Two latest offers in the small car sector remind how much bolder and smarter the wee ones have become.
For: Kia Rio – Impressive design, good ride quality. Suzuki Ignis – lively looks, good specification, engaging engine, oozes personality.
Against: Kia Rio – dud engine, dull interior hues. Suzuki Ignis – too easy to engage transmission’s ‘L’ mode.
Oxymoronic as it might sound, when zooming in on cars that give great value for money, it's not so stupid to give particular consideration to those that don't seem to outwardly offer much at all.
Small cars have really grown up nowadays. There are plenty out there that prove that being tight on dimensional space and cubic capacity doesn’t mean their buyers have to make concession on safety and specification.
That’s certainly the case with two newcomers to the group of tightly proportioned models configured to suit those on tight spends.
The Kia and Suzuki game plan for the Rio and Ignis respectively is quite similar; basically, it’s about convincing younger types that the money they have traditionally spent on second-hand will in fact buy a wholly-new experience.
The process of making these cars incredibly accessible – a Rio for $89 a week seems remarkable – is untarnished by cynicism, either. They’re both truly feel-good celebrations.
The derivatives on test aren’t entirely direct rivals. For one, in addition to being a smaller small car it’s also, despite being front-drive and obviously road-tuned, one its maker asks to be considered an SUV, not an orthodox hatchback.
It certainly has the look, being quite truncated (just 3.7 metres snout to tail) yet it has 180mm of ground clearance - that’s more than a Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V. Yet I figure until Ignis comes in the four-by-four format offered overseas, it’ll be simply used a hatch, so that’s what it is and what it should be compared against.
But exactly this one? By the time Kia had confirmed the Rio coming for test was its cheapest offer, the $22,490 LX which only comes in manual, it was too late to swap into its Suzuki equivalent, the Ignis GLX, $18,990 in manual and several thousands more in auto.
Anyway, that’s moot because what we have here is the LTD, with the CVT that provisions as standard above entry level. As a $22,500 car (plus $490 when provisioned with a black roof) this flagship is still a cheap choice, yet perhaps more likely to be compared with the $23,490 Rio LX auto or perhaps even the $25,490 EX, if not the flagship $26,990 Limited.
Engineers and designers, basically anyone involved in the backroom part of vehicle development, will tell you that small cars are the hardest to create, because there’s so much to put in and – literally – so little to deal with.
There’s no point suggesting that these are Tardis creations, but they’re not bad. Suzuki being a small car specialist does small really well, and though it has less dimensional interior area than the Rio, it’s not so cramped as to make four aboard look like some sort of record-setting exercise.
But, yes, Suzuki probably imagines the quartet are going to be good friends, if not at first then certainly after a few kilometres. But, hey, that’s the category you’re shopping in.
Anyway, when considering these cars, it’s not so much the space that will in initially capture attention and draw out comment as the styling.
Here are two of the brightest, chirpiest-looking offers of the year.
Officially, the Ignis look draws on Suzuki’s automotive heritage; one particular take-me-back cue being the triple indents in the C-pillar (these pay homage to the first car Suzuki NZ assembled and sold here, the Fronte which, being powered by a rear-set air-cooled two stroke, required intake vents). The A pillar shape borrows from the Swift and the bonnet from the Vitara. The face? Well, I’d say someone at Suzuki HQ is a big fan of Kung Fu Panda.
All in all, though, it’s definitely the most cartoonish new car of the year, quite a neat-looking wee thing, I thought. No everyone is of the same mind – a colleague reckoned it looks like a motorbike helmet made for a slightly larger head than your own and Mrs B much preferred the Rio. But I think Suzuki is onto something good here. Apart from the design nuances, I think it lends a nicely tough stance thanks to the elevated ride height and having a wheel on each corner.
The Rio is arguably a lot less characterful, but is still quite good-looking, in a totally modern way. What Kia calls a ‘Euro’ influence can be interpreted as ‘VW-like’. The exterior shape is from the Polo school and some of the interior touches seem to be Audi-influenced. Coincidence? With Kia now employing so many Germans, you’d think not.
It’s quite masculine and has some neat detailing; I like the U-shaped LED daytime-running lights and the wide, slim version of Kia’s tiger nose grille lend a sporty look. I bet the Hyundai designers who drew up the i20 are peeved, though. They’ve been utterly upstaged, an impression that is strengthened when you look inside.
