We match up high-spec Rio and Swift models to find the best turbocharged, $25,000 teeny.
The city-car segment is haemorrhaging famous nameplates in Australia. Holden Barina, Renault Clio and Ford Fiesta (with the sole exception of the ST hot-hatch variant) are gone, and the Honda Jazz is soon departing.
Two long-term members – the Kia Rio and Suzuki Swift – are sticking in there, however, looking to scrap for market share in a category shrinking in both number and sales.
While China’s bargain-priced MG 3 is dominating the category – currently accounting for nearly one in five sales – the latest-generation Toyota Yaris seems to be performing an act of self-sabotage by pricing itself more like a car from the next segment up.
Updates for 2020 also help their causes. The Kia Rio has just emerged with its first major upgrade since the fourth-generation model was released in 2017. And Suzuki has just introduced a Series II of the fifth-generation Swift that also launched three years ago.
Styling changes are very subtle in both cases (lower-grade Rio models gain more of an exterior tweak), with equipment changes fairly minor for the Swift and fairly major for the Rio.
Pricing and equipment
Fortunately, the Yaris hasn’t started a pricing trend. Both the updated Rio and Swift are available from below $20,000 with on-road costs included. However, the variants competing in the comparison have both increased in price.
The Rio GT-Line has crept up again, rising from its 2019 $23,090 sticker to $23,990 (or from an initial $21,990 driveaway offer to $24,490 drive-away). The Swift GLX Turbo has made a similar driveaway jump, from $22,990 to $25,290.
Unless you stick with white exterior paint in each case, drive-away prices increase to $25,290 (Rio) and $25,885 (Swift) with other colours.
Swift buyers also have some customisation options – such as various accessory decals and a roof spoiler – which they can choose, along with body colour, with Suzuki’s contender for World’s Best Online Car Configurator (inspired by arcade-style games).
Kia's accessory range sticks with the more conservative floor mats, headlight protectors and the like.
Both the GT-Line and GLX Turbo offer extra trinkets and performance over lower-grade models.
LED headlights and daytime running lights are shared, though the Rio GT-Line extends its LED exterior lighting to the cool-looking quad-lamp fog lights.
The Kia’s 17-inch alloy wheels are also a size up on the Suzuki’s 16-inch alloys, and it includes auto wipers.
In the Suzuki’s corner are keyless start, factory navigation, paddle-shift levers and adaptive cruise control.
Cloth seats, leather steering wheels, climate control, electric folding, heated side mirrors, rear parking sensors and privacy glass are all shared features.
|2021 Kia Rio GT-Line||2021 Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo|
|Engine configuration||1.0-litre 3-cyl turbo petrol||1.0-litre 3-cyl turbo petrol|
|Power and torque||74kW @ 4500rpm, 172Nm @ 1500-4000rpm||82kW @ 5500rpm, 160Nm @ 1500-4000rpm|
|Transmission||7-speed dual-clutch auto||6-speed auto|
|Drive type||front-wheel drive||front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||5.3L/100km||5.1L/100km|
|fuel use on test||7.4L/100km||6.6L/100km|
|Boot volume (rear seats up / down)||325L / 980L||242L / 918L|
|Turning circle||10.2 metres||9.6 metres|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 (tested 2017)||5 (tested 2017)|
|Warranty||7 years / unlimited km||5 years / unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Mazda 2, Suzuki Swift, Toyota Yaris||Kia Rio, Mazda 2, Toyota Yaris|
|Price as tested||$24,490 drive-away||$25,290 drive-away|
Infotainment and technology
The Rio now has one of the best infotainment systems in the segment, not only adopting the company’s larger, 8.0-inch touchscreen for 2020, but adding wireless connection for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – a rare feature for any car currently, let alone one as affordable as the Kia.
We’re looking forward to the day cars go USB-cord-free, though one is still needed in the Rio if you want to charge your phone, with wireless charging still off the table for now.
Although the touchscreen interface isn’t particularly vibrant, it scores plenty of points for its presentation, responsiveness and simplicity of use. The screen real estate doesn’t need to be any bigger for this size of car, either.
The Swift’s touchscreen may be only an inch down in size, yet it seems smaller than that. It would also have welcomed an upgrade for 2020 as the interface is very basic, if not terrible in presentation. And at least navigation is embedded unlike the Rio, and smartphone phones can be plugged in to access Apple CarPlay or Android Auto displays.
