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The Kia Rio offers appealing style and tangible quality as well as typical Kia brand value

Kia Motors seems to have permanent status as one of the world’s fastest-growing car-makers, and no doubt the launch of the new Kia Rio will only help Kia  to further expand and grow.

Having smashed through the two-million-units-a-year barrier in 2010, the firm’s sales continue to climb quicker and quicker with the Kia Cee'd, Kia Picanto, Kia Sportage and the Korean firm's first ever hybrid - the Kia Niro, all reinforcing Kia's position.

An 88mpg Rio is a powerfully appealing notion, but in the real world, the 1.1 CRDI returns more like 65mpg.

Seven years ago Kia was struggling to grow significantly in Europe, something that this generation Kia Rio has been designed to exploit.

Unlike its more one-dimensional forebears, this new five-door supermini (also available in three-door form) offers appealing style and tangible quality as well as typical Kia brand value – or so its maker claims. We’ll be explaining just how much substance there is behind those claims over soon enough.

Kia can already claim a real coup for the Rio. Fitted with a 1.1-litre, three-cylinder engine, the 74bhp entry-level turbodiesel Rio is among the most economical combustion-engined series production cars in the world, with 88.3mpg on the combined cycle – again, so they say.

The rest of the engine range is made up of less headline-grabbing powerplants, ranging upwards from an entry-level 1.25-litre, 84bhp petrol, through to the Kia Rio 1.4-litre, 107bhp petrol, and including a 1.4-litre, 89bhp CRDI turbodiesel.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Kia Rio rear

When a car is a brand-new arrival, even if it’s a cooking hatchback, it’s common for it to garner attention at fuel stations and in traffic.

You can spot other road users sparing it their attention. Some cars, though, are immune to such treatment and the Kia Rio seems to be one of them, which seems a shame because, to the eyes of most of our testers, it has very tidy styling, with some neat touches and attractive proportions. But overtly distinctive? Evidently not.

A 1.4-litre petrol Rio weighs exactly what it should, according to our scales: 1165kg with fuel - 75kg under Kia's official 'EU' kerbweight claim.

It is, however, longer, wider and lower than the Rio it replaces, to improve the dynamics, interior volume and appearance. As seems to be the accepted supermini norm, the Rio now nudges just beyond four metres long (at 4045mm), some 70mm of which is an addition to the previous model’s wheelbase, increased to improve cabin room. That it is 15mm lower overall is part of the desire to improve the styling; if you want a tall, small Kia, there is now the Soul and the Venga.

The size increase has come, Kia says, with no weight increase. The lightest Rio (the 1.25-litre three-door) is claimed to weigh exactly 1200kg, the heaviest (1.4-litre CRDI three-door) 1334kg. Fully fuelled but otherwise empty, we weighed a 1.4-litre three-door at 1165kg. Not too much shame in that – particularly considering it’s 75kg under Kia’s official 'EU' claim - but we’d prefer it if more superminis were closer to a tonne.

Kia’s 1.4-litre ‘Gamma’ petrol engine produces 107bhp - a particularly competitive power output considering the capacity - and comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, as does the 1.4-litre diesel and the 1.1-litre diesel. The 1.25-litre petrol only gets a five-speeder. An old-tech four-speed automatic is offered for anyone who insists on having only two pedals, but only with the 1.4-litre petrol engine in mid-spec trims.

Suspension is entirely conventional for the class, with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear.

The power steering is electrically assisted, but that’s the only nod towards energy-saving ancillaries that comes as standard. Automatic stop-start, a part-time alternator and energy-saving tyres are optional, but packaged up as EcoDynamics technologies, they come as standard on the diesels.

INTERIOR

Kia Rio interior

The interior is one of the areas where Kia has made the greatest strides recently. A couple of model generations ago, a Kia’s cabin really was a low-rent place. Today, it is not. But the Rio does still trail the class best when it comes to the perceived quality of one or two materials, even if we’ve little doubt that it’s screwed together as well as any of its peers.