Even though it also has too many dull grey plastics and there is a complete lack of soft-touch materials anywhere other than the seats and centre arm rest, Kia’s cabin is just a generation ahead of Hyundai’s.
A big plus is that, unlike the i20 – and like the Ignis - you get a touchscreen (with the benefits of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that Hyundai cannot provide its own model). Yet even the switchgear and the layout is just … well … more of this time.
Slipping into the Ignis after that is like going from a grown-up’s zone into a teen’s play zone. A good thing, too. On a functionality aspect, Kia wins. But if you’re aiming at young buyers, as Suzuki clearly is, you need to include young-at-heart, vibrant design. Ignis nails it.
It is cheerful and not shoddy either. While short of looking outright expensive, there’s nothing much that suggests cash-saver corner cutting. It’s also the most vibrant and smartest Suzuki cabin of the moment, blending just the right amount of simple yet funky form and function. The size and quality of the touch screen tells you that the investment here is measured in big dollars, with no quibbling over the cents.
Ironically, having talked about how techy both are in introducing touch screens, it’s a shame to report that both had issues in this area.
The Rio left me bewildered when, on restart on the fifth day of test, the audio simply went mute and none of the screen prompts seemed to work. Then the display went blank. The usual (stop, switch off, restart) reboot didn’t have much effect, but it came right after the next prolonged stop. The issue never repeated. All the same, just a bit weird.
The Ignis, also had a quirk insofar that, whenever reverse was selected directly after start up, the backing camera required up to 15 seconds to get its act together. Until then, no display. Once, it just went completely AWOL, though the screen suddenly went pink. Snicking back into neutral then trying again sorted things … but, again, also odd.
Speaking of colours. I like that Ignis can be personalised with blue, grey, orange or red accents for the lower centre console, door trim and air vents. No such chances for party time with the Rio LX, which seems a pity given how attractive the pricing will be to first time buyers.
Kia’s seats are broader but flatter than Suzuki’s, so less comfortable, but both offer solid driving positions with a high hip point. The back seats are fit for purpose, little more, and while the Ignis has ample headroom, it’s not that wide.
The Ignis LTD has two individual sliding and reclining rear seats; unfortunately GLX has 60:40 split folding fixed rear seats.
The Ignis boot load area capacity with the rear seats in an upright position is 271 litres, increasing to a maximum volume of 1104 litres with both rear seats folded; pretty impressive when Rio quotes 325/980 litres. Both have space savers.
Both cars come with power windows and mirrors and air conditioning, but Kia’s a/c is manual whereas the Ignis ups to climate controlled. The base Rio compares well with the entry Ignis, less so against the LTD, as Suzuki’s top spec adds a lot of extras - push button start, auto levelling and auto on headlamps, LED driving lamps.
ANCAP crash test scores have yet to be set for these models but, five star results seem unlikely simply because they lack the automatic emergency braking, that’s a requisite for a maximum result now. However, both provision with a full set of airbags, stability, traction and hill start controls, plus plus a rearview camera, though no blind spot monitoring. Rio touts cornering brake control, which maintains directional stability but automatically applies the brakes to individual wheels.
So to the road. Or should that be street?
Thought that cars of this category, cubic capacity and size are suited purely to city driving is challenged by these two nippers.
For sure, you wouldn’t be citing either ass first choices for regular long-distance open road runs, but they’re certainly not about to shirk from tackling the 100kmh zone.
Conceivably, the Rio would have to be the better all-rounder. It’s just that little bit bigger and heavier and also lends that impression of greater substance.
There’s no denying the Ignis presents as more of a featherweight – in lightest form, it tallies just 820kg on the scales – but don’t misconstrue this as evidence of fragility. Though the doors clang a bit when closed, the lack of rattles and squeaks also suggest solidity.
Even so, in the back-to-back drive, the Kia consistently presented as you’d expect; as the quieter, more settled ride. Actually, the suspension tune is the most impressive single aspect.
The car here assumes suspension settings designed for Australian roads and there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t have a magic carpet ride, but compare with the Ignis and it is more compliant, less edgy. Though both have light steering – necessarily, for their turn on a dollar coin handling expectation - the Kia’s also has a touch more feel to it.
So there’s a lot of great stuff going on with the Kia. And one big disappointment. The drivetrain. We’d reported from the launch how insipid the 1.4-litre engine and four-speed auto felt.