In the context of the new Yaris’s commendable safety play with a comprehensive list of standard technologies, there are some important updates for the Rio, and a bolstering of the Swift GLX’s driver aids.
The Rio GT-Line (as well as the mid-spec Sport) now comes with forward-collision warning, lane-keeping assistance, driver-attention monitoring (via camera and sensors), and high-beam assist. (The Rio Sport also gains autonomous emergency braking with vehicle/pedestrian/cyclist detection, which was previously standard on the GT-Line.)
The lane-keeping aid, however, is yet another version of this so-called driver assistance system that is too intrusive and will prompt many drivers to switch it off (via steering wheel buttons and the small digital display in the instrument panel).
Over in the Swift, there’s lane-departure warning that only vibrates the steering wheel and flashes a visual warning if the system detects the vehicle drifting into another lane.
The GLX Turbo already featured AEB, high-beam assist, fatigue monitoring (dubbed Weave Alert) and adaptive cruise control, and for 2020 it adds blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring – two related features not available on the Rio GT-Line (and standard only on the flagship Yaris ZR that costs nearly $34,000 drive-away).
Another notable improvement for the 2020 Swift: it now features a digital speedo.
The Rio’s new infotainment touchscreen and climate-control panel add to the Kia’s relatively mature interior design – on a par in this respect with the VW Polo, if not overall perceived quality.
There are some trim elements that break up the deluge of hard plastic, including some fabric used on the doors (including the armrest), gloss-black vent surrounds, and the mid-dash section that mimics carbon-fibre weave to provide a more interesting surface texture than found elsewhere.
If that adds a dash of sportiness to the cabin, so does the GT-Line steering wheel with its smooth/perforated leather wrap and flattened bottom.
The nicely cushioned seats also look quite smart with their white stitching and white piping.
The Swift’s front seats match the excellent comfort of the Rio’s pews, but add extra support with more pronounced side bolstering.
Suzuki’s approach to cabin design continues to be very much a no-frills affair, though. Interiors these days don’t come much more basic. Even the super-cheap MG 3’s cabin provides more visual interest.
The Swift even persists with old-school twiddle tips on the instrument cluster for changing between trip read-outs.
Ergonomics are also off the mark in some areas. The window switches aren’t placed in natural reach of the driver’s right hand, the front-passenger footwell is slightly cramped (the shape of the Swift’s tub pushing the passenger’s legs to the right), it’s too easy to put the gear lever in M (manual) rather than D (drive), and the trio of climate dials can be confusing.
Both our testers unknowingly did the same thing – instinctively trying to turn the middle dial that features the temperature, but discovering only the left and right dials move to control either temp or fan speed. Owners would quickly get used to it, no doubt, but intuitive it’s not.
The GLX adds one-touch windows all round for 2020 (whereas the Kia sticks with an auto window only for the driver) and heated side mirrors (which the Kia matches).
Buyers looking for the most practical city car will lose the most convincing option by far when Honda eventually deletes the Jazz from showrooms.
The Swift and Rio still provide some useful rear-seat space, though – and more than you’ll find in the Mazda 2.
Older teens and taller adults alike will find plenty of clearance above their heads, good foot room underneath the front seats, and decent knee space.
Ingress and egress are particularly good in the Rio’s case. The Swift has the edge in bench comfort, including a touch more leg room – impressive considering it’s one of the shortest cars in its class at 3.84m (the Rio is 4.07m).
Neither model provides a rear centre armrest or rear ventilation (typical for the segment). The Rio adds another USB port in the back.
If boot space were a sporting league, the Swift would be in the relegation zone with its capacity of just 242L.
The Rio would be at the better end of the table with 325L, if still shy of the ‘championship leader’, the 355L Suzuki Baleno, which despite larger dimensions still occupies the same segment (and counting out the 530L Skoda Fabia wagon on the technicality of it not being a hatchback).
While quoted luggage capacity figures can sometimes be deceptive, in the real world the Rio’s boot is clearly larger/longer than the Swift’s.
Both have 60/40 folding rear seatbacks, though neither creates a fully flat extended cargo area. A temporary spare wheel sits under each boot floor.
Cheaper versions of the Rio and Swift are powered by normally aspirated engines with very modest performance (to put it politely).
