Kia Rio 2019 gt-line, ŠKODA FABIA 2019 81 tsi monte carlo

2019 Kia Rio GT-Line v Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo comparison

Punchy pocket hatches square off

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They both have three-cylinder engines, and they're both sportier than the wider range. There are plenty of similarities between the Fabia and Rio – how do they stack up side-by-side?

A few years ago, comparing two small cars with 1.0-litre engines would've been a pretty dreary job. It's a very different story in 2019.

Introduced in October last year, the Kia Rio GT-Line has the engine and transmission we've wanted since the latest Rio launched. It's a sportier take on what has, until recently, been a fairly conservative entrant to the light-car segment, which puts it head-to-head with a new competitor set.

Among those competitors is the Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo. Like the Rio, it's a sportier take on what's otherwise a fairly mundane small car. And like the Rio, it's powered by a turbocharged three-cylinder engine displacing just one litre.

You can probably see where this is heading. Dust off your smallest set of boxing gloves, it's time for a pint-sized hatchback battle!


Pricing and specs

Both of these cars are the most expensive models in their respective ranges. The Rio GT-Line is listed at $23,090 before on-road costs, making it $5300 pricier than the next model in the line-up, the Sport with its 1.4-litre atmospheric four-cylinder engine.

The extra money gets you a better engine (more on that to come) along with a GT-Line bodykit, LED headlights with daytime running lights and fog lights, LED tail-lights, and a set of 17-inch alloy wheels.

Autonomous emergency braking and lane-keeping assist are both standard kit, supplementing the reversing camera and rear parking sensors included across the range, and there are six airbags in the cabin.

The headlights and wipers are automatic, and the rear-view mirror is of the auto-dimming variety.

As we've come to expect of European cars and their Korean counterparts, the Fabia Monte Carlo is a bit pricier than the Rio, although not by as much as you might've imagined.

You're up for $25,490 drive-away and, like the Rio, you get a sportier bodykit than the standard car, along with 17-inch alloy wheels.

LED lights, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic lighting and wipers, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror are all included with the Vision Pack, a $1400 option.

Autonomous emergency braking is standard, as is a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors.

Although both cars are top-spec models, neither offers keyless entry or start. That's right, you actually need to take the key from your pocket and turn it to get them both started. Ugh.

It's close, but the Kia's more generous standard spec and lower starting price give it the win here.

Model Kia RioSkoda Fabia
Variant GT-Line 81TSI Monte Carlo
Price as tested $23,090$26,890
Made inKoreaCzech Republic
AirbagsSixSix
City AEB YesYes
Reverse cameraYesYes
ANCAP ratingFive stars (2017)Five stars (2015)
Push-button startNoNo
Keyless entryNoNo
Seat trimCloth, faux leatherCloth
Cruise controlYesYes
Speed limiter NoYes
Electric windows FourFour
Touchscreen 7.0-inch6.5-inch
Apple CarPlay, Android AutoYesYes
Factory navigationNoOptional, not fitted
USB portsTwoOne
Air-conditioningManualManual
Dusk-sensing headlights YesYes
Daytime running lights LEDLED

Cabins

Both our competitors are the most luxurious offerings in their respective ranges, but they go about things in very different ways. Kia hasn't focused too heavily on sportiness, instead opting to lift the Rio's cabin with nicer materials than the regular range.

For starters, the dashboard is trimmed in a carbon-style weave reserved for the GT-Line. Sounds kitschy, looks cool.

The steering wheel (shared with the Sport) is trimmed in lovely perforated leather, and the gear lever is trimmed in a material resembling cowhide, as are the seat bolsters. The seat itself is finished in cloth with white, patterned inserts, and does a good job supporting a wide range of body shapes.

It drops down low, and slides back far enough for even gangly legged me. Coupled with a steering wheel that telescopes out to meet the driver, it grants the Rio a better driving position than the Skoda.

Infotainment comes courtesy of a 7.0-inch touchscreen standing proud of the dashboard. It doesn't have navigation (nor does the Skoda), but you get smartphone mirroring as standard. The graphics are clear, responses are sharp, and the general layout is intelligent.

Neither car offers rear air vents, but the Rio does have a USB charge point for the second row – you can option extra ports for the Fabia as part of the $1800 Technology Package.

