The all-new 2017 Kia Rio Si picks up where its predecessor left off, but a dated powertrain and transmission combo spoil what is otherwise a very solid package.
The previous-generation Kia Rio was a game changer for the Korean brand. It brought European styling, class-leading power and a strong equipment list for bargain pricing.
Fast forward to 2017, and the all-new fourth-generation Rio brings a completely new look, a new-look interior, up-to-date infotainment and Australian-specific suspension tuning to pick up where its forebear left off.
On test we have the mid-tier Si model, kicking off at a pricey $21,490 before on-road costs, not far off the top-spec SLi which starts at a near-premium $22,990 before on-roads. Meanwhile, the entry-level S manual is $16,990 plus ORCs.
For the money, you get 15-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime-running lights, front fog-lights, a 7.0-inch infotainment system with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines, automatic headlights, cruise control, electric folding exterior mirrors, manual air-conditioning, USB and auxiliary inputs, leather multifunction steering wheel and shift knob, and an LCD driver's information display.
On the safety front, all Rio models come standard with six airbags, ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, emergency brake assist, electronic stability control, traction control, vehicle stability management system and hill-start assist. There are also three rear child-seat anchor points, including two ISOFIX-compatible anchors for the two outward rear seats.
However, no Rio offers more advanced driver assistance systems like autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitoring, or rear cross traffic alert – a real shame considering AEB is offered in overseas models and Kia offers these systems in larger, older models in its range.
Under the bonnet across the range is a 1.4-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine, which was reserved for entry-level models in the previous-generation model. It has modest outputs of 74kW of power at 6000rpm and 133Nm of torque at 4000rpm, while the four-speed automatic fitted as standard to the Si and SLi is somewhat of an insult for a $20k-plus city car – but we'll get to that part later.
The new design of the Rio is quite handsome, and far more masculine to the cartoonish and cutesy car that came before it. Up front, the U-shaped LED daytime-running lights along with the wide, slim version of Kia's tiger nose grille give the little hatch an aggressive and somewhat sporty look.
Meanwhile, the 15-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels are clean and suit the car, though they have nothing on the polished 17s that filled the arches on higher-spec models of the previous-gen car.
Out back, the short overhang and upright tailgate give a wide and planted stance, while the fairly generic-looking tail-lights are somewhat of an evolution from its predecessor, though this Si misses out on the arrow-shaped LED signature that adorns the rear of SLi variants.
Hopping inside, the design of the Rio has been given a major overhaul, and it's mostly for the better. The clean and uncluttered design is reminiscent of recent Audi models, along with the floating tablet-style 7.0-inch screen at the centre.
The touchscreen unit offers native satellite navigation along with the smartphone mirroring functions. It navigates through menus quickly and smoothly, and is a cinch to use. Kia's new system is easily up there with the best of them.
A swish new steering wheel also features, and feels great in the hands. All the buttons feel solid and are well damped, giving a more premium feel in the cabin.
However, while the design and buttons feel upmarket, the materials that adorn the doors and dash do not. There is a complete lack of soft-touch materials anywhere other than the seats and centre arm rest, which is disappointing considering most of Kia's current and recent models feature an abundance of squishy plastics on these areas – there's not even a soft area to rest your elbow on the doors – though the glossy-black plastic that surrounds the gearshift is a welcome contrast.
Up front the cloth-trimmed seats are comfortable and offer plenty of adjustment, while the high roofline offers plenty of headroom. Out back is a little less spacious, particularly if you have to sit behind a taller driver, though there is still adequate space for average-sized people.
The front pews offer plenty of support and are very comfortable over longer journeys, as is the rear bench provided you only have two passengers – three people in the back can be a very tight squeeze.
Visibility is also pretty good, with plenty of glass area to see out of, though the thick A- and C-pillars can become noticable blind spots.
Heading out onto the road, the Rio is quiet and hums along well at city speeds, and has adequate punch when pulling away from traffic lights. The steering is light yet direct, and offers enough feedback for most drivers.
What's most impressive about the new Rio is its ride, thanks to Kia's local suspension tuning program. The Rio's Australia-specific 'RS' suspension tune is more on the firm side but does a great job ironing out the lumps and bumps of Melbourne's roads without sending loud thuds into the cabin or crashing over larger imperfections.
Once you leave the city, though, the Rio's weaknesses become more apparent. The 1.4-litre engine and four-speed auto feel out of their depth when driving on the freeway or on country roads, either thrashing towards the redline or crawling up hills.
Anytime you want to overtake or consolidate an increase in the speed limit, you need to have your right foot firmly planted on the floor, and even then it's below average in terms of performance.
The absolute worst part is rolling acceleration, for example, on freeway off-ramps or slip lanes, where the transmission feels as if it is in too high a gear (not that there's many to choose from) and it sluggishly pulls away until you mash your foot against the accelerator.
It's a forced driving style that does no favours for NVH (noise vibration harshness) levels or fuel economy. Despite Kia's 6.2L/100km combined claim, we saw a real-world combined figure of 8.0L/100km (Kia claims 8.2L/100km in urban conditions), and quickly approached the 10L/100km mark when driving predominantly around town – meaning a realistic 450-500km range from the Rio's 45L fuel tank.
Tyre roar isn't great either, particularly at higher speeds. So, one has to choose between constant noise from the road or turning up the audio full blast – the latter proved more bearable.
The Rio's saving grace, however, is its fantastic ride and handling, which maintains its composure at higher speeds, while the steering through corners is almost good enough to be considered sporty.
Something we noticed towards the end of our time with the car as well, was a squeak coming from the plastic surrounding the instrument cluster. It was intermittent, though was incredibly annoying especially over rougher surfaces which only made things worse. A week later, the same noise could be heard from the higher-spec SLi we tested (review coming soon), so it could be a production issue.
In terms of ownership, the entire Rio range is covered by Kia's industry-leading seven year, unlimited kilometre warranty, complemented by seven years capped-price servicing and roadside assistance.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, with each visit costing between $226 and $561, translating to $885 over the first three years, and $2441 for the life of the seven-year schedule.
In conclusion, the Rio could really be something great, but is fundamentally flawed by its old-generation powertrain, expensive price, and the fairly sparse and budget-feeling cabin plastics.
In its current form at least, the Rio just feels incomplete. So Kia, please please please bring us the 88kW/172Nm 1.0-litre turbo triple with the six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmission offered overseas, or at least a six-speed auto to go with the 1.4.
With a more sophisticated powertrain and more soft-touch plastics in the cabin, the little Kia hatch would easily be deserving of an eight or more.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the 2017 Kia Rio below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.