The 2017 Kia Rio is a far more accomplished city car than its predecessor, but, compared to Japanese rivals, Kia's drivetrain choice puts it on the back foot.
From the outside, the new Rio looks the part. It wears the latest iteration of Kia’s tiger-nose grille, now wider and flatter across the face, portraying a more mature style that should have a wider appeal. Meanwhile, the rear is very similar in design to the larger Cerato. It’s also interesting to note just how little overhang there is over the back wheels, thanks to a nearly vertical rear windscreen.
The S is the only one you can have with a six-speed manual, while the mid-spec and top models can only be had with a four-speed automatic ($2010 option on S).
For now, all three variants are powered by a carry-over 1.4-litre four-cylinder naturally-aspirated petrol engine that manages just 74kW of power and 133Nm of torque. Fuel economy is officially rated at 6.2L/100km for the auto and 5.6L/100km for the manual.
Behind the wheel, there is no hiding the fact that the Kia Rio suffers from a lack of gear ratios and decent torque. It does a good job of getting around in suburban and inner-city areas, but get it out on the open road and any attempt at merging or overtaking will have your foot flat on the floor, every time.
We spent a few hours with the new Rio around Melbourne and the outer suburbs, and while it’s easy to fault the Kia for carrying over an ancient drivetrain configuration, it actually does a reasonable job for its city-focussed purpose, offering decent acceleration off the line. It’s only when the speed gets past 80, or if a steep hill appears, that one wishes for a few more gear ratios and more oomph.
Thankfully, it appears that Kia will bring a 1.0-litre turbocharged Rio to Australia before year’s end, and there is a chance it will also upgrade the automatic transmission of the current car to a six-speed. That will present a far better driving experience than what is currently on offer.
What the new Rio lacks in power and torque, it makes up for in driving dynamics and ride comfort. Like all modern Kias, the Rio has been specially tuned by Australian engineers for Australian roads. To that end, specialised ‘RS’ suspension dampers (borrowed from the Cerato) have been employed to allow for better tuning on Australian roads.
The result is a car that would have to be one of the most comfortable in its class, without compromising all that much on dynamics. The power steering system has been vastly improved, with some significant modifications that now sees it provide more feedback and better on-centre feel.
Around the twisty stuff, the little Rio does a commendable job of getting itself around and, while it’s no hot hatch (that’s coming in the form of a Kia Rio GT, soon) it’s a lot more capable than you’ll ever need it to be.
It is noisy, however. We did notice, even on smooth-surfaced roads, the noise intrusion into the cabin was a little higher than we had expected.
The new Kia Rio has grown in nearly all directions except height (full specifications can be found here) and it can accommodate four adults without much trouble. It may lack a bit of leg room in the back for taller passengers, but it’s ideal for its class of car.
The South Korean-built Rio offers an interior package that is both more sophisticated and better equipped than the car that it replaces. The use of a dark silver highlight across the dash helps break apart the otherwise dark interior and the car’s designers have gone for plenty of horizontal lines to emphasise its width.
There are massive bottle holders on the front doors and a very well thought-out rubberised space to put your oversized smartphone (where it doesn’t move around) above a USB port that fast charges. There is also an additional USB port for the rear passengers. These seem like basic and logical features, but ones that are still lacking in plenty of its competitors. The boot measures 320L (980L with the rear seats folded flat).
It boasts a best-in-class infotainment system with a spacious interior that belies its small exterior size. All grades get access to a seven-inch touchscreen that runs Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which make best friends with your smartphone and helps bring many useful features to the car. This is a huge plus for a car in this class, and a feature that cars more than 10 times its price are yet to offer as standard.
Realistically, the inclusion of these systems also means the Rio’s infotainment setup is future-proof with upcoming generations of phones running Android or iOS.
The base model Rio S’ infotainment system is not as good as the one in the mid and top-spec, however. Not having its own standard navigation system isn’t the main issue (as it can be had via smartphone integration), but it also didn’t seem as fast or as smooth to us as the one available in the Si and SLi. We should also note that the standard six-speaker audio system (same across the range) left a lot to be desired.
In saying that, though. The system from Si and above is, without doubt, the best in class. It’s much easier to use and faster than the MZR system Mazda employs in the Mazda 2 and it makes the Toyota system in the Yaris feel like an ancient history lesson.
On the safety front, there are six airbags and all the standard passive safety features that its competitors easily match.
The Rio misses out on autonomous emergency braking (AEB) - available as an option with the likes of Mazda 2 and the upcoming Yaris update - but it will most likely still get its five-star ANCAP safety rating before a 2018 rule change requires AEB be included for a top rating. The 1.0-litre turbo version will, however, have this feature available.
Like all Kias, the Rio will come with an industry leading seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty with capped priced servicing and roadside assist. This alone should be reason enough to consider the Rio.
It’s a shame the South Korean company couldn’t launch the Rio with its new engines or a more advanced powertrain, because, in all other respects, the Rio is a solid winner. It has best-in-class infotainment coupled to an extremely practical and spacious interior, making a great value-for-money argument.
Our advice would be that if you can’t wait for the updated engine and transmission, the Rio still makes an awful lot of sense as a first car or as a second city runabout.