Kia Rio

Local tuning transforms humble Korean light car

BRUCE NEWTON

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

THE CRUX of Kia’s Rio facelift is buried in the second-last paragraph of a one-page press release: “Across all grades the Rio has benefitted from additional refinement of the ride and handling localisation program from Kia Motors Australia. Ride comfort and control have been improved while steering feel has been moved to a new level.”

That’s it. That’s what a couple of years of number crunching and planning, and six months of negotiating, testing and tuning are reduced to. No mention that the power steering computer processor has doubled in capacity from 16- to 32-bit, meaning the old car’s notable step moving from centre has been tuned out.

Nor that spring rates are lighter front and rear, and dampers retuned so the ride is smoother, especially on 17-inch tyres.

Instead, Kia’s PR blurb focuses on the addition of a new model dubbed S-Premium, which sits between the carry-over S and Si models, while at the upper end, SLS is replaced by Sport, and the SLi continues. Also hyped are new front and rear bumper designs and a new grille pattern for the good-looking exterior, as well as a new centre fascia, audio unit design and “a touch of chrome around the air vent” for the functional and attractive interior.

No surprise then that much remains familiar. The entry-level 79kW 1.4-litre four still mates with either a six-speed manual or four-speed auto, while the more impressive 103kW direct-injection 1.6 now drives solely via a sixspeed auto as the manual has been dropped. The sedan has also been given the chop, while the more popular three- and five-door hatchback bodies continue.

Pricing carries over, although with the manual gone, the Si we’re driving here now starts at $21,490 rather than $19,490. The entry point continues to be the $15,990 S three-door. Prices for Sport and SLi haven’t been announced as they’re yet to arrive.

So far so ho-hum. But while KMA’s announcement officially plays it down, there’s no doubt the progress in ride and handling is where the real story is – for Wheels readers at least.

The local chassis-tuning program has been around since 2008 and has slowly grown in influence and reach, to the point where no car in the local line-up is untouched. This is the second crack at UB Rio and, after a backto- back drive of old and new, the incremental but noticeable improvement is obvious.

The Kia team – which works closely with independent ride and handling tuning consultant Graeme Gambold – has unquestionably smoothed the steering without dulling its immediacy, to the point where it’s a real highlight of the car.

Light, yet positive, it twirls through one hairpin bend after another with ease. Suburbia is no challenge.

The Rio feels tied down, as the suspension set-up targets are Euro stars led by the VW Polo. Some may find the tune of the front struts and rear torsion beam too terse because there is some bump intrusion, but it is well-contained, especially on the Si’s 16-inch rubber. Hit a big depression that would set some cars wobbling and the Rio just keeps on tracking.

Allied with a drivetrain that has good initial response and respectable performance, this suspension improvement makes the Rio Si a good drive. And there’s no need to affix a ‘for a Korean car’ rider.

Add in the looks, a decent equipment level, efficiently utilised interior space and price competitiveness and the Rio’s credentials are strong. Not as strong as a Mazda 2 or Polo, but certainly better than a Yaris or Honda’s sadly underdone Jazz.

01 HAND SPAN

Good-to-hold reach and rake adjustable steering wheel includes Bluetooth (standard on all models), cruise control (all models but S) and a leather rim on S-Premium and Si.

02 GENERIC BREW

Both the 1.4- and direct-injection 1.6-litre engines run on regular fuel. Combined fuel consumption for the six-speed auto 1.6 is better than the 1.4-litre fourspeed: 6.1 versus 6.3L/100km.

03 SPARE A THOUGHT

All Australian Rios feature a full-size spare tyre, mounted on a steel or alloy wheel, depending on the model.

Forthcoming Sport and SLi grades will get 17-inch alloys.

Spicks and specs

BASELINE Rio continues to include six airbags, fivestar ANCAP rating and a seven-year, unlimitedkilometre warranty. New S-Premium 5dr has the same 1.4-litre engine but adds 15-inch alloys, front fogs, electric folding side mirrors, cruise, six-speaker audio with dual tweeters and a leather wheel and shift knob. Auto-only Si 5dr gets new-design 16s and boasts additional features including soft-touch trim, a sliding centre armrest, centre storage bin, metallook highlights and a two-tone grey leather and cloth interior.

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