Picture this: late 2011, 17-year-old me, six months or so into my first real job, needed an immediate replacement for my terminally unreliable VL Commodore. Unfortunately, living in central west New South Wales has its downsides. In this case, lack of choice regarding new, affordable, reliable cars.
I needed something with a warranty and low weekly payments. With only two dealerships locally, it was knowing people at the Kia franchise that ultimately made my decision. The day after the test drive, I was handed the keys to the then brand-new UB Kia Rio.
At first, the little red Rio was a blast to drive. Compared to my previous cars, it was zippy and the steering was incredible. And I have to mention the great shift feel from the six-speed manual transmission that almost every other review has included. Fuel economy was great with my twice-weekly highway commute, hovering around 4.5L/100km.
It does me well now driving exclusively under 50km/h and with a seven-minute 6am commute, but even though I maybe have to fill up once every one or two months, fuel consumption is high for such a small engine. About 8–9L per 100km right now – even with a light foot.
If you want performance, though, don't even ask – 0–100km/h in 12 or so seconds, and to be quite frank, even with one passenger or a large suitcase you can feel the difference in performance. I had four people in the car once and didn't do it again.
Worst of all, if you like being cool and going up hills at the same time, you are out of luck. Starting from rest on even a slight incline is not something the Rio does well with the air-conditioning on. You have to choose between revving high and looking like an idiot or remembering to turn it off just before accelerating. This isn't too hard with an attentive co-pilot, but is very necessary with the extra weight of a co-pilot.
As for the interior and creature comforts, it was a huge improvement over the last generation of Rio, but aside from the seats every single surface is cheap, hard plastic. Design-wise, it's not a bad place to be, and the controls and displays are sensibly arranged. But the plastic. THE PLASTIC.
Higher models of the UB Rio received a bit of leather at least, but at the end of the day it was a $17,000 new car, so my expectations were never too high in the first place. The cloth on the seats is still in great shape after six or so years, but it was always hard and a little scratchy and has marked easily. The lack of a centre armrest also takes away from the experience.
The cabin itself seems spacious from the front seats thanks to the huge dashboard, but rear seat passengers aren't so lucky. Unless the driver and front passenger are conveniently packaged, there is next to zero leg room. The seats are supportive and comfortable for short trips, but anything longer than an hour and they become hard and uncomfortable requiring regular re-adjustment of one's rear end.
Finally, the cupholders are absolutely awful. Not that many people think too much about them, but even with the Rio's meagre acceleration, any drinks will go tumbling back into the little hole where the centre console should be. I am happy to report that the storage hole there seems to be remarkably water-tight and holds liquids pretty well. Well done Kia.
Tech-wise, the Rio is sadly lacking. Although Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming are standard, it lacks standard cruise control (I added it later), which after installing the very cheap factory switch seems like Kia should have really included it from the beginning.
The air-conditioning (higher trims come with real climate control) is okay but not great. It will take the edge off the heat, but even when brand new could never have been labelled 'ice cold'. Two USB ports and an AUX input come in handy from time to time. And back in 2011 when iPods were still a thing, it was nice to be able to control it from the steering wheel buttons.
All in all, for basic transport it does its job. It has been reliable. It has even been loaded up with the rear seats folded, allowing me to move house in one trip. So, practicality has never been much of an issue for my needs.
In reality, the UB Rio would very much suit an L- or P-plater wanting an easy to drive car to learn in, before moving on to something a bit nicer once they felt the need. I know I feel the need. I feel the need so much I am currently selling the Rio – and moving to America.
Although it wasn't exactly a love affair for the ages, the little Kia suited my needs well. Only ever missing a beat when I noticed a pool of oil under the car the day after a scheduled service. (Thanks to the apprentice that had forgotten to tighten the sump plug properly after changing the oil.)
I have heard the new Rio is an improvement on the UB, but I plan on never finding out for myself.