An appliance carefully targeted at people who are uninterested in cars
What is it?
The Kia Rio is the Korean company’s mainstream supermini. Their UK operation is pitching it against the Vauxhall Corsa, Peugeot 208 and Skoda Fabia.
It comes only as a five-door. Three-door supermini sales are falling away, so Kia didn’t reckon one of those was worth the bother.
You’ll spot the characteristic Kia ‘grille’ between the headlights, even though it’s not a grille at all but a blank gloss-black shape. The real grille is below. Beyond that, design is pretty restrained. It’s very well surfaced and shows no awkward spots. But on the other hand it’s short of distinction. Superminis are usually more expressive. A Clio or 208 or Corsa is instantly recognisable. The new Rio, not really.
This might be an issue for Kia, because although it’s the company’s best-seller globally, here in the UK the old Rio underperformed. For instance, the Sportage gives Kia a big share of the crossover sector, but the Rio gives them a much smaller share of supermini sales. What helped the Sportage get noticed and gather sales momentum? Distinctive design, that’s what.
Inside, the cabin is similarly straightforwardly designed. It’s ergonomically efficient and has some nice details, but the overall effect is unmemorable. Centre-dash screens come in three sizes, depending on trim level.
The platform is shared with Hyundai’s i20, and this means slightly bigger dimensions than the previous Rio. Overall length is now slightly more than the supermini average.
Suspension is supermini-orthodox: struts at the front, a torsion beam behind, with an electric power steering motor mounted to the column.
It might come in only one body style, but there’s a huge range of engines. The highlight is a one-litre three cylinder petrol unit, which already does good service in the Cee-apostrophe-d. For the Rio it’s served up in two outputs, 99 and 118bhp.
Other petrol engines are an 83bhp 1.25-litre lead-in job, and a 1.4 99bhp. The 1.4 is available with a four-speed auto – yes just four – that knocks holes in performance and economy. One for the seniors.
On the diesel side, it’s a 1.4, with 76 or 89bhp.
But to simplify the range, each of the engines is offered in only one or two trim levels.
What is it like on the road?
Kia is supposed to be sportier than Hyundai, and in the first mile or two the Rio is keen to show you how lively it is. The steering is quick, the ride firm and the three-cylinder engine willing. But it doesn’t take long for rough patches to surface.
The little three-cylinder engine is, like most of the kind, torquey if laggy in the low-to-mid rev ranges where you drive most of the time. Its ample urge here does propel the little Kia forward with some energy. This despite the extremely high gearing.
But the sound is pretty chattery, in a way the Ford, VW and Vauxhall units have smoothed away.
Don’t worry too much about engine noise. Beyond about 65kph you won’t hear it, such is the din created by the tyres. Opening the boot reveals an unlined spare wheel well (but no spare wheel) above which is a thin floor and parcel shelf. A transparent route for road roar to reach your ears.
The more powerful 118bhp version of the three-cylinder has no significant mechanical differences versus the 99bhp. It simply revs with more energy beyond the 4,000rpm torque peak. So in most running around, the less powerful unit is just as capable. That said, the 118 engine comes with a six-speed box and closer ratios than the five-speed 99bhp.
The steering is quick but progressive, and there’s little roll. So you can chuck the Rio around with the abandon small cars engender. It’s not the most fun though – there’s little feedback. More than that, the suspension hops and skips a bit. It’s not just firm, it lacks the fluency of most of its better rivals.
Driver aids from trim level 2 upward run to front collision mitigation with pedestrian detection and lane-departure warning – a simple beeper, not a vibrating wheel. A reversing camera is supplemented by park distance beepers. There’s no blind-spot system.
Layout, finish and space
The dash is all very grown-up. You’ll find no supermini flamboyance here – it’s trying to be a small Audi A8 made with cheaper plastic. This isn’t a criticism, it could well be what many people want.
The layout, even on versions with lots of kit, is easily mastered. You get proper knobs and indicators for the air-con. Kit such as the driver aids and heated seats (and steering wheel even) all have actual hardware switches.
This leaves the screen to get on with dealing only with connectivity: phone, stereo, navigation.
We tested the big screen, which comes on the 3 and ‘First Edition’ specs. It’s clear and straightforward. Beyond navigation it also includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Ironic really, because these are mostly just alternative interfaces for nav and phone functions already provided by the screen. It would make more sense if these phone mirroring functions also appeared on the lower trim levels which don’t have built-in navigation.
Another odd piece of spec is that the top trim comes with faux leather, not cloth. In the old days this plastic would have been seen as inferior to cloth. It probably still should be.
The driving position is fine. The front seats are properly shaped and the steering wheel adjusts in the important directions.
In the back seat, there’s impressive room for a supermini, and it has three head restraints and seat belts. There are no vents back there, but you do get seat-back storage, cupholders in the doors and a 12V socket. The boot is decently deep too, and has a side bin and a bag hook. Its capacity is a decent 325 litres.
The Rio doesn’t attempt to be distinguished. It’s a decent ordinary car, free of foibles that might enchant some but annoy others.
It’s roomy for a supermini, and easy to use. It feels lively to drive if you’re not bothered by its sometimes uncouth ride and road noise.
But almost everything it does can be matched elsewhere. There are superminis that are more fun, more refined, more stylish, more practical.
The spec strikes us as odd, too. You can get CarPlay only if you step up to a car that already has navigation. You can have that only with the odd false leather trim and a heated steering wheel.
We’d sacrifice all that for a sensible mid-spec 2 trim. This is the first level where the three-cylinder turbo engine appears, albeit only in low-power guise. It’s enough.
Still, for people who buy cars like they buy washing machines, it will come close to the top of the pile. The deal and the aftercare are superb.