There was a time, not all that long ago, when new-car buyers on a budget could land a deal for under $10,000. As recently as 2013, the abominable Chery J1 city car could be yours for $9990.
Today, that psychological price barrier has crept ever upwards, partly because that’s just how the economy works, and partly because city cars no longer represent the bare bones of motoring. Even Australia’s cheapest cars are now crammed with enough comfort, convenience and technology to rival bigger and more expensive cars.
Case in point? The ever-popular Kia Rio hatch that, despite playing in the price-conscious city car segment, packs plenty of punch inside its diminutive dimensions.
This fourth-generation Rio first arrived on our shores in 2017, but to keep it fresh and contemporary it has undergone a facelift and a tech update. Of course, nothing is free, so that has meant small price rises across the range.
Crucially, you can still get into a Kia Rio for under that psychological $20,000 barrier, the Rio S in manual guise asking for $19,490 drive-away, up $1500 over the older model. An auto transmission asks for a $1000 premium.
The Sport sits in the middle of the Rio range, and in manual trim is priced at $21,490 drive-away, up $2300, with an auto transmission again commanding an even $1000 premium.
And then there’s the car we have on test here, the range-topping 2021 Kia Rio GT-Line, available only with a dual-clutch automatic and priced at a sharp $24,990 drive-away, up $1000 over the outgoing model. The price of automotive progress, where cramming ever more technology under the skin comes at a cost.
Our test car wore an optional coat of Mighty Yellow paint, adding $520 to the bottom line for an as-tested price of $25,525.60 drive-away (Kia does some price adjustments with stamp duty on the optional paint, so the final figure isn't car price, plus paint price, and may vary by state).
|2021 Kia Rio GT-Line|
|Engine||1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol|
|Power and torque||74kW at 4500rpm, 172Nm at 1500–4500rpm|
|Transmission||Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||5.3L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||7.0L/100km|
|Boot volume (min/max)||325L / 980L|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 stars (2017)|
|Warranty||7 years / unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Volkswagen Polo, Mazda 2, Toyota Yaris|
|Price as tested (ex on-road costs)||$25,525.60|
In terms of main rivals, the Rio GT-Line slots into the city car segment without raising too many eyebrows. The Mazda 2 G15 Evolve is currently being offered for $25,490 drive-away, while the slightly left-field Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo is currently being offered at $25,990 drive-away. And Toyota’s all-new Yaris has possibly played itself out of contention in the segment, its mid-spec Yaris SX wanting over $30,000 drive-away, no matter where you live.
Kia hasn’t skimped on this midlife update. Subtle changes to the LED headlights and a more pronounced front bumper are augmented by nicely designed and implemented quad-lamp LED fog lights.
Standard equipment highlights include 17-inch alloys, rain-sensing wipers, privacy glass, a new 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth connectivity, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, remote central locking with keyless entry, single-zone climate control, and alloy sports pedals.
External accoutrements include the GT-Line package that adds a spoiler, gloss-black mirror caps, dark chrome grille surround, and twin exhaust tips poking out of a GT-Line-exclusive rear diffuser.
Inside, the GT-Line offers a surprisingly well-resolved cabin. The seats might be trimmed in cloth, but effort has been put into the design and execution with contrast piping and some visually interesting contrast pattern on the seatbacks. The manually adjustable seats are comfortable and supportive, too.
Kia has thrown some nice textured materials at the cabin, including a faux carbon-fibre weave dash fascia. There’s some satin-finish alloy-look trim elements, too, while hard plastics are evident throughout.
Storage options are okay, if not overly abundant. There are a couple of cupholders in the centre console, while the central storage bin is on the small side. Still, the lid is covered in a nice fabric, ideal for resting weary elbows. Bottle holders can be found in all four doors.
The second row is surprisingly spacious, despite the Rio’s city car dimensions, with plenty of clearance in all key areas. There are no air vents back there, though, nor is there a fold-down armrest, which also eliminates cupholders. A single USB point does help keep devices topped up, though.
For those needing to snugly secure little kids, there are ISOFIX anchors on the outboard seats, while all three seatbacks feature top-tether points. Those seatbacks fold down in 60:40 split fashion to free up some cargo space, already generous at 325L with the second row in play. Dropping those back seats increases capacity to 980L. A space-saver spare lives under the boot floor.
What sets the GT-Line apart from its Rio stablemates can be found under the bonnet. The regular Rio range is powered by a 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder making 74kW and 133Nm mated to either a manual or conventional six-speed auto transmission.
But, the GT-Line comes equipped with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine offering the same 74kW as the four-pot further down the range, but with an impressively healthy 172Nm. Drive is sent to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch auto. It's a small backwards step from last year's 88kW/172Nm output, but not pronounced enough to notice day-to-day.
Straight off the bat, the three-pot is a charming and engaging little unit. There’s plenty of poke down low, thanks to peak torque coming on song at just 1500rpm and staying there until 4000rpm. That makes for quick getaways from standstill and surprisingly decent rolling acceleration for overtakes or merging as needed.
The seven-speed dual-clutch can show some hesitant signs, taking a fraction too long to engage at take-off. Once on the move, though, the DCT works away pretty well.
One thing to note, there are three drive modes – Eco, Comfort and Sport – that alter throttle response and engine mapping. Eco takes the edge off everything a fraction, while Sport adds some sharpness to the throttle and allows the engine to rev out just a little longer than Comfort.
Be aware, though, the mapping defaults to Eco after each restart, leaving the GT-Line feeling a little doughy until you remember and reset to Comfort (or Sport, if that’s your thing). To our mind, the default should be Comfort. Minor gripe, but annoying.
There are no paddle-shifters for changing your own ratios, although the GT-Line does provide manual shifting via the gear lever.
On the road, the Rio GT-Line has a tendency to fidget, the suspension tune married to large alloys shod in thin-sidewall Continentals making it a touch firm for its natural habitat around town. There’s a jiggly quality to the ride over roughshod roads, not bone-jarringly so, but you are aware of it. It comes into its own, though, when you want to explore some of its mildly warm performance credentials, where the GT-Line can be surprisingly engaging.
It’s no pocket rocket, but there’s enough pep from that little three-cylinder engine to have some fun. Fun amplified by a pleasant but muted growl typical of engines like this, while the lightweight (1197kg tare) remains agile and nicely planted.
Kia claims the GT-Line will use 5.3L/100km on the combined cycle, and after a week with the car, a week spent in traffic, out on the highway and some spirited fun for good measure, we saw an indicated 7.0L/100km. The Rio is happy to drink 91RON unleaded.
The Kia Rio range carries a five-star ANCAP rating awarded back in 2017, and while the GT-Line and Rio Sport score added safety tech – autonomous emergency braking with forward-collision warning, lane-keep assist and lane-departure warning – over the entry level Rio S, there are still some key omissions. There’s no blind-spot monitoring or rear cross-traffic alert, while the standard cruise control is not of the adaptive type.
Kia’s seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty continues to set the standard for consumer surety. Servicing intervals are 12 months or a slightly low 10,000km, whichever occurs first. The cost of servicing is capped for the life of the warranty and will set owners back a total of $3299 over seven years/70,000km. That’s an annual average of around $471.
The Kia Rio has always been an impressive little city car, and in GT-Line trim adds some zing to the drive experience. City cars have come a long way, both in terms of quality and equipment levels. The Kia Rio is certainly a funky take on the breed, and in GT-Line trim it offers a nice blend of practicality with enough performance to have some fun when the situation warrants.