The manual – which, Kia here admits, won’t be a first choice buy anyway (with less than 10 percent takeup anticipated)) - wasn’t much better on that day but it at least offered chance to tap further into its 74kW/133Nm output and, we hoped, it might free up with a decent workout during our test period.
Er, no, sorry. Didn’t happen. This engine remains the big reason why you would always hesitate taking a Rio on a decent long-distance drive. Truth be told, it’s not exactly reactive in an urban setting; there’s a hesitancy to how it reacts to any significant throttle input, which can be annoying mostly and scary occasionally (light when you need to get quick-smart into the traffic stream). But riding up the revs at least allows some degree of nippiness.
Head out into the open road, though, and it seems to lose resolve completely, with a particular dead zone between 2000-3000rpm; fall into there and it seems no amount of stick stirring can awaken it. There’s no upper-revs boil to keep it on, either. Thrash as mercilessly close to the redline as you like, but it’s pointless. There’s so little fire in this belly. If you want to overtake or consolidate an increase in the speed limit, you need to plan carefully and have your right foot firmly planted on the floor. Even then it's below average in terms of performance.
That it’s the same in the auto-only i20, of course, is hardly any solace. This car simply deserves a better powerplant.
The Ignis should start at disadvantage: Despite having less weight to haul, it still has 200cc less capacity and the hindrance of a rather whizzy constantly variable transmission.
Yet this Dualjet unit really supports why Suzuki should not only be considered a small car specialist but a small engine ace, too. With only 66kW and 120Nm to give, it certainly shouldn’t impart as the rortiest thing out there and yet right from the get-go it’s dead-set on proving that small can in fact still be mighty. It has incredible zest and, while occasionally a bit too noisy, the can-do attitude becomes quite appealing.
You need to rev it out to get the most amount of performance as power doesn’t peak until 6000rpm and optimal torque doesn’t arrive until 4400rpm. But there’s none of the torpor that afflicts the Kia. The peppiness is astounding and you start to wonder how good it would be with a manual shifter.
Certainly, if anything holds it back, it’s the CVT gearbox, which works okay when you’re pottering around but, as in commonly the case with this transmission type, quickly loses its nerve when the engine is asked to make haste.
There’s a gear-holding ‘sport’ function and also a ‘low’ setting right under the ‘drive’ position, but neither do much more than make the engine rev extra hard, for no appreciable gain in momentum. It’s better to leave everything in its standard ‘drive’ setting; at least then the shifts are quite well timed and smooth. That’s sometimes easier said than done because the gear selector works in a vertical plane, so it’s easy to nip down one setting too many and erroneously find ‘L’. The tachometer reading (and rising din once you near 100kmh) soon gives the game away.
Even though it can become remarkably fizzy, the Suzuki engine nonetheless rewards by offering a power zone that, while quite narrow, rewards with quite energetic acceleration. And it does all this while achieving fuel thrift that is much closer to the maker cited optimum of 4.9 litres per 100km than the Kia manages. The Korean claim of 5.6L/100km combined seems a pipe dream. I saw a real-world combined figure of 8.0L/100km but, when beating along at 100kmh, it was up toward the 9s.
The Ignis is not as dynamically resolved as the Kia but it doesn’t do too badly for a bubba car. The promised nimbleness is there but the brand vow of it also offering a ride that “is cushioned and controlled at speed” was obviously not pre-checked on our coarse chip. Because it sits a little high it can feel top heavy when cornering and the suspension is bouncy over speed humps, but it has pretty decent attitude.
The steering is light, of course, and those 16-inch 175/60 tyres fon’t have a ton of grip but the ventilated front disc and drum rear brakes have a meaty feel. You’ll love it in the city because vision from the driver’s seat is good and the turning circle is extra tight, at just 4.7 metres.
Actually, it’s close. Treat them as the makers intended – as small, efficient and cheap-to-run predominantly city cars – and it’s really difficult to work out which is better.
The Rio is ordinary under the bonnet but rewards with solid design and a sense of style. And the pricing plan is very appealing.
The Ignis is a lot wackier, but nonetheless hugely winsome. It’s a more bubbly and energetic proposition than the Rio, a real playful pup. Sometimes it seems too much so, but you cannot deny the fun side of its huge character. It has a bright future.
Really, it comes down to which better reflects your own personality. Either way, they prove that, these days, even a relatively small amount of money can buy a lot.