There are some nice touches, all the same. The row of ancillary switches beneath the well-sized ventilation controls look and feel good, but the expanse of dark, featureless plastic on the dashboard lacks the tactile quality of, say, a Ford Fiesta's or Volkwagen Volkswagen Polo’s interior materials. At least the steering wheel is well-shaped and inoffensively designed, lacking the fearsome, gurning grin of the Kia Picanto’s.

The Rio’s cabin is functional and largely ergonomically sound

All told, though, the Rio’s cabin is functional and largely ergonomically sound. In places it displays thoughtful design, too. There are not one but two 12v power sockets on the dashboard and a moulded insert to prevent a phone from sliding around (although a grippy rubber insert would be classier). It’s also well-equipped, given its price.

The cabin is spacious, too. The Rio is easily, noticeably bigger than its predecessor inside, and among the supermini class’s most practical acts. Not only is the wheelbase longer and the car wider than it was, but the base of the windscreen also sits 156mm closer to the front of the car than before, creating an airier ambience.

Pleasingly, the driver’s seat adjusts for height – still not quite the norm at this price – and the steering wheel widely for reach and rake in all but entry-level diesel form. All of our testers easily found a comfortable driving position. Despite the car’s lower overall height, headroom is generous enough; Kia claims that it’s up by 8mm.

Rear accommodation is as good as you’d reasonably expect from a supermini. Kids will not complain; two tall adults might, but no more than they would in any ‘sub-compact’ hatch. The boot? It’s bigger than before, too, and at 288 litres it’s competitive. Those folding rear seats split 60/40.

Equipment levels are good rather than great, with six trims to choose from - 1, 1 Air, SR7, 2, 3 and 4. The entry level models come with front electric windows, electrically adjustable wing mirrors, USB and Bluetooth connectivity and hill start assist as standard, while upgrading to 1 Air adds air conditioning to the package. The SR7 trimmed models adorns the Rio with 15in alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, a cooled glovebox, privacy glass and automatic headlights.

The mid-range Rio '2' omits some of the nicer features on the SR7 including the parking sensors, privacy glass and automatic headlights, but adds 16in alloys, front foglights and folding door mirrors, while the 3 adds luxuries such as 17in alloys, rear parking sensors, automatic headlights and wipers, climate control, heated front seats and cruise control. There is also the inclusion of Kia's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav and reversing camera.

Opting for the range-topping Rio 4, you will find a sunroof, leather upholstery, heated steering wheel, and keyless entry and start fitted as standard.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Rio side profile

The Kia Rio is a mixed bag here. Most models are as fast as they ought to be. In our test, the 1.4-litre engine and slick six-speed gearbox allowed it to reach 60mph in 11.4ec, roughly what Kia claims and perfectly acceptable for the class.

From there, performance tails off as peak power does with the other engines – but, broadly speaking, it stays competitive. The 1.2-litre petrol is next quickest model, at a claimed 12.6sec to 60mph – followed by the 1.4-litre CRDI (13.7sec) and finally by the 1.1-litre diesel (15.5sec).

In the petrols, torque and response from lower revs isn't as great as in turbocharged rivals

There is, however, more to performance than sheer numbers, and although we would never expect a humble supermini to tug the socks from your feet, what we would like is the Rio to give the same feeling of willingness and response from lower revs that you get in some of its rivals.

This isn’t a big criticism, but while the 1.4-litre Rio has 101lb ft at 4000rpm (as much as many of its direct rivals), its engine seemingly wants to be spinning fast before it’s prepared to give its best. 

It’s something that’s beginning to affect the feel of many naturally aspirated superminis. Smaller-capacity turbo petrols (you’ll find 129lb ft at low revs in the turbocharged 1.2-litre Skoda Fabia, and similar torque levels from Ford’s Fiesta Ecoboost) and turbodiesels give better low-end response.

Once you’re at your chosen speed the headline petrol Rio is fine, noise levels are low and the Kia makes a very respectable cruiser. So we are not making major criticisms here, but such is the competitiveness and tightness of qualities in this market sector that even little things count. 

The 1.4-litre CRDI is more in step with the class state-of-the-art as far as diesels are concerned. It suffers with a rather flat zone at around 2000rpm, but pulls generously once you’re through that, and refinement levels are decent. It officially returns 68.9mpg and 109g/km, meaning it is broadly competitive with its supermini rivals on economy and emissions.