The Rio GT-Line (still a relatively fresh variant, introduced in 2018) and Swift GLX Turbo both feature what is becoming the predominant drivetrain in both the $25,000-plus city car and light-SUV segments: a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder.
Kia would have had the upper hand on power, but for 2020 it chose to detune the GT-Line’s engine from 88kW to 74kW in favour of a fractional fuel-economy improvement.
The Swift GLX is ahead with 82kW, though the Rio retains a slight torque advantage: 172Nm versus 160Nm. Maximum torque in both cars is produced between 1500 and 4000rpm – demonstrating the drivability advantage turbo engines in the class have over normally aspirated engines, which typically don’t develop their pulling power until much higher in the rev range.
You don’t have to be overly enthusiastic with accelerator pedals to appreciate there’s some respectable performance provided by these circa-$25K front-wheel-drive city cars.
However, there is an initial sluggishness to the Rio that seems to have less to do with turbo lag and more to do with the GT-Line’s seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
Although the dual-clutch auto is quicker to react to changing gradients than the Swift’s regular six-speed automatic, the Suzuki’s gearbox gels with its engine more effectively more of the time.
The Swift feels sprightlier when taking off from standstill, such as from junctions or roundabouts, and generally accelerates with greater smoothness than the Rio.
On a light throttle, you’ll just notice the auto’s calibration is skewed towards fuel economy with a liking for high gears and low revs – when vibrations can make it feel like the engine is labouring, despite the Suzuki having sufficient torque to accelerate without shifting down a gear. There’s a similar experience in the Polo.
Manual gearboxes aren’t offered with these higher-grade models. For those owners who might like to determine gear selection now and again, the Rio’s auto includes a tipshift function via the gear lever, but the Swift is even better with its steering wheel paddles.
However, both cars ultimately override the driver and change up automatically, making the pseudo-manual modes better at prompting an overtaking downshift than for true spirited driving.
The fuel-economy improvement for the Rio brings official consumption down from 5.4 to 5.3 litres per 100km. That gets it closer to the Swift GLX’s 5.1L/100km, though our testing pointed to a bigger advantage to the Suzuki.
After a loop featuring city suburbs, outer suburbs and country roads (with a spot of spirited driving), the Swift GXL Turbo registered a fairly thrifty 6.6L/100km compared with 7.4L/100km for the Rio GT-Line.
The Swift forgoes a stop-start system; the Rio doesn’t, though its system is slow to disengage the engine – which also wobbles somewhat uncouthly to a stop.
There’s an important caveat for the turbocharged Swift, however. The engine needs to be fed 95RON premium fuel at a minimum, whereas the Kia’s three-cylinder accepts regular unleaded.
On the road
The Suzuki Swift has historically followed a fun-to-drive mantra, and nothing changed with the fourth-generation model.
The new platform shed 30kg despite being stronger than before, so while the GLX Turbo is the heaviest Swift in the range, it weighs only 945kg – making it one of the lightest cars in its category.
Most rivals weigh about 1100kg, or more in the case of the Rio GT-Line that tips in at 1197kg.
Lightness benefits fuel consumption, performance, and also handling. And whether you’re driving around town at low speed or taking a more enthusiastic approach on a country road, the agile-feeling Swift imparts a sense of enjoyment from behind the wheel.
The steering is well weighted and more direct than your average city car’s tiller, while its lightness makes parking manoeuvres effortless.
Suzuki’s engineers have also ensured the Swift’s enjoyable handling hasn’t come at the expense of ride comfort, with its supple suspension absorbing bumps nicely. That includes dealing well with patchily surfaced country roads.
On these roads, which on our test day weren’t quite dry after some light drizzle, the Rio GT-Line’s sportier Continental rubber exhibited significantly more grip than the GLX’s more economy-focused tyres.
This doesn’t make the Kia a more enjoyable drive, however. Despite its tyre grip, the GT-Line is more naturally inclined than the Swift to push wide in a corner, while the Rio’s steering doesn’t give the driver the same sense of command over the car’s front end.
The Kia’s steering is also less fluid than the Swift’s, and is surprisingly heavy at parking speeds. And whereas it’s easy to brake the Suzuki smoothly to a standstill, the Rio’s firmer and more wooden-feeling brake pedal isn’t as easy to modulate.
