Small cars are truly no longer synonymous with cheap and nasty.
In order to move any non-rental-fleet units at all over the past decade, manufacturers have had to race to give their small cars higher tech and more premium makeovers.
Hyundai gets a free pass because its (relatively outdated) Accent is favoured by rental and corporate fleets, the Toyota Yaris has good brand equity in Australia, and the Honda Jazz for the longest time has traded on its almost minivan-esque practicality.
To win over newer generation buyers though, you need one key ingredient – technology. Mazda gets this, with its heavily-marketed-to-youth Mazda2 – full of premium feeling Mazda3 parts and an excellent multimedia system. Kia has followed suit with the latest slew of updates to the Rio last year.
This is the cheapest one you can buy, the S grade, in manual guise. So, is it worthy of your consideration in this hotly contested segment? I found out.
I’m working on a little project building a bar top on my balcony, and Saturday is the only day I really get to work on it.
Without really thinking it through, I hopped in the little Rio and drove it down to an outlet in Balmain and took my time selecting a piece of wood that will serve as the basis for the whole thing. The problem was, I was looking for something 190cm long.
One look at the Rio told me this wasn’t going to work, but I’d already purchased a nice piece of spotted gum and didn’t want to wait a whole week to pick it up, so in it went.
To my surprise it fit. Just. Impressive for a car with a 258cm wheelbase.
Can you fit a 190cm long bar-top in a Kia Rio? Yes, yes you can.
It’s all thanks to the Rio’s brilliant packaging. This is a little car that really extracts the max out of its dimensions. Boot space is getting close to class leading, bested only by the Accent hatch (370 litres), the Suzuki Baleno (355L) and Jazz (354L). With the rear seats in place the Rio offers 325L (VDA) of capacity and 980L with the rear seats down.
It manages to do all that while looking fantastic. Cheif design officer, Peter Schreyer, has well and truly put his stamp on the Rio. It doesn’t look boxy, nor does it try to look particularly sporty, but the understated look is nice and modern from every angle, including the affectionately-named ‘tiger nose’ round the front.
The Rio's overall form is a nice blend of style and practicality.
Inside there’s an air of ‘premium’ to the Rio thanks to the shared bits from larger Kia models, and a classy dash layout that betrays the car’s price by looking and even feeling nice.
The only things that take away from the Rio’s design are the increasingly-less-common steel wheels on the S grade and some minor ergonomic issues up front. Legroom for the driver was surprisingly limited by the steering wheel being in the way (trust me, you really notice that when driving a manual) and the doors didn’t have a soft surface for my elbow. Irritating on longer trips.
Possibly the most important part of the Rio’s insides, though, is its 7.0-inch multimedia system. It’s the same system used across the Kia and Hyundai model ranges, and to see it here, in the cheapest Rio variant is impressive stuff.
The headline act of the Rio's interior is that 7.0-inch multimedia system. The cabin betrays the price point, too.
As I’ve said before, this unit is easily one of the best on the market, it puts similar systems by Honda, Suzuki and especially Toyota to shame. It’s well laid out, has a responsive touch interface and comes packed with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Its only legitimate competitor is Mazda’s MZD system, but that lacks Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and is not available on the similarly-priced Mazda2 Neo.
Speaking of price, if you’re even considering the cheapest grade of any car in this segment, you’ll know every dollar counts, so it’s a bit of a shame the Rio S manual costs $16,990 plus on-road costs. That’s more expensive than the Suzuki Swift GL manual ($15,990), Honda Jazz VTi manual ($14,990) and Mazda2 Neo manual (also $14,990).
Running 'steelies' with 'affordable' looking plastic hubcaps is a bit of a let-down at $16,990.
And while the better multimedia offering stands above all of those, the price puts it perilously close to the $17,690 Mazda2 Maxx manual, which comes packed with alloy wheels, the aforementioned MZD system andauto emergency braking (AEB) as standard – a key safety feature that isn’t available on any Rio variant…
With the timber out of the back, it was time to take the Rio on a bit of a test circuit.
First up, it’s important to note that the Rio is available with just one engine across the range in Australia, it’s a 1.4-litre unit that produces 74kW/133Nm.
The Rio's 74kW engine is about right for the segment, but is let down by the transmission options.
That’s not exciting stuff, but about right for the segment. The problem comes from the transmission choices.
Our car was a six-speed manual which, if you can still drive one, is the better choice. At least on paper.
I say that because the only other transmission available (at a $2100 premium) is an ancient four-speed traditional automatic that actually has worse fuel consumption figures than the manual.
The manual looks better on paper, but brought out the worst of the engine in practice.
However, as I found out around some northern beaches hills, the manual revealed the weaknesses of the engine, which is just gutless below 3000rpm. This leaves you shuffling the first three ratios all too often to keep up with traffic. I’d argue a more finely tuned five-speed would be better in a car this size.
Your experience may vary, but I threw the official consumption figure of 5.6L/100km out to 8.0L/100km… I was driving it pretty hard though. The Rio happily drinks plain old 91RON regular unleaded.
Thankfully the rest of the drive experience proved the Kia still had a few tricks up its sleeve.
One of the things the brand has become most famous for is the locally-tuned suspension, which works wonders even here in the base-grade.
It stays confident and planted through the corners, while soaking up even the more savage inner-city potholes with a surprising amount of grace. The steering, too, is weighted just right.
I found visibility around town was also great and the seats were suitably comfortable, although I did have to adjust the front seat a fair bit due to the lack of legroom in the front.
Up front, the cabin is practical, but driver leg room was somehow a little cramped.
Like most other current Kia and Hyundai products the practicality list is extensive.
The Rio has giant cupholders for front and rear passengers in the doors (that were somehow too big for a 600ml bottle of water) and a neat two-tiered storage alcove with plenty of room for two phones, a USB port and 12-volt outlet under the air-con controls.
Rare but welcome additions in the cabin for a car this size included a roof-mounted sunglass holder and a centre armrest console (a $454.31 option for the Mazda2, I might add...). Combine all that with the large boot and you can rest assured it’s unlikely you’ll manage to run out of room for things in the Rio.
I fit behind my driving position, but there wasn't much in it.
Although modern active safety items like AEB, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assist are missing from the entire range, the Rio has a five-star ANCAP safety rating (tested 2017). It also scores two ISOFIX points in the rear.
If you somehow haven’t heard, one of the strongest reasons to buy any Kia product is that amazing seven-year, unlimited kilometer warranty. Seven years! This 2018 model car runs out of warranty in 2025! It’s an even bigger deal when you measure it up against many other small cars, where the norm seems to be a straight-up average three-year, 100,000km warranty.
The lazy will be happy to know that the Rio only needs to be serviced once a year or every 15,000km.
The Rio S is a brilliant if flawed little hatchback. The excellent multimedia system and practical cabin are let down by lacklustre drivetrain options and unfortunate pricing that puts it right in the sights of buyers looking up to value offerings like the Mazda 2 Maxx, or down to the bargain-basement practicality of the Honda Jazz VTi.
How important are multimedia systems when considering a car? Tell us what you think in the comments.