If economy is the main concern, the 1.1-litre CRDI EcoDynamics five-door model, despite its tiny capacity and apparently measly 74bhp, delivers respectable if somewhat uneven performance thanks to its 125lb ft of torque. CO2 and fuel consumption figures are outstanding, at 85g/km and 88.3mpg combined. For a one-off premium over a 1.25-litre petrol, those numbers should look very appealing indeed to anyone who plans to keep their Rio for a long time, and who isn’t looking for a particularly spirited driving experience.

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Rio cornering

Kia's ability to hone a car that rides and handles deftly enough to meet European standards is now well-established. The original Cee'd was the breakthrough. The Sportage was more successful than the Kia Picanto at apeing that success, true. But in general the trend is still upwards. So it’s no surprise to find that the Rio rides and handles properly, too.

Of the two traits, it’s more focused towards ride, which is perhaps unsurprising. Around town, the Rio shows off some very respectable damping, and only sizeable surface imperfections present it with any problems. It’s a compromise that the Rio retains at higher speeds, riding A-roads and motorways in decent comfort, albeit with less evidence of fine damper tuning than, say, a Ford Fiesta, and seemingly with less noise absorption and therefore a feeling of less maturity than a Vauxhall Corsa.

It’s no surprise to find that the Rio rides and handles properly

The Rio is also slightly susceptible to crosswinds. Its steering is light, perhaps too light, and responsive just off the straight-ahead. To say that it’s nervous would be stretching it too far, but it lacks the straight-line stability you’ll find in its best European rivals.

What is relatively impressive is its body control, especially given the decent ride comfort. Show the Rio a challenging set of road bumps and its suspension seldom runs out of ideas. Again, a Fiesta stays flatter and more composed, but there aren’t many cars between the Rio and the Ford at the top end of the class.

The Rio’s brakes are very impressive. The car pulls up in short order and with good pedal feel, for which you can thank what might seem like over-specified mechanicals, with ventilated discs on the front and solid rear discs.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Kia rio

Despite the injection of sophistication and desirability, Kia hasn’t totally forgotten that we expect it to adopt a market-leading position on value for money. Skoda’s Fabia 1.2 TSI is the only true rival that gets close enough to compete with the 1.4-litre Rio petrol across the board: on power, performance and economy.

Entry-level 1.1-litre diesel models, in '1' spec', will typically undercut rivals like the Ford Fiesta. The more powerful 1.4-litre diesel will also usually prove cheaper than equivalents, and substantially so when it comes to the likes of the Volkswagen Polo.

You'll need to buy a Dacia Sandero to significantly better the Rio's value-for-money

Economy is also very respectable right across the Rio model range. A 1.4 petrol will return almost 50mpg on a long 60-70mph motorway run, and better than 40mpg in mixed use.

The 1.25-litre petrol won’t better that by much, but both diesels should. Expect a day-to-day 50mpg from the 1.4 CRDI without trying too hard, and just better than 60mpg from the 1.1-litre diesel in real world conditions.

Other advantages of buying Kia are the seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty, as well as its Care-3 servicing offer, which buys three years of services for just less than £300, and is transferable to the next owner.

VERDICT

3.5 star Kia Rio

We almost know what to expect from the Rio as an all-new Kia now. Each of its new arrivals is a vast improvement over its predecessor, and so many have appeared since 2008 that a distinct brand identity is beginning to emerge.

If it’s true that you can tell an unbadged Ford or a Volkswagen from the way they drive and the way they feel, so too is it beginning to be true that you can tell a Kia.

The Rio is very well-priced and has an industry-leading warranty

The modern Kia is moderately attractive to look at, moderately attractive to sit in and moderately attractive to drive.

So far, so moderately good. And that would be it, were it not for the fact that one traditional Kia trait more or less remains.

To ensure that its cars maintain a distinct advantage, they’re still very well priced and have an industry-leading warranty. That’s enough to make the Rio more than just moderately appealing.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Rio 2011-2017 First drives