Kia Rio

PLUS & MINUS

ALEX INWOOD

Dated, uninspiring drivetrain; no AEB; premium price; interior plastics Crisp styling; classy and roomy interior; handling poise; fluid steering Now Model Engine Max Power Max Torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Kia Rio S 1368cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v 74kW @ 6000rpm 133Nm @ 4000rpm 4-speed automatic 1162kg 13.4sec (claimed) 6.2L/100km $19,090 Now

So much to like, but none of it resides under the bonnet

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

GOOD, but not quite good enough to trouble the light-car elite was the story with the previous-generation Rio.

Kiaís popular city car has hovered on the cusp of segment leadership for a generation now, thanks to its locally tuned chassis, solid equipment levels and the assurance of its sevenyear warranty, but it lacked the dynamic polish and drivetrain sparkle to truly rival the likes of the Mazda 2 and Volkswagen Polo.

Enter the fourth-generation Rio.

Bigger and better equipped than before, the new-gen Rio brings a welcome dose of maturity to Kiaís compact-car line-up. Riding on a new platform and a wheelbase that has grown by 10mm (overall length is up 15mm), the Rio makes the most of its boosted dimensions with a crisp, wellproportioned exterior design that looks distinctly European.

Penned by Kiaís design centres in Germany and California, the Rio is conservatively handsome in all three trim grades (S, Si and SLi).

Itís the same story inside, where a floating 7.0-inch touchscreen adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. You notice the extra-space too. Leg and shoulder room has increased in both rows, and thereís ample headroom for 6ft-plus passengers in the rear.

The seats (cloth in S and Si, fake leather in SLi) are firm but comfortable and provide decent back and thigh support.

While neatly designed inside, the ambience is monochromatic and dark, with none of the design flair or colour you find in a Mazda 2. But there is plenty of useful storage including large bins in the doors and a two-level cubby in front of the gear lever to store phones and wallets.

Thereís plenty of equipment, too. Every Rio scores a reversing camera, keyless entry, automatic headlights and power windows and Si grades and above add satnav, DAB radio and cruise control.

Pricing remains unchanged and starts at $16,990 for the six-speed manual S (well above entry-level models from Mazda, Honda and Toyota which all begin below $15K) before topping out at $22,990 for the SLi automatic.

Where the Rio really stumbles, though is under the bonnet.

Kia has dumped the old carís muscular 1.6-litre direct-injection donk, meaning that for now, the sole engine option is an old and uninspiring 1.4-litre lump. Carried over from the previous-gen Rio, this atmo four-pot has undergone small efficiency improvements for a minor fuel consumption gain (6.2L/100km), a move that has seen outputs drop slightly to a modest 74kW/133Nm.

Pairing the 1.4 to a dated fourspeed auto doesnít help things (only the base S scores a six-speed manual option), though the Rio does offer acceptable performance around town with decent step-off from the lights. Itís on the open road that the lack of ratios Ė and the 1.4ís torque-light mid-range and harsh top end Ė becomes problematic, making steep hills and foot-flat overtaking a lethargic, noisy experience.

At least the dynamics make up for the disappointing drivetrain.

Like most of Kiaís range, the Rio has been fettled for Aussie roads by Kiaís local chassis team, and the result is handling that feels taut, controlled and, on twisty roads, even fun. The steering in particular is a highlight, and is well-weighted, fluid and accurate.

So while the new Rio offers important steps forward in terms of design, quality, connectivity and dynamics, itís a disappointing throwback to yesteryear under the bonnet. And in this saturated, cutthroat section of the market, thatís enough to cruel the Rioís attempt to leap to the top of its class.

Three pot panacea?

If the old 1.4 MPi four-pot doesnít sound enticing, salvation could be on the horizon. Kia is tipped to add a sportier, safer Rio GT to the line-up which will bring AEB and a more advanced 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engine. Currently under Oz evaluation, the GT will produce 88kW/172Nm and be mated to a six-speed manual and possibly a seven-speed dual-clutch.

Expected to arrive within a year, the GT will also score styling tweaks and a sportier chassis tune.

OR TRY THESE...

Mazda 2 Maxx hatch $19,690 (auto)

Road noise and a slightly too-firm ride take the shine off Mazdaís baby, but it otherwise brings plenty of appeal in the form of a tractable, rev-happy 1.5-litre atmo four and an eager, playful chassis. Fine quality and strong resale, too.

Volkswagen Polo 81TSI Comfortline $20,990 (auto)

Clobbers the Rio for spritely, engaging performance thanks to its perky 81kW/175Nm 1.2-litre turbo four and quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutcher. Our 2010 COTY winner deftly distils VW virtues.