The Kia Rio was once the standard-setter in the segment. With a market that has moved on significantly, the Rio has a tough fight to win buyers over.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Kia Rio was one of the very best options in the incredibly competitive Light Car segment. In fact, I recommended the Rio to three family friends – people who went on to buy a Rio, and all three still love them.
The problem for the 2015 Kia Rio SLi Auto we have on test here, though, is that the market has moved on rapidly over the intervening years.
Thanks to that rapid segment improvement, the Rio’s problem is now twofold: pricing and specification. Both those factors are seriously important in this segment too. As tested here, pricing for the Rio SLi starts from $22,990. You did read that correctly, that’s nearly 23 grand. Even within the Kia stable, there are smarter options. Take the Cerato five-door hatch in 1.8 S Premium guise, for example. It’s only $2000 more, starting from $24,990 and it also gets the automatic transmission for that price.
The five-door Rio hatch range as a whole is comparatively expensive. Pricing starts from $16,990, and that only gets you the paltry 1.4-litre engine with a manual transmission. The most affordable way into the 1.6-litre engine is the Si, which starts from $21,490, albeit with an automatic transmission.
You can see why the current Rio isn’t as appealing as it once was, then. Let’s take a closer look at this range-topping model.
The only addition to the standard RRP is premium paint for $520, bumping the price of our test vehicle up to $23,510 before the raft of dealer and delivery charges are factored in. Premium paint isn’t a necessity, but that ask from Kia is a lot cheaper than some other manufacturers.
The Rio was undeniably attractive when it was first released, and that remains the case now. The Rio was integral to ensuring that everyone stopped treating the Korean brand as a nuisance pretender, and age hasn’t wearied the Rio's European sense of style at all. Coated in premium graphite like our test model and riding on 17-inch alloy wheels with quality Continental tyres, the Rio cuts a look most other hatches would be envious of. Styling is an important buying factor regardless of segment, so the Rio gets points for still looking the part.
The 1.6-litre four-pot engine is adequate without being even remotely spine-tingling. It makes 103kW at 6300rpm and 167Nm at 4850rpm. The ADR fuel claim is 6.1 litres/100km and we saw 8.5 litres/100km on test, largely around town. The engine is matched to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic, which continues to confidently represent conventional automatics in a world besotted with often-jerky dual clutch autos.
Factoring in a 75kg driver (no, obviously not my lardy frame), our Rio weighs in at 1298kg, so it’s no heavyweight by any means – a good thing given the tame power outputs.
Around town at low speed, where you’d expect the Rio to ply its trade most often, the engine performs well enough. The problems arise when you need to punch into a gap, take off quickly or merge faster than you might have expected.
Press the accelerator pedal a little harder, the transmission quickly slices down a gear or two and the engine starts to gasp for air. The accompanying rise in revs brings with it a nasty, rasping exhaust note that sounds like the engine is working way too hard. It probably isn’t; it just doesn’t sound great and isn’t accompanied by any rapid acceleration either.
The main problem here – as Tim noted in his recent review of the Rio Sport – is the torque hole below a comparatively high 4850rpm. You need to work the engine hard to get into the meat of that torque delivery, meaning not a lot happens before that point.
Once up to speed, though, the Rio cruises along quietly, aided by the broad spread of ratios within the transmission. The cabin’s sense of quiet is assisted by the almost complete absence of wind noise, quality Continental tyres that don’t transmit any roar inside, and the impressive absence of road noise.
Where the Rio’s interior once delivered a general ambience of elegance belying its cost, it now feels a little dated, especially the seat trim. The interior doesn’t do anything especially badly, it just doesn’t feel as premium as we’ve come to expect from Kia lately. Kia vehicles new to the market, like the Sorento, only serve to amplify that expectation. The lack of key features like a touchscreen with satellite navigation and reverse camera doesn’t help the interior either.
Rio remains comfortable, user-friendly and ergonomic, though, and while the lack of up-market standard inclusions is evident, the interior isn’t unpleasant. While we didn’t love the seat coverings, we did appreciate their comfort and adjustability. There’s more than enough room inside the Rio’s cabin for this segment, too, in both the front and second rows. Clever design, packaging and storage options mean you don’t feel claustrophobic in the cabin.
The undeniable bonus that hatchbacks bring to the table is usable luggage space and the Rio, despite it’s compact exterior dimensions, is no exception. With the seats up, there’s a handy 288 litres available. Fold the seats down and that opens up to a cavernous 923 litres. In real terms, you’ll be able to fit a lot more into the luggage area of a Rio than you thought possible of a compact hatch – great news for owners who might need to lug gear around regularly.
Like the Sport, the SLi rides on 17-inch alloy wheels and delivers a ride that errs on the side of firm, but isn’t uncomfortable. It’s harsher over poor surfaces than we’d like, though, and doesn’t ride as well as most other Kia product we’ve tested recently.
We couldn’t work the steering out either. Rio isn’t a hot hatch, so you shouldn’t expect razor sharp steering in any case, but our test example had a strange dead feeling no matter how much lock we wound on, and it also had a reluctance to self centre after entering a turn. We did get used to it, but it was definitely disconcerting in the beginning.
The Kia Rio SLi is covered by Kia’s market-leading seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty. That includes roadside assistance for the duration of the warranty if you have your Rio serviced at an authorised Kia dealer. Capped price servicing makes that decision a little easier and prices range from $303 per service to $535 for a major service over the course of seven years or 105,000km, whichever comes first. All up, over that period, your Rio will cost a very reasonable $2722.00 in total to service.
So, while the Rio isn’t especially poor, it isn’t as impressive as it once was either. Kia will need to improve the model significantly to compete at the level it did not so long ago. Our recent Rio scoring might seem harsh compared to where we rated the vehicle when it was first released, but that says more about what we’ve come to expect from the Korean brand. Kia has lifted its game across the board, and we look forward to those same standards being implemented for Rio.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Mitchell Oke.