For a first driver, young family or seasoned veteran, light cars are both the suitable and sensible choice. They're the class of car containing the Kia Rio, Suzuki Swift and Mazda 2 that sits underneath the small segment, home of the Kia Cerato, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf.
As a class below in size, they're naturally cheaper. For a first driver, they're an affordable option, and safer than something old. The same applies for a young family too. The ones willing to sacrifice space for advanced driver-assist systems and the latest structural safety cell. For the seasoned veteran, they represent the sweet spot of purchase price and ongoing running costs.
Sales figures further add clout to the light car. In to the end of May 2021 alone, almost 20,000 examples have been homed by Aussies, and seeing the segment grow 30.9 per cent versus this time last year (admittedly, after a turbulent 2020). Affordability is a big driver of growth, as are newer value-players, something reflected in emerging brand MG claiming the number-one spot in the segment after a short period of time.
It's been enough to see legacy players like Honda discontinue its Jazz for the next generation, alongside others like Ford with its Fiesta, and Renault with its Clio, pull regular models from Australia.
However, some brands are persisting, and still selling cars too. The Kia Rio has become old faithful of the segment, having been continually sold in Australia for the past 21 years. It sits in fourth place in terms of overall sales this year, one spot above the Volkswagen Polo and one behind the Suzuki Swift.
Our test car is the mid-tier 2021 Kia Rio Sport priced from $23,490 drive-away with an automatic. The only available option is one of six other hues than white, each costing $520. There are some nice choices on the list, too, with a smart-looking metallic blue and bright yellow offered alongside the usual subdued palette of greys and black.
|2021 Kia Rio Sport|
|Engine configuration||1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol|
|Power and torque||74kW at 6000rpm, 133Nm at 4000rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed torque-converter automatic|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||6.0L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||7.4L/100km|
|Boot volume (rear seats up/down)||300L/1078L|
|ANCAP safety rating||Five star (tested 2017)|
|Warranty||Seven years, Unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Mazda 2, Suzuki Swift, Toyota Yaris|
|Price as tested||$23,490 drive-away|
It's possible to make the Rio Sport cheaper by picking a six-speed manual transmission for $1000 less, otherwise there's cheaper entry-level Rio S model that sits underneath it. Both variants the same 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and six-speed torque converter automatic.
Power outputs are a humble 74kW/133Nm. The wee engine offers enough to keep it out of trouble in both highway and suburban situations, with the former just requiring a pinch of forethought before making decisions. The six-speed auto seems well matched for the task, and being of the torque-converter type means it's smooth and relaxing in stop-start traffic.
The brand claims combined fuel consumption to be 6.0L/100km, but our real-world, mixed-environment testing saw the figure rise to 7.4L/100km. Still, that efficiency rate will theoretically see a Kia Rio Sport cover 608km on a full 45L fuel tank.
As with all Kia products, the Rio's ride and handling traits have been fettled with by Australian engineers. The team is known to tune its cars on the sportier side of the spectrum, both due to views on handling safety at speed, and to align to the brand's vision of being youthful and energetic.
The resulting ride quality is firm, but not in a way that's cumbersome or irritating. Under bigger events, like emergency braking or sudden swerving, the stiffness ensures the Rio remains composed and trustworthy. It is this focus on inherent, safe handling that makes it ideal for those in smaller regional centres, where commuting at speed is more of an occasional pastime than a rare one-off.
Backing up the safety-skewed handling traits is the fitment of autonomous emergency braking with forward collision warning, lane-keeping assist, and a driver-attention alert system. It's worth mentioning that the entry-level Kia Rio S model does not receive any of these advanced safety features, so I'd recommend shelling out the extra dough for the Kia Rio Sport to cover these additional driver-assist features.
The steering is another locally modified item that's tuned to work together with the suspension. It feels adequately direct, with enough bite off-centre as to not feel vague. Visibility in all directions is good and aided by a reverse camera, but it's not as see-through as a Suzuki Swift. The only real downfall to the cabin experience is the level of noise, as the engine can become thrashy when tasked with driving slightly above traffic, and the tyres louder as the speed increases.
Other than the sound, the cabin feels well put together for the asking price. Storage is something often left out due to cost in this segment, with armrests and cubbies ironically removed when smart storage is required.
The Kia Rio thankfully includes myriad options to house these things, including a large centre armrest, generous pair of cupholders in the lower console, and front cubby with an in-built shelf for organisation's sake. In the doors you'll find room for a purse or small bag, alongside bottle holders on either side.
On the technology front, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system features wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto smartphone mirroring. Interestingly, the system remains wireless-only with Apple products, but able to utilise a wired connection for Android phones. I make the point because during our time with the system, we found the wireless side of Apple CarPlay to be buggy.
There were times where the system would load a full-screen keyboard when asked to open Google Maps, with no ability to return to the map view. Browsing an audio library can become laggy and unresponsive, with general audio quality also suffering. Usually moving to a cable connection solves such issues, but that's not possible for Apple users in a Kia Rio.
However, most of the time it was functioning fine. The native software features sharp graphics and a clever user interface that makes Toyota's system look out of date. Speaking of old hat, the air-conditioning controls are probably the biggest distractor in terms of the Rio's overall cabin vibe. It uses a manual system that will perhaps remind you of your own first car.
Over in the second row, space is tight. I'm around 183cm tall with longer legs than average, so my natural driving position is quite set back. Attempting to climb into the second row was challenging, with my knees fouling heavily against the seat back, and needing to be placed either side once properly inside. There's some foot room under the seat to play with, and a decent amount of head room to work against the onset of any claustrophobia.
Alternatively, a solution could be to politely ask the driver to notch their seat forward and be more accommodating. I know and understand that searching for space in the vehicle from the second-smallest passenger car segment in Australia seems nonsensical, but if a Suzuki Swift manages to offer decent space, then there's no reason a Rio shouldn't either.
I also fitted a slim Britax convertible child seat in the back, which managed to fit surprisingly well. In a forward-facing position, there's enough room for another child in the back and an adult in front. When installed facing rearward, best suited from birth to about the age of four, the front passenger lost around 4–5cm of leg room.
It demonstrates that a young family of three could manage. What also supports the same idea is a 300L boot area that's extendable to 1078L with the rear seats folded forward. With the back seats in use, there's enough room for a decent grocery shop alongside a small, compact stroller to fit.
The space itself is deeper vertically than it is horizontally, however, so remember to put your bread on the top and not the bottom of the pile. Another resulting ergonomic quirk is the natural resting position of a compact stroller, which is sort of diagonal and resting against the side of the boot trim, not flush and flat against the seatback.
Small, trivial points aside, the Kia Rio is surprisingly versatile. For a pip over $20K, you're getting great infotainment, a decent safety-assist package, a sizeable boot, and the protection of a seven-year new car warranty – all from an established manufacturer.