Springs and dampers also seem to have been set up more for a car bearing the GT-R rather than GT-Line badge. The result is often an annoyingly jittery ride as the Rio’s body experiences rapid vertical oscillations.
The Rio is backed by Kia’s superb seven-year warranty, giving GT-Line owners an extra couple of years of peace of mind compared with a Swift GLX owner.
Kia’s servicing is a bit more expensive, with its capped-price program costing $1081 over three years or $2077 over five years. For the same periods, dealership maintenance for the Suzuki costs $807 and $1475.
Kia adds some value with roadside assistance, which is renewed annually with each scheduled service. Suzuki offers roadside assistance with its Vitara and Jimny models only.
Service intervals for both models are a short 10,000km.
The first significant updates for the current-generation Kia Rio and Suzuki Swift are not exactly extensive, yet the small changes are welcome and worthwhile.
While it's a shame the Swift GLX Turbo has followed the GT-Line's with a price increase of about 10 per cent over its initial launch (driveaway) cost, both models still undercut the Volkswagen Polo 85TSI, which is our current city-car benchmark but costs from $26,950 drive-away.
The Kia Rio offers a couple of ownership advantages here that are particularly important at the budget end of motoring: a longer warranty and the option to use cheaper fuel. (The warranty and 91RON fuel are also advantages over the Polo.)
And compared with the Swift, the Rio also brings a boot-space advantage, a more mature cabin presentation, and the better infotainment system – including the notable wireless smartphone integration.
That will be enough for some buyers to hand over $25,000 to Kia.
With the Swift, the GLX’s 2020 price increase doesn’t entirely compensate buyers with its limited equipment additions but its value equation remains strong - especially when compared with a Yaris SX.
Although there’s big room for improvement on perceived quality and ergonomics (the best seats here aside), the Swift can delight owners every time they drive it. It offers a more comfortable ride than the Rio, it’s more effortless to park and manoeuvre, and it has a sprightliness to its handling and performance that the Rio GT-Line simply can’t match.
Add in the standard driver aids the Rio doesn’t offer and, overall, that pushes the Swift GLX Turbo in front.
The bulk of matters have been well-covered above. However, there’s always a flip-side to the same story.
The Kia Rio GT-Line falls short when assessing key attributes that its wiser, more astute target market will likely prioritise – things like manoeuvrability, overall ride and handling, and advanced driver-assist systems.
However, a different demographic, likely younger, some buying their first car or others being provided with it, will have a different hierarchical scale of needs.
In the case of this audience, infotainment is likely up on the importance scale. The Kia Rio’s system is superior to the Swift’s, which almost feels aftermarket.
Response times, its overall user interface, and ability to wirelessly mirror a smartphone set the standard for vehicles in this class. Gone will be excuses of “I didn’t have my phone cable” when it comes to text-messaging friends on the roll. A godsend for any slightly concerned parent.
What else is of interest to this mob? Second-row space is another sure bet, as is boot space, too.
The Kia is on the same playing field in terms of second-row space, but its boot is far ahead – 83L, or an increase of 34 per cent, if you want to embellish the point. Runs to the beach, touring regional Australia, a beautiful new-found domestic replacement for going overseas – all things a young up-and-comer has time and freedom to do.
If they’re coming from a mediocre base, be it a used older car or even zero base, as in no car, they’ll likely not have the experience of elder folk. I strongly believe those who see car ownership as something akin to a dentist, AKA a necessary evil, will care more about how it adds to their life, not how it moves their life.
Capping off the case to the jury are long-term costs. Having your kids take on the responsibility of maintenance, fuelling and cleaning is a great deal – if that’s their only financial commitment to the car.
The Kia runs on cheaper fuel and has better warranty credentials, though does ask more for servicing. As a sweet kicker, if they keep it serviced within the network, they also receive seven years' worth of roadside assistance, too.
Its strengths will be favourable to a broad set of this demographic. I’m not brushing all of today’s youth the same, mind you. I’m aware of a few, younger members of my extended family that are actively avoiding self-shifting transmissions.
Such behaviour underscores that some P-platers do value the experience of driving over experiencing it as self-guided transport. I think this ‘passionate drivers’ group, as I've just coined them, are seldom found. One-in-a-100 types.
For those other 99, I’d say the Rio is up their alley. They’ll throw their mates in, pack it to the rafters, and generally not know, or care about, what they’re missing out on.