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Kia's Rio-based SUV is short on personality and interior finesse but it's one of the better-handling cars in its class

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Funny name, the Kia Stonic, isn’t it? It actually comes from the words ‘speedy’ and ‘tonic’. This blending of words is supposed to evoke youthfulness and fun, according to Kia. It's evoked plenty of reactions, that’s for sure.  

But it's a good thing that the Kia stands out from the crowd – yes, crowd – because the small SUV market is one of the largest in the automotive space. In fact, since the Kia Stonic arrived in 2017, the compact crossover market has more than doubled in size – and that’s why almost every mainstream manufacturer (and even the odd premium brand) offers what is effectively a supermini on stilts. 

There’s little in the way of body roll, which is a pleasant surprise, although the seats aren’t the last word in supportiveness

At present, the key players in the field are the Ford Puma, Nissan Juke, Peugeot 2008 and the Stonic’s cousin, the Hyundai Kona. But with a smorgasbord of models filling the B-segment SUV buffet table, there is a question mark as to how many more platters it can take. 

We’re told that those in the market for a soft-roader are typically uninterested by ruggedness and capability, but are instead after a hatchback-sized car – and they’ve decided that a five-door Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus is a little too big for their needs. 

Buyers want a high seating position that brings with it good visibility; a well-proportioned boot that’s good enough for the Friday big shop; and enough room in the back for children. But crucially, they want all this goodness in a lighter, more economical setting than the average family hatchback. 

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The appeal of a modern crossover is a strong draw, and they like the idea of not following the mainstream of owning a five-door family hatchback. And it's for these reasons that many will arrive at the doorstep of a Kia dealership and drive away in a Stonic instead of a Xceed. 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Kia Stonic 2021 RT update hero side

The Stonic is a handsome car. Kia admits that it's deliberately styled to appeal to everyone, unlike the more marmite look of the Nissan Juke. 

Much of the Stonic’s design is inspired by the previous-generation Sportage, and continues the rich vein of design form from Kia that has led the brand to launch more outlandish models such as the EV6 and more recently the EV9 SUV. 

A mild facelift in 2021 softened some of the Stonic’s edges; reprofiled bumpers and tweaks to the headlights helped, too. This has culminated in the Stonic neatly combining SUV and hatchback design expressions to good effect – and, to this tester's eyes at least, it looks particularly fine from the rear three-quarter.

Suffice to say, the Stonic is a car you’ll notice on the road – and our test car was finished in Honey Bee yellow, adding more (ahem) sting to its appearance.

There’s a good mix of trim levels too, starting with the entry-level Stonic 2, moving up to mid-range GT-Line and book-ended by the GT-Line S, which is the guise our test car arrived in. Opt for GT-Line and you benefit from larger alloy wheels, climate control and rear parking sensors. 

Heated seats - which work very well - and heated steering wheel are added when you step up to GT-Line S trim, with some extra driver aids thrown in too, including blindspot monitoring, lane departure warning and, on models equipped with the DCT dual-clutch transmission, adaptive cruise control.

Sharing its platform with the Kia Rio (which is no longer sold in the UK), the Stonic has the same wheelbase as its supermini sibling, but it’s slightly wider and longer in the rear overhang, as well as having a slightly 'jacked-up' ride height and an even higher-rising roofline. Still, the most meaningful differences between this car and its supermini donor are slight: 42mm on ground clearance and 70mm on overall height.

INTERIOR

Kia Stonic interior wide

There isn’t much of a buzz inside the Stonic, and despite Kia’s best efforts to push it upmarket, there’s not a huge amount of soft-touch material.

Some bits feel better than others, like the armrest, for example, but there’s heavy use of scratchy plastics on the doors and lower down by your feet. Still, it all feels robust and solid: a dog would have trouble chewing its way through bits of trim, that’s for sure. 

Where the Stonic excels is the configuration of the dashboard, which is thanks in part to the 8.0in touchscreen, which is standard across all models. It’s a doddle to use and easy to navigate between menus due to the addition of some physical buttons that sit below the touchscreen. 

In fact, the number of physical buttons in the Stonic is a refreshing sight, especially when so many of its rivals have now adopted touch-operated buttons that can be infuriatingly tricky to use on the move. The screen itself is okay: it’s a bit laggy at times, especially when you try to zoom in and out of the navigation map.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come as standard, and while it doesn't operate wirelessly via Bluetooth, it's very easy to connect your smartphone using the USB port under the climate controls and, once connected, it works well. Also included is a revised 4.2in trip computer screen that offers sharper graphics. 

From a functional perspective, though, the SUV identity of the Stonic feels half-baked compared with the Ford Puma, for example. Rather than slide conveniently sideways into the driver's seat, you lower yourself down, which means the view out isn’t what you’d call commanding. 

There’s plenty of head room and height adjustment in the seat. You can crank the lever on the right-hand side to a more crossover-like height should you wish. But overall, this isn’t a driving position that instantly smacks of easy accessibility or convenience.

Rear space is best suited to kids in booster seats and, at a push, an average-sized adult. Taller passengers will need to spread their knees and slouch in their seats to avoid contact with the headliner. With the driver’s seat in our tester's preferred position, leg room was also very limited. 

