From £16,9707
Kia's Rio-based SUV is short on personality and interior finesse, but the Stonic is one of the better-handling small SUVs out there


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

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

Still, it’s better that the Kia stands out from the crowd - yes, crowd - because the small SUV market is one of the biggest there is. In fact, this segment has doubled in size since the Stonic made its debut in 2017, and that’s why almost every mainstream manufacturer (and more than the odd premium one) offers what is effectively a supermini on stilts. 

The big players are the Nissan Juke, Peugeot 2008 and Ford Puma, as well as the Kia's sister car, the Hyundai Kona. Given the number of contenders splashing about, the water in the shallow end of the junior soft-roader market’s swimming pool is evidently rather lovely at present. You wonder, frankly, how many more paddlers it can take.

Customers shopping for a ‘B-segment SUV’, we are told, aren’t necessarily after ruggedness or capability, but are looking instead for a ‘right-sized’ hatchback – having ruled out a Golf-sized conventional five-door as more car than they need. They want the convenience of a fairly high driver seat, and the improved visibility that grants, as well as a good-sized boot – in a package that’s still lighter and more economical than the average family hatchback. They also like the alternative design appeal of the modern crossover; or at least, they like the idea of not owning another ordinary five-door family hatchback exactly like their last car.

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So it’s a good thing the Stonic is a handsome car. Kia says it’s deliberately styled to appeal to everyone, unlike the love-it-or-hate-it look of the Nissan Juke. In fact, the Stonic continues a rich vein of design form from Kia that started with the third-generation Sportage in 2009 and has culminated with the recently launched all-electric EV6

A facelift in 2021 softened some of the edges and reprofoled the bumpers, but it still mixes hatchback and SUV design idioms sensitively but to striking effect, being particularly handsome – to this tester’s eyes – from the rear three-quarter. Suffice it to say, this is a car you’ll notice when you see one on the road.

Despite Kia’s effort to push upmarket, there’s not a huge amount of soft-touch material. Still it feels robustly built and the dashboard is neatly laid out and easy to use, thanks in no small part to the larger 8.0-inch touchscreen that was added during the recent updates as well as some new trim materials.  Also included was a revised 4.2-inch trip computer screen that offers sharper graphics.

From a functional perspective, though, it’s not immediately obvious when you’re getting in if the Stonic’s had quite enough SUV identity baked into it. You lower yourself down into the driver’s seat rather than sliding conveniently sideways into it, and the view you get out isn’t what you’d call commanding. Headroom is generous and there’s plenty of height adjustment on the driver’s seat cushion, allowing you to perch closer to typical crossover height if you want to. But overall, this isn’t a driving position that instantly smacks of easy accessibility or convenience.

For those in the rear, the Stonic’s back seats are just large enough for an average-sized adult to sit comfortably behind another, and they’ll be fine for kids in booster seats. Taller adults will need to spread their knees and slouch in their seats to avoid contact with the seatback and roof. The car’s boot is a good size at 352-litres and has a handy split-level ‘boot board’-type false floor – but it also has a loading lip over which heavier cargo will need to be lifted. More mixed tidings, then.

There are few complaints about the equipment levels, with all versions of the Stonic featuring all the essentials and more. The entry-level 2 features 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, electric windows and that larger 8.0-inch touchscreen complete with Apple CarPlay and Android auto. There’s a comprehensive array of safety equipment too, including autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection.

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Step up to the GT-Line and you benefit from larger alloy wheels, climate control, and rear parking sensors, while the Connect model adds keyless entry, climate control, part faux-leather seat trim and on the outside a two-tone exterior with contrasting roof colour.

This paint scheme also features on the GT-Line S, which also shares its LED headlamps with the GT-Line. On top of this kit it also adds heated seats and steering wheel and extra driver aids, including blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and, on models equipped with the DCT twin-clutch transmission, adaptive cruise control.

Sharing its platform with Kia’s Rio supermini, the Stonic has the same wheelbase as the Rio 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.

Since there’s no option of four-wheel drive in the Stonic either and no engine more powerful than 118bhp, this is a car that plainly wears its SUV garb quite loosely. But that’s increasingly common in cars of this class. 

The mid-life refresh in 2021 saw a small-shake-up of the engine range, with the previous petrol and diesel motors dropped in favour of a single, 1.0-litre three pot petrol version of Kia’s new-generation Smartstream unit, which adds variable value technology for a claimed better efficiency and improved torque than the Kappa motor it replaces. 

This unit is available in two guises - as an entry-level 99bhp and in 118bhp mild-hybrid guise as tested here. Featuring a 48V integrated starter generator (which Kia brands EcoDynamics+) it is mated to the firm’s new 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.

As you’d expect, 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 51.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 125g/km for the six-speed manual, while the seven-speed DCT manages the same 49.6mpg and 129g/km as the entry-level 99bhp non-hybrid model with either gearbox.

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Despite that new tech, from behind the wheel the changes feel as subtle as the Stonic’s styling tweaks. The engine offers a classic three-pot feel, occasionally raspy but largely quiet, and with a touch of refinement offered by the engine-off coasting. The iMT gearbox feels much like a traditional manual: it pairs well with the engine and is responsive, although hardly thrilling. 

Around town, it tends to surge a little in response to initial throttle inputs, and so isn’t always as smooth as you’d like away from standing. But there’s plenty of accessible torque here, which makes zipping the car up to speed, maintaining your momentum – and overtaking when you need to – easy to do.

The car’s suspension tuning, like its exterior design, is clearly intended to make it stand out in a growing crowd of similar small cars, specifically by engendering a thrusting, poised driving experience – and in that mission, the car only partly succeeds, especially against the backdrop of assured and entertaining performers such as the Ford Puma.

Its low speed ride is firm and slightly tetchy around town, where really the car ought to feel more at home than the average supermini. The Stonic’s body fidgets and fusses over uneven roads, and while its body control settles down a little bit at higher speeds, it never even approaches the enhanced comfort and isolation levels that you expect of a high-riding car.

The Stonic handles keenly up to a point and keeps its body flat at all times but, though it steers with pace, there’s a little too much leaden weight at the rim, and too little genuine incisiveness off-centre, to make you really enthused. The car’s grip levels are only moderate, while the car’s driving experience certainly isn’t as comfortable as you might have expected it to be, neither is it coherently fun. Yet driven with everyday restraint it’s capable and composed, managing everything you throw at it without giving you cause to think about what it’s doing, and for its target market that’s no doubt fine. If you’re looking for fun, however, you’ll need to seek out your Ford dealer and try one of their Pumas.

Yet there's still plenty to commend the Kia. No it’s not a class leader, but it’s a stylish, pleasantly likeable and slightly alternative to many. The recent changes to the car haven’t vaulted it up the pecking order, but the tweaks have been worthwhile, in particular the 48V mild hybrid that brings a dash of refinement and a useful bit of extra fuel economy. 

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It remains a machine well suited to the needs of likely buyers with a number of admirable strengths. But while the sharp end of the class has moved forward thanks to the Puma and T-Cross, the Stonic has merely kept pace with the chasing pack behind.

First drives