There's a greater general sense of space in the Rio, too. It's 73mm longer than the Skoda and has a 90mm-longer wheelbase, although the Czech is 7mm wider and 17mm taller. That manifests in better rear legroom and, despite the fact it's narrower, a broader centre console.

My girlfriend and I spent our time in the Fabia jockeying for elbow space on the central armrest – a battle we didn't fight in the Rio. Curious.

In keeping with its Monte Carlo badging, the Skoda adopts a sportier persona behind the wheel. The seats are trimmed in red, white and black cloth, and hug you more tightly than those in the Rio, while the steering wheel has been nicked from Sportline models. It's nice to hold, and looks neat.

With a black headliner, matte carbon-effect trim on the dashboard, black trim on the doors, and very little in the way of colour around any of the air-conditioning controls, the Fabia is a darker, moodier place to spend time. All-around visibility is excellent, though – the car's tall roof line, big windows and slim pillars make it something of a throwback when it comes to over-the-shoulder vision.

In keeping with Skoda's long-running 'Simply Clever' tagline, the Fabia comes with a few (simply) clever little touches around the cabin. There's a bin in the door, an umbrella in the glovebox, and a multifunction organiser in the cupholders, all of which are handy.

The door trims and central armrest are softer than those in the Rio, too, although rear legroom is tight. Headroom, on the other hand, is excellent back there thanks to the car's boxy profile.

Infotainment comes courtesy of a 6.5-inch touchscreen display integrated into the dashboard, and once again lacking factory navigation (a $950 option). Smartphone mirroring is available. It's functional, but it doesn't feel quite fresh like the Rio's system, and sits further from the driver – not ideal if you're into ergonomics.

Materials in both are hard and scratchy, from the dashboard to the doors. Don't think about it too hard – when was the last time you prodded your car's dashboard? Build quality feels good in both cars, with no rattles or squeaks rearing their ugly heads during our time with them.

There isn't much to split the pair in the boot. Kia says the Rio will hold 325L with the rear seats in place, 20L more than the Fabia, but Skoda counters with neat touches like a size-adjustable boot organiser and a smattering of pockets in the boot walls.

Not much separates them, but the Rio's greater sense of space and more vibrant dash design hand it the win here.

Model Kia Rio Skoda Fabia
Length4070mm3997mm
Width1725mm1732mm
Height1450mm1467mm
Wheelbase 2580mm2470mm

Drivetrain

They're both 1.0-litre, turbocharged three-cylinder engines, but the Kia and Skoda's engines have distinct characters. With 81kW and 200Nm on tap, the Fabia wades into battle with 4kW less power than the Rio, but a handy 28Nm more torque.

Volkswagen Group has been in the three-pot game a long time now, and it shows. The mill in the Fabia is a smooth, effortless little companion from idle, thrumming happily away as it surfs the wave of torque on offer between 2000 and 3500rpm.

The dual-clutch transmission errs on the side of economy, rarely letting the tachometer rise above 3000rpm in day-to-day driving, and snapping unobtrusively from gear-to-gear in the background. It can take some coaxing to make it downshift, though, thanks to that eco-minded tuning.

In isolation, the Rio's engine is a strong performer. It has the same thrumming, offbeat note as the Skoda, but there's more vibration in the cabin at idle, and needs to be worked harder to deliver the same performance.

Whereas you don't need to push beyond 3000rpm in the Skoda, the Rio regularly runs beyond that mark, bringing with it more noise and vibration. It isn't unpleasant, but it's not as effortless.

Both engines are pulling 1900rpm at 80km/h and 2100rpm at 100km/h, at which point they're both nearly silent. Highway cruising used to be a chore in city cars like these, but this pair feel perfectly happy eating up the kilometres. With that said, the Skoda is happier to kick down when it comes time to overtake, and generally feels peppier when you lean on the throttle in top gear.

The extra polish in the Skoda's powertrain is evident in its start/stop system. Whereas the Rio shudders on shutdown, the Fabia quietly does what needs doing. While the Rio lurches to life like a wide-eyed movie character waking from a fever dream, the Fabia hops happily out of bed. That's slightly melodramatic, but you get the idea.

We'd recommend turning both systems off, for what it's worth, but the boffins at Skoda have the more refined set-up.

