Simplicity is a rare trait to have these days. Even cheap and cheerful urban runabouts like the Kia Rio S now include features that would have almost been considered science fiction 10 or 15 years ago.
Kia has, however, kept the Rio rather simple by modern standards. In its most basic S-trim, the little five-door hatch eschews fancy features and focuses instead on value. The six-speed manual kicks off from $16,990 plus on-road costs, though that list price means little with dealers always willing to cut a deal.
For your outlay you’ll get a 1.4-litre petrol engine producing 74kW and 133Nm matched to a six-speed manual. You’ll also find features like a 7.0-inch touchscreen equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a reversing camera, and dusk-sensing headlights as standout equipment highlights.
That puts the Rio in good stead against its competitors, some of which are saddled with five-speed transmissions, while others go without smartphone-capable audio units. Engine outputs sit around the middle of the pack, though anything from the 63kW Toyota Yaris to the 88kW Honda Jazz won’t feel dramatically different on the road.
While an automatic might be the first choice of most buyers, Kia has made its manual very user-friendly. The clutch is light and easy to operate in busy peak traffic, and the gearshift is well defined for a user-friendly experience.
Convenient then, as to extract the best performance from the Rio’s fairly pedestrian engine, you’ll need to work through the gears vigorously to keep the engine running eagerly. Peak torque isn’t available until 4000rpm and peak power at 6000rpm, yet nowhere in the rev range does the engine feel particularly robust.
As a point-to-point runabout, there’s no harm in that. The Rio can keep up with flowing traffic without being noisy or fussy about it. Noise at urban speeds is minimal, although get it out of town and engine and road noise become more prevalent.
By comparison, the dull and outdated four-speed auto version feels more sluggish and has a harder time at higher speeds, making the manual the far superior pick.
The Rio, as with other Kia models, gets ride and handling fine-tuned in Australia by Australian engineers. That might not sound significant, but given the somewhat unique conditions locally, it makes a difference.
You won’t mistake the Rio for anything other than a safe and sensible runabout, but for trips out of town, the ride over broken tarmac and neglected roads remains composed. Even dealing with speed humps and train tracks is no problem for the well-sorted Rio, which never crashed or jarred over any of the roads we sampled it on.
Inside room up front is generous, and with a wide lidded centre console between the front seats, the Rio feels more spacious than many rivals thanks to the impression of elbow room between occupants.
In the rear, the Rio holds up well too. Adults of average height will fit comfortably, although those over the odds for height won’t be as comfy. Further back, the 325-litre boot is also well-sized amongst competitors with 60:40 folding seats to load long or bulky items.
One of the ways Kia has kept a lid on price is by keeping the Rio S fairly basic on the inside.
The design of the dash itself is certainly nice, with a well-integrated set of controls for ventilation and an on-trend partially protruding screen, but all plastics are hard, there’s no brightwork, and the door cards lack any padding or decoration.
The black-on-black color scheme won’t thrill fashionistas either, but for its relative simplicity, the Rio should at least prove to be sturdy.
It’s all about that 7.0-inch screen, though, with the ability to link a smartphone and use apps and nav in a simple and safer way. There’s no built-in navigation, though, putting you at the mercy of mobile coverage in more rural areas.
Utilitarian aspects, like where to put your phone once it’s plugged in, are well covered too with a small shelf ahead of the gear shifter just right for your phone and wallet. The door bins are big enough to carry large bottles, and the centre cupholders will manage a can or smaller bottle packed in to the side of the handbrake.
As the entry-level model, the Rio S does do without some luxuries like cruise control, which can be added as an accessory for $300 fitted, along with more pressing safety omissions – in this instance Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB).
Even Kia’s slightly smaller Picanto now includes AEB (currently from $14,390 drive-away), however the Rio range is set for a shake-up later this year, at which point AEB is likely to be added. Kia lists full 'build and price' details here, and the full Rio brochure here. (links open in new tabs).
In its current form, the Rio still carries a five-star ANCAP rating (under the older, less stringent 2017 criteria) and comes with ABS brakes, stability control, six airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, a reversing camera and rear park sensors, plus two rear ISOFIX and three top-tether child seat mounting points.
Kia owners also enjoy one of Australia’s longest warranties with a seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and 12-month/15,000km capped-price service intervals. The first dealer visit will cost $226, then $382, $277, $561, $255, $470 and $270 as time goes on ($2441 all up) inclusive of all fluids and filters (whereas some brands charge extra for things like brake fluid and cabin filters). Kia's warranty is detailed here (opens in new tab).
Fuel consumption is officially rated at 5.6L/100km, however in real-world conditions skewed towards busy city driving, the end result settled on a higher 7.0L/100km – a figure not too far removed from what other cars in the class would deliver.
Competitively, the Rio faces some stiff competition. In Australia’s light-car class, the $16,990 Rio doesn’t look like a complete bargain against the relatively cut-price Honda Jazz and Mazda 2 Neo, both from $14,990 before on-road costs.
Not all things are equal, though. The Mazda 2 misses out on a touchscreen display and thus any type of smartphone mirroring, but counters that with standard AEB, push-button start, and cruise control. Warranty coverage is only a short three years.
On the Honda Jazz VTi, you do get one of the most versatile interiors of any light hatch, cruise control, and a 7.0-inch screen, but no CarPlay or Android Auto. However, the manual is only a five-speeder, making highway travel a high-revving, noisy affair, and again there’s no AEB safety net. Honda provides a more competitive five-year warranty.
Then there’s Australia’s most popular light car, the Hyundai Accent. It may be one of the oldest in its class, but to offset that, sharp $15,490 pricing and a slew of features including alloy wheels, cruise control, CarPlay compatibility, leather-look steering wheel and a much more powerful 103kW engine set the Accent Sport up to maintain that success.
As for deals, Honda currently has $15,990 drive-away pricing for the Jazz VTi, Mazda has the 2 Neo from $16,900 drive-away with a $500 bonus, and Hyundai has a $16,990 drive-away offer on the Accent Sport including free auto, though offers are subject to change.
Kia even has an enemy in its own backyard with the previously mentioned Picanto. Though it may be slightly smaller and less powerful, the Picanto comes with more equipment (like AEB and cruise control) plus the same infotainment package. Those that travel solo often might be hard-pressed to justify the extra spend on a Rio.
The list of potential distractions doesn’t stop there, though, with a laundry list of rivals including the sophisticated Volkswagen Polo, light but spacious Suzuki Swift, chic Renault Clio and ho-hum at best Holden Barina.
So without super-sharp pricing or an overstuffed features list, what makes the Rio stand out? Its simplicity is certainly part of the appeal, particularly for older drivers who might want a car that’s easy to understand without a steep learning curve to operate.
By the same token, first drivers will find the agreeable driving manners and easy to handle manual a great stepping-off point. Smartphone mirroring helps keep eyes on the road, and maybe not having AEB to lean back on could create more attentive young drivers, in theory.
Of course, list pricing is only part of the story. With a four-speed automatic, the Rio asks only $17,490 drive-away, meaning there’s no way you’ll ever hand over the $16,990 plus on-roads for the much better to drive manual model.
Buyers, the ball is in your court with this one. Though it may not set pulses racing or imaginations alight, the mix of user-friendliness and promise of long-term reliability (with a warranty to match) should help keep interest in the Rio ticking over steadily.
Though it may not be a segment leader, that’s no reason to turn your back on the Rio S entirely.