impressive for the class and for the model’s four-metre length. Toe room is also good, and parents will appreciate the two ISOFIX anchorage points.
Fixed rear-door-pocket bottle holders could prove somewhat limiting, but some items could be slipped into the netted map pockets mounted to the hard plastic back of the front seats.
Accessed via a soft-touch tailgate release, the Rio’s 288-litre boot - a reasonable volume for the class - is fairly deep and gets two small storage areas (one netted, one solid), two plastic luggage/cargo hooks and a full-size alloy spare wheel.
Able to be expanded to 923 litres with the rear 60:40 seats folded down, loading larger items is also made easier thanks to a parcel tray that lifts nice and high out of the way.
Kick over the 79kW/135Nm 1.4-litre – after hearing one of the most odd and giggle-worthy starter motor cranking noises ever – and after only a short drive, you’ll notice your hands tend to drop as a result of the reach and rake adjustable steering wheel’s sagged thumb cut-outs. Not ideal but no dealbreaker.
Vision is somewhat limited by thick C-pillars and a letterbox-style rear window, although A-pillar cut-outs and helpful wing mirrors do aid the situation.
Rolling on chubby 65-aspect Kumho Solus tyres, the S Premium’s ride is largely comfortable, however, things can get fidgety over poorer quality surfaces and Melbourne tram tracks. Body control isn’t great when pushed, but for those spending the majority of time pottering around town, the Rio is a more than acceptable commuter.
The ventilated front/solid rear disc brakes too, while not particularly bitey or impressive, are also fine for low-speed inner-city running around.
Sticking within the city limits, the Rio’s 10.5-metre turning circle is excellent. Its electric motor-driven power steering (MDPS), though, feels oddly doughy and resistant off-centre, freeing up to a much lighter weight once more lock is wound on.
Less able to be forgiven is the ‘old hat’ four-speed automatic transmission.
Unintelligent and prone to overreactions to minor throttle inputs, the unit consistently thumps and lurches into gear when switching between reverse and drive at low speeds – most notable when parking.
Not helped by the engine’s relatively high-rpm peak power and torque figures – 6300rpm and 4200rpm respectively – the auto ‘box will kick down a gear if revs fall below 2500rpm, instigating a flare to around 4000rpm and a symphony of thrashy and harsh engine noise all the way until just north of 6000rpm when a higher gear is once again selected.
Far from being punchy, the linear 16-valve engine has enough pickup to cruise at 100km/h at a touch over 2500rpm in fourth (read: top) gear, or coast at lower speeds at around 1500rpm without too much indignation. Despite the choppy transmission and a claim of 6.3 litres per 100km on the combined cycle (5.7L/100km in manual guise), the portly-for-the-class Kia Rio S Premium (1239kg) averaged 6.0L/100km over our week with the car.
Short of the class Yaris, Jazz, Mazda 2, Clio and Polo benchmarks in more than one area, the 2016 Kia Rio S Premium is a difficult proposition at its full near-$20k list price. What helps, though, is an unrivalled seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty. Add in capped-price servicing first the three years (or 45,000km) totalling $999 and servicing to the end of the seven-year warranty period (or 105,000km) totalling $2768, and the sweeteners are obvious.
But with value such a high priority in this segment, the smart money would be on moving towards the Rio’s Japanese and German competitors; snapping up a soon-to-disappear run-out Hyundai i20 – with the same drivetrain, albeit with 6kW less power but 1Nm more torque – or nabbing an identically-specced MY15 Rio S Premium for $16,990 driveaway or $18,990 driveaway for the manual and automatic respectively.
Kia may be leading the challenger brand fight, but for now, the light car class is simply too competitive for the Rio to hide its old engine, old transmission and old technology.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Kia Rio S Premium images by Tom Fraser.