Kia's flagship small car is approaching premium territory, at least in terms of price. Can it play with the big boys at the higher end of the light car segment?
Korean manufacturers have made huge leaps in recent years in terms of quality and technology, catching up to – if not, in some instances, overtaking – many of the established Japanese brands, and even challenging the Europeans.
Kia, for example, has been on a streak of hits with its recent models – like the Sorento, the Sportage, the Optima, and soon the Stinger – with its ability to offer near-premium levels of quality and technology for the same price as its mainstream competitors.
The smaller Rio has also been a success, though not to the same extent in more recent years, as the previous-generation model slowly fell behind newer offerings from Honda, Mazda, Skoda and Volkswagen. However, Kia hopes to add another strong player to its arsenal with its all-new fourth-generation Rio, which launched earlier this year.
Having already tested the mid-spec Si grade, this week we are behind the wheel of the most expensive Rio you can buy – the SLi.
Starting at $22,990 before on-road costs, the Rio SLi is $1500 more than the Si, and $6000 more than the entry-level S manual. That's also $1800 more than the DSG-equipped Volkswagen Polo 81TSI Comfortline and $500 less than a Skoda Fabia 81TSI Monte Carlo.
Over the S and Si, the SLi gains 16-inch alloy wheels, climate control air conditioning with auto defog, an upgraded driver's instrument display, alloy sports pedals, soft-touch door armrests, chrome highlights on the window belt line, solar glass on the windscreen and front doors, privacy glass on the rear doors and tailgate, automatic wipers, electric tilt/slide sunroof, 'premium' leather-look seats, electrochromatic rear-view mirror, and arrow-shaped LED tail-lights.
Standard safety features include six airbags, ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, emergency brake assist, electronic stability control with traction control, vehicle stability management system and hill start assist.
However, no Rio – let alone the SLi – offers active safety systems like autonomous emergency braking (AEB), something the Fabia comes fitted with as standard equipment.
Compared to the Si, the top-spec Rio looks a little sportier and sophisticated, mainly thanks to the larger alloys, chrome highlights and LED tail-lights. The 'Platinum Graphite' exterior colour ($520), also adds a classy touch and a contrast to the shiny chrome.
Inside, the leatherette seats are supportive and comfy, while the trim itself could be mistaken for the actual thing – unlike the rubbery material we've seen in some Toyota and Lexus models.
Like the Si, the dash and doors are dominated by hard plastics, though the SLi picks up squishy door armrests – but these should really be standard across the range.
Also like lesser models in the range, the SLi's interior is dominated by hard plastics on the dash and doors, with the door armrests and front centre armrest the only sources of soft-touch materials.
However, the excellent 7.0-inch central infotainment system offers native satellite navigation along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, which is easy to use, offers snappy navigation between menus and is a huge step up from the previous-generation car.
The rear seats are comfortable, though legroom is marginal for taller passengers especially if they're sitting behind a taller driver. Two adults can fit comfortably, though three abreast is a pretty tight squeeze.
Kia has fitted ISOFIX child seat anchor points as standard for the two outer rear seats, along with a traditional anchor point for the middle seat.
Behind the second row is a 321L boot, which is slightly short of rivals like the Suzuki Baleno (355L), though it's a little more than the Skoda Fabia (305L) and well up on the Volkswagen Polo (280L).
Getting in the driver's seat, you're greeted by a lovely-looking leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel, while the driver's instrument cluster features an upgraded TFT display between the dials.
There's plenty of adjustment to find a comfortable driving position, and like the Si, the steering wheel has reach and rake adjustment.
Out on the road, the top-spec Rio is disappointingly familiar. The 1.4-litre four-pot and four-speed auto used in all grades of local models really take away from the driving experience, which would otherwise be pretty good.
Particularly with the climate control on, the Rio will struggle up hills, while overtaking takes a little more planning than it really should.
At city speeds it's adequate in terms of performance, while the well-sorted locally-tuned suspension irons out the lumps and bumps of Melbourne's urban roads without much fuss.
Once at speed there is little engine noise, though tyre roar over coarse surfaces can get a little intrusive – and this is an issue at all speeds.
The Rio's steering is light yet direct, helping to navigate through the city streets and tight carparks. Parking is also a breeze thanks to its compact dimensions, rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines, and rear parking sensors.
Once you leave the city, the Rio starts to show its weaknesses more and more. The engine struggles to reach higher speeds at a reasonable pace, requiring full throttle almost all the time to overtake or go up the slightest of inclines.
It's frustrating because once at speed the Rio is actually not bad, though again the tyre roar over rougher surfaces like country highways, is quite noticeable. Additionally, the engine is spinning at over 2500rpm at 100km/h, climbing to a little under 3000rpm at 110km/h, which generates a droney hum.
Rolling acceleration is probably the worst part of the driving experience, with the four-speed shifter seemingly confused as to which gear to choose when coming out of a slip lane or roundabout.
Trying to pull away from one of these situations is painfully slow, with the only answer being to mash the accelerator pedal and forcing the engine to rev all the way to the 6500rpm redline.
Having to choose between snail's pace and full throttle constantly means you find yourself driving very harsh, particularly over undulating roads, and struggling to commute smoothly. Switching to manual mode gives you a little more control, though you're still forced to extract every last kilowatt from the engine on anything other than a flat surface.
This isn't great for fuel consumption, either. Despite Kia claiming a combined figure of 6.2L/100km, we averaged around 9.0L/100km with mixed driving.
If you spend most of your time in town, however, you'll easily edge towards the 10L+/100km mark, which is just ludicrous for a car of this size.
Like all Kia models, the Rio is offered with the company's industry-leading seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, along with seven years capped-price servicing and roadside assistance.
Scheduled maintenance is every 12 months or 15,000km, with each visit costing between $226 and $561 for the first seven years. The cost for servicing over the lifetime of the capped-price servicing plan is $2441.
By comparison, the Volkswagen Polo 81TSI Comfortline equipped with the DSG transmission is covered for five years under capped price servicing, with each visit costing between $413 and $854, while the total servicing plan will set you back $2769 – over $300 more than the Kia and with two less visits.
To describe the new Kia Rio in one word, particularly in this top-spec trim, it would have to be; disappointing.
It's not because it's a 'bad' car, but because it could be so much better. The 1.4-litre engine and four-speed transmission seem like an afterthought and completely ruin the driving experience of what is otherwise an extremely capable little car.
With a more powerful engine – such as the 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo which will hopefully land later this year - and a better transmission, the Rio would easily be up there with the best in the class.
However, in its current form it's too expensive, too slow, and too thirsty to be considered as one of the leaders in the light car segment.
Is it still worth buying? Probably not in SLi trim. While the upgrades over the Si are pretty good considering the relatively small $1500 price hike, it's not enough to justify spending more on this than a top-spec Mazda 2 or Volkswagen Polo – both of which offer superior powertrains and interior quality.
The Si is probably the pick of the range in terms of value for money, but it too is let down by the same dated engine and transmission combo.
If you only drive around the city, it's probably worth considering the new Kia Rio – take it for a test drive and see whether you can live with the performance – but if you want something that's more of an all-rounder, there are plenty of better options out there. Such a shame.
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