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Kia Rio 2011 review

EXPERT RATING
7

The Rio was the car that really carved Kia a place in the Australian market in 2000. A cheap but not always cheerful bargain box, the Rio staked its claim on decent fuel economy and great drive-away prices. However the styling and fit-out were undesirable, build quality was questionable, and the driving experience almost unbearable.

A decade on, and all that has changed - except for the fuel economy. It's still decent, but now so is the car. And while Kia is trying to move out of the bargain basement, the Rio is still well-priced for what you get.

Value

The Kia Rio's top spec GDI SLi is priced from $21,990 - a considerable jump over the previous model, which topped out about $3000 below that.

Part of that extra is an equipment list that includes daytime running lights, 17-in alloy wheels with full-size alloy spare, larger disc brakes, projector headlights with 'cornering' front lamps, cruise control, heated mirrors, hill holder and touches of leather.

Suzuki's Swift GLX beats the Rio's price by $1300 and is a solid choice for the budget, but has considerably less power and torque with no economy benefit, outdated auto, and styling that needs another update to take it beyond the once-over-lightly from earlier this year.

The popular Toyota Yaris YRX hatch undercuts the Rio by $600, and while it's got a good features list, it suffers the same woes as the Swift: less oomph, less style and getting out of date.

The sales topper is the Mazda2, which in Genki spec is just $155 more than the Rio, still looks sharp and is well kitted-out. While it can't match the Kia's usable space, outputs and economy, it's still a great little driver and a great buy.

The class benchmark is still last year's Carsguide COTY, the Volkswagen Polo 77TSI, which looks dull but for $360 more gives you a spicy and frugal little turbo engine, 7-speed twin-clutch and the kind of dynamics that always leave a smile on your face.

The Rio's family rival is the (also newly arrived) Hyundai Accent hatch whose platform it shares, and while costing $1000 more it misses out on a little of the Rio's spec and is down two gears, 12kW and 11Nm -- and a bit thirstier too.

Also $1000 more and with less power and torque is the Ford Fiesta, but with a great twin-clutch auto, matching economy and a fun drive.

Design

The signature 'tiger face' penned for Kia by design chief Peter Schreyer (who moved across from Audi) looks great on the little Rio, giving it a bold entry point. It backs that up with proportions that make the most of a longer and wider mark-up, with a lower sloping roofline reducing the 'tall box' impression that plagues the light car class.

The interior is fantastic above base level, with excellent upholstery on well-shaped seats, quality dash and door finishes, a steering wheel that feels good in the hand, and a feeling of light and space - helped by folding rear seats that more than triple the 288-litre cargo space.

Safety

The new arrival hasn't yet been given an ANCAP rating, but will hopefully do better than the previous model's three stars. To help it in the safety stakes, it comes with six airbags (the old one had two), hill-start assist, stability and traction controls, anti-lock brakes with brake-force distribution that calculates what's needed at each wheel for uneven weight loading, and brake assist for panic stops.

Technology

The SLi carries a direct-injection 1.6-litre petrol engine that develops103kW of power and 167Nm of torque - an improvement on the 82kW and 145Nm of the previous model. It gets that to the front wheels via a six-speed sports automatic that helps deliver official fuel economy of 6.1L/100km on a combined cycle (although we were getting closer to 7.1 through most of our mixed driving and shot up above 8 when it was just city circuits).

Like the rest of the Kia range, the Rio's underpinnings have been localised for the Aussie market. The works gives tweaked dampers to the MacPherson sturt front/ torsion beam rear suspension and a heftier stabiliser bar up front, while the power-assisted rack and pinion steering is sharper than the previous hydraulic set-up.

Driving

We put the little Rio through something of a torture test, demanding it cart a full load of five grain-fed Aussie adults around. And it came through with a decent mark, especially for shoulder space.

While none of the labrats wanted to spend the rest of their life in the back seat, everybody agreed it was comfortably snug, rather than outright cramped. It's wider than most of its rivals by just a couple of centimetres - but they're important ones.

The engine coped relatively well with the job, except when we needed to head uphill or try to grab a gap in the traffic. That demanded a firm slap down with the gearshift to try and get more torque, and even then it felt a bit begrudging.

This is also when things got a bit noisier, but otherwise the cabin was adequately quiet except when the tyres hit rough-chip surfaces.

Handling is surprisingly agile, helped by the splayed stance, firm-ish ride and grippy tyres, but the choppy bumps and cracks make themselves felt more than they would on smaller wheels. But that aside, the Rio is a car you can actually enjoy driving.

Verdict

It's far from perfect, but it's also far from the exiting model in every important way. The more time you spend with the Rio, the more you appreciate the progress it's made in quality, style and equipment.

Pricing guides

$8,495
Based on 62 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$3,990
Highest Price
$12,990

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
S 1.4L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $3,400 – 5,500 2011 Kia Rio 2011 S Pricing and Specs
Si 1.6L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $3,400 – 5,500 2011 Kia Rio 2011 Si Pricing and Specs
SLi 1.6L, ULP, 6 SP MAN $4,000 – 6,490 2011 Kia Rio 2011 SLi Pricing and Specs
Sports 1.4L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $2,800 – 4,840 2011 Kia Rio 2011 Sports Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
7