Kia Rio Limited: Too much parental control

The latest Kia Rio is impressively better than its predecessor and also outshines its Hyundai equivalent on styling and spec- but is sadly pinned back by the same mechanical flaws.


For: Design flair, good chassis.

Against: Meagre four-speed auto, a little more pep wouldn’t go amiss.

DRIVING the Rio in its $26,990 Limited format reinforced how brilliantly executed it is in some areas – and also left me wondering how much better it would be if Kia was not tied to a certain other brand.

Such a shame that, as things stand, this model comes across as an uneven opportunity. From the outside, it’s the best-presented and smartest-looking car here.

Yet the impressive design, inside and out, and well-sorted dynamics are undermined by turnoffs that Kia itself is potentially unable to rectify. The solution lays wholly with Hyundai.

As a top five brand, with massive cash reserves, Hyundai assuredly has the wherewithal to replace in a thrice the Rio’s outdated four-speed automatic with a transmission more to modern taste and to implement the automated emergency braking which is particularly handy for city driving and whose absence at the moment is out of step with latest convention. Both other cars featured today have AEB, which independent crash testing agencies are citing as a must-have for a maximum safety result.

That Hyundai’s own i20 also runs with the same issues that hurt the Rio is hardly any consolation for Kia. If anything, it perhaps only elevates the anguish, because when those two related models are lined up, it is obvious that the sub-brand’s product is overall a much better conceived proposition.

On visual inspection, it’s hard to convince those who know nothing of the brands’ common ties that these cars share a common platform and engines, let alone that they are of almost identical design age.

The Kia is just so much more modern in its look and air than you’d swear it was a whole generation ahead of its frumpy confrere. Its styling, inside and out, is in fact so good that you would happily compare it to the best from Europe. That will perhaps almost be an inevitability, given that there is a certain VW-ish air about it. The Polo might not have been the sole barometer, but it would have been in the design team’s minds, given that so many of those people came to Kia from the VW Group.

It doesn’t stop there. The Rio is also much stronger in imparting a superior sense of value. Out on the road, too, it is a better car by far. More nimble, sharper steering, quieter ride … and, simply, more fun.

And, yet, it is still held back in respect to the performance. With 73kW and 133Nm, the 1.4-litre petrol engine is not overly powerful, but trying out a manual entry Rio earlier this year showed just how willing and characterful this unit is.

The same experience does not occur often in the automatic format, sadly. You might wonder if this matters given that the Rio is often cast as a ‘city’ car, but that kind of thinking sells it short. Plenty of small cars are quite competent on the open road and, certainly, the Rio does not feel out of place in that environment. Also, regardless that most cars of this kind are bought by over-60s, we cannot overlook that the marketing campaign specially portrays Rio as being ‘right’ for young females seeking a cost-effective and fun petite hatch.

The Rio manual is that car; the auto less so. Even when zipping around town, you find occasion when the transmission does not satisfactorily oblige. But the issue is more obvious when it gets beyond the 50kmh zone. That it’s slow off the mark and presents no immediacy at overtaking even when it does drop down a cog – you just get more engine noise (it’s already pulling a busy 2600rpm in fourth, but kick down to third and that rises to 3600rpm) – is entirely due to its anachronistic gearbox.

A six-speed transmission is something it literally cries out for. More gears would also undoubtedly improve the economy, which on our test never threatened Kia’s claim of 6.2 litres per 100km optimal. Mind you, the car could also stand to lose some weight: At 1246kg it’s 150-200kg heavier than some rivals.

Occasional rattle from the steering rack and quite a lot of road roar over coarse chip surfaces didn’t diminish the Rio’s dynamic flavour; it’s far from being a hot hatch, but is nonetheless a competent and characterful operator but a touch of chuckability. It also has a failsafe feel, too, in no small part through those eight spoke alloys being treated to excellent Continental ContiSportContact 5 tyres in 205/45 R17 size.

What it does even better is to present as a car that looks more expensive than it actually is. Korean fit and finish is really good these days but where the Rio score extra points is with the quality of its build materials.

It also shines for its use of space, practicality and versatility. It feels bigger than most small cars, particularly up front. The hatch body style and those 60-40 split fold rear seats afford decent flexibility and the 325 litre boot is generous for this class. By comparison, the Mazda2 has a 250 litre boot.

The Rio’s front seat doesn’t feel quite as good as it looks, but the overall ergonomics are pretty decent. Budget-conscious buyers will love the sweet Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interfaces and sat nav that Hyundai swore it could not get. Climate controlled air conditioning is also appreciated.

All in all, it’s a car with a ton of promise that doesn’t deliver as well as it might.