Despite being a less-willing performer than the Fabia, the Rio is thirstier on paper and on the road. Kia claims 5.8L/100km on the combined cycle, but we saw 6.5L/100km on our mixed highway and city road loop.

Skoda claims 4.7L/100km and returned 5.5L/100km. That's a meaningful difference, especially given the Fabia's stronger performance.

Kia wins back some points with its dual-clutch transmission. It isn't as snappy as the Skoda's on the move – there aren't many transmissions as snappy as the Skoda's, it's uncanny how quickly it bangs through the gears – but feels ever-so-slightly smoother off the line. It's almost as if Kia's engineers have tuned in some extra willingness to ride the clutch(es), rather than engaging too sharply.

It's just a bit more natural than the DSG if you're used to spending time with a torque converter. With that said, the transmission in our Fabia tester was one of the smoother movers we've encountered.

The combination of a small-capacity engine and a DCT proved problematic in our long-term Polo 85TSI, but it was a non-issue in the Monte Carlo. As for why? That's a good question.

With more grunt, better refinement and meaningfully thriftier economy in the real world, the Skoda wins easily here.


Ride and handling

Despite their sportier-than-stock billing, neither of these cars is an outright hot hatch. That's reflected in their suspension tunes, although one of the pair is definitely firmer.

That would be the Fabia. If the Monte Carlo badges don't give it away, the blacked-out rims and slim sidewalls should.

It's definitely firmer than the Kia around town. Sharper-edged impacts are more noticeable in the cabin and tightly packed imperfections make their presence known more readily, thanks to what feels like stiff compression damping. Rebound damping is measured in a way the Rio's just isn't, the car settling well after impacts.

Body control is really good. Bumps are dealt with in one movement, and there's no wallowing after an impact. Is it uncomfortable? No, not really. But the car's sportier bent is definitely apparent.

By process of elimination, that makes the Rio a more languid companion. It's more relaxed over bumps, with what feels like longer compression stroke than the Skoda. The trade-off is looser body control.

The car takes longer to settle over bumps and allows more lateral motion than its Czech rival, which makes for a bit more head-wobbling from passengers.

You also get more noise in the cabin, with audible bumps, thuds and thwacks sneaking through the Rio's defences in a way they don't in the Fabia. In fact, it's an all-around noisier place to spend time. The difference is small on smooth highway, but when the road surface deteriorates it becomes quite pronounced.

Sling either car into a corner, and they respond with the sort of poise you'd expect of a warm hatchback. The Skoda is a bit keener to turn and sits flatter in the bends, but the Rio is no slouch either. It's happy to be manhandled and is poised under duress, thanks in part to the ContiSport Contact 2 tyres.

There's plenty of fun to be had in both cars, and because they're not making an obscene amount of power and torque, you can go flat out without fear of losing your licence. How many cars can make that claim?

Splitting the two is tricky, but the Skoda ultimately blends ride and handling better than the Rio. It's also more refined from behind the wheel. Chalk up a victory to the Fabia, then.


Service and warranty

Kia's seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty is unmatched in the industry. That gives the Rio a pretty handy advantage over the Fabia, which has a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.

The Skoda does claw back some ground when it comes to running costs. Maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km and, with a service plan, will cost a total of $760 over three years or $1600 over five years.

Meanwhile, the Rio needs looking at every 12 months or 10,000km, and will set you back $2027 in the first five years of ownership under Kia's capped-price plan.

Maths geniuses among you will already have worked this out, but that makes the Rio pricier to service by $427.

Your priorities will play a role in determining a winner here. After all, $427 will buy you a lot of drinks, but the Rio's longer warranty is worth its weight in gold. Call it a draw.


VERDICT

For me, the Skoda is the more convincing package. The interior isn't quite as nice as the Kia's (and it's more expensive to buy), but it counters with a powertrain that's meaningfully more refined.

The DSG isn't perfect, but the Fabia is a better drive than the Rio, simple as that. The engine is smoother, punchier and more economical to boot, and the balance between body control and bump absorption is better judged. To make things really simple, it's just nicer to drive most of the time.

It's also a quieter companion on the highway, not that these cars are likely to spend too much of their time outside of town.

Don't take that to mean the Kia is a bad car. It's a perky little thing, with a practical interior and nimble handling. It also looks great, especially in yellow.

You can't really go wrong, but the Fabia takes the narrowest of victories.

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