The boot, in contrast, is a good size at 352 litres and has a handy split-level ‘boot board’-type false floor. There is a rather annoying loading lip, though, which you’ll have to lift heavy cargo over. There are worse hardships, but you’ll notice it when loading your shopping. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Stonic engine

Considering that the Stonic isn’t offered with a four-wheel-drive option and the most powerful engine available is a 118bhp three-cylinder, it’s fair to say that the Kia is more supermini than SUV. 

During its mid-life refresh in 2021, the engine range was given a shake-up, with the previous petrol and diesel motors dropped in favour of a single 1.0-litre three-pot petrol version of the Korean brand’s new-generation Smartstream unit. The headline feature of the Smartstream engine is its variable valve technology, which is claimed to improve efficiency and torque compared with the Kappa motor it replaces. 

You have a choice of two guises: an entry-level 99bhp unit or a 118bhp mild-hybrid version as tested here. Featuring a 48V integrated starter-generator (which Kia brands EcoDynamics+), it is mated to the firm’s intelligent manual transmission (iMT) gearbox. 

The six-speed box is actuated electrically rather than mechanically, which is designed to maintain the engagement of a manual while maximising the fuel economy and emissions benefits of the 48V ISG.

Despite all the new technology, from behind the wheel the changes to its underbelly feel as subtle as the tweaks to its styling. The engine delivers a classic three-pot feel, delivering the occasional raspy thrum. Once up to speed, it's relatively quiet, but from standstill, it is rather noisy compared with rivals. 

The iMT gearbox performs on its role as a traditional manual well: it pairs aptly with the engine, and the throw is neither short nor long. Being electrically and not mechanically actuated, there is little resistance or feel to the gearbox when you shift up and down. It’s hardly thrilling, but in this setting, it does its job. 

Around town, it tends to surge a little in response to initial throttle inputs, and so it isn’t always as smooth as you’d like when pulling away from standing. Still, there is enough power and torque on hand for zipping up to speed or – should you need to – overtaking.

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Stonic front cornering

Kia has clearly intended to make the Stonic stand out from the crowd in both its exterior design and suspension tuning, aiming to edge ahead of rivals by provoking a composed and thrusting driving experience. 

But in such a competitive segment, the Stonic only partly succeeds, especially when it's compared with cars like the more refined and entertaining Ford Puma. 

At lower speeds, the ride is firm and fracious, especially around town, where it should feel more at home than the average supermini. You find yourself being jostled around more – although this isn’t helped by the seats, which aren’t particularly supportive. 

On uneven roads and consistent imperfections, the body fidgets and fusses, and despite the Stonic settling at higher speeds, it fails to reach an optimal level of comfort that you expect of a high-riding car. And while wind noise isn’t too intrusive, road noise is more noticeable. 

The Stonic handles keenly and, to its credit, keeps its body flat at all times. But while it steers at pace, there’s a little too much dull weight at the rim, and too little genuine incisiveness off-centre, to make you really enthused. 

This is due in part to the lightness of the rack, which, despite responding well to inputs, generates little to no feel, thus reducing confidence when pressing on. 

Execute more restraint and the Stonic is capable and composed, managing everything you throw at it without you having to think very hard about what it's doing. And when you consider its target market, its steering set-up and moderate levels of grip are acceptable. 

If you’re looking for fun, however, you’ll want to find your local Ford dealership and try a Puma. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Kia Stonic 2021 RT update hero front

Both engines are reasonably efficient and clean-burning, but it’s the mild hybrid that delivers the best on-paper figures, with claimed fuel economy of 50.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 125g/km for the six-speed manual. 

The seven-speed DCT, meanwhile, achieves the same 49.6mpg and 129g/km as the entry-level 99bhp non-hybrid model with either gearbox.

On a 40-mile journey, which included a mix of town, rural and motorway driving, our manual 1.0-litre mild-hybrid Stonic achieved an average of 40.4mpg, which is good but not exceptional. 

GT-Line S cars with the 118bhp motor start from £24,770, although the entry-level model with the 99bhp unit can be had for less at £21,225. Even in top trim, the Stonic is just under £1000 cheaper than the base-model Ford Puma with a similarly powered, hybridised petrol engine. 

Move up the Puma range and the ST-Line Vignale will cost from £29,340, although it does come with a lot of standard kit, including 18in alloy wheels, a digital instrument cluster and extra driving aids such as lane keep assist.

The hike in price over the Kia is evident, though, and we can’t really fault the Stonic’s level of equipment because it has all the important mod-cons, from Apple CarPlay to heated seats. 

VERDICT

Kia Stonic front three quarter static

While it is cheaper and less refined than key rivals, there is a lot of appeal to the Kia. No, it’s not a class leader, but it’s a stylish, attainable and pleasantly likeable alternative to many. 

The adoption of the mild-hybrid engines was the standout addition to the range in 2021, adding better fuel economy and a hint of refinement from behind the wheel. It remains a machine that is robust and capable, being well suited to the needs of likely buyers. 

But in a class of many, where leaders like the Ford Puma and Volkswagen T-Cross have moved the small SUV segment forward, the Stonic has merely kept pace with the chasing pack behind. 

 

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 Stonic First drives