Despite handsome looks and generous spec, the 4th-generation Kia Rio has struggled to challenge the frontrunners in the compact hatchback segment. However, a mid-cycle facelift and the addition of value-packed 1.4 LS derivatives could see the revised Rio make more buyers’ shortlists. Cars.co.za contributor Terence Steenkamp drove the newcomer during its local launch in Cape Town…
It's a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it facelift to one of the B-segment’s more stylish contenders. Kia introduced its first Rio in 1999 and this 4th-generation model has been around since mid-2017. In the past 3 years, the Rio has established a strong footing in the fleet market (specifically the 1.2 LS), but Kia’s local division hopes to attract more private buyers to showrooms and boost the 5% share the handsome Korean hatchback commands in its segment. By comparison, 35% of cars sold in this sector are VW Polos, while Hyundai’s i20 draws 11% of buyers. There’s work to be done…
ICYMI: Kia Rio (2020) Specs & Price
The facelifted Rio features a reprofiled bumper and a pinched 'tiger-nose' grille treatment.
Little of that work’s taken place on the design, but arguably few tweaks needed to be made to the still-contemporary bodywork. You’ll spot a facelifted Rio via its flatter "tiger nose" grille and reprofiled front bumper with relocated fog lamps (the latter on higher-spec derivatives). Entry-level LS grade gains 15-inch alloys wheels as standard, while the 2nd-from-the-top EX grade now boasts 17-inch wheels that mirror those used on the flagship TEC spec. Two new metallic paint colours are offered – Perennial Grey and Sporty Blue, the bright hue perfectly matching the name.
The big news is the addition of the 1.4 LS option; previously, only the 1.2-litre 4-pot was offered in this bottom-rung spec. The engines and transmissions are as before, which means you have the option of a 61 kW/120 Nm 1.2-litre coupled with a 5-speed manual transmission, or a 73 kW/135 Nm 1.4-litre with the option of a 6-speed manual or an auto ‘box with the same ratio count (Kia updated the latter in December 2018; before that, it was an archaic 4-speeder, so it's advisable to double-check the spec of the transmission if you’re in the market for a used Rio automatic).
Even 1.2- and 1.4 LS derivatives of the revamped Kia Rio range come equipped with 15-inch alloys.
Inside, the changes are subtle but effective. All derivatives now feature an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, as well as Bluetooth telephony and streaming, while separate USB ports serve front and rear passengers. The LS grade also gains 2 speakers (for a total of 6), but only a pair of front airbags are fitted; by contrast, the top-of-the-range 1.4 TEC cushions front occupants’ heads and torsos during side impacts. Electronic stability control has been added to the LX level upwards.
Judging by the solid materials employed throughout the cabin and the lack of rattles and squeaks on both Rio derivatives I drove, the cockpit should hold up well to strenuous daily use. Space throughout is impressive thanks to a comparatively long wheelbase (2 580 mm between the axles). The load bay is claimed to accommodate a class-competitive 325 litres worth of luggage.
If you can afford the 2nd-from-the-bottom 1.4 LS instead of the entry-level 1.2 LS, it's certainly worth a closer look.
What’s it like to drive?
Kia SA was industrious enough to lend me a pre-facelift Rio to pilot on the weekend preceding the launch. Industrious not because doing so highlighted any great advances on the revised version – the facelift’s ultimately too slight for that – but because I had a chance to drive the 1.2 LS and then jump behind the wheel of the new 1.4 LS – a R11 000 pricier option. Let me tell you right here and now: if you can afford the difference, it’s money very well spent (besides netting you an additional 2 years/30 000 km on the service plan, effectively an extra pair of paid-for services).
While the 1.2-litre version is sufficiently punchy at urban speeds, it feels outgunned on the highway. Its 1.4-litre counterpart adds the required pep to make overtaking less of a hair-raising affair and, thanks to that 6th gear, drops the revs to an unobtrusive background murmur at the national speed limit (120 kph). However, if you buy a Rio, accept that performance will lag behind that of the Volkswagen Polo and Ford Fiesta, whose 3-pot turbocharged engines respond with more vigour to throttle inputs from low revs and are more refined overall by comparison.
The 1.4 LS rides in a nicely-composed fashion, allied with impressive body control.
I test drove both manual and automatic options and would wholeheartedly recommend the former. The 6-speeder offers tactile, direct shifts and the clutch action is progressive and light, making it easy to drive the manual Rio smoothly. The auto, while a decent example of a torque-converter transmission, constantly hunts between 5th and 6th gears. For in-town use, however, there are obvious advantages to picking the self-shifter.
Thanks to sensible suspension tuning and plump 65-profile tyres encircling the new 15-inch alloy wheels, the 1.4 LS rides in a nicely composed fashion akin to the Polo’s cushioned rolling comfort. Body control is impressive and the secondary ride absorbs road scars well.
Past experience has shown the Rio’s ride quality to be particularly sensitive to wheel sizes, something to keep in mind if you’re eyeing the EX- and TEC-grade derivatives shod with 45-profile rubber. The steering system – controlled through a plastic-rimmed wheel on LS grade – is well-weighted and direct, making it second nature to place the Rio in traffic. Ultimately, this is an easy, fuss-free car to drive.
Value-for-money is ever-important: the 1.4 LS offers virtually everything you need from a lower-spec compact hatchback.
The addition of the 1.4 LS to the range has tangibly boosted the Rio's appeal. Offering all the standard features most buyers will need – aside from the items already mentioned, the LS grade also includes a central armrest, the usual electric windows and mirrors, steering-wheel-mounted controls and 60:40 split-folding rear seats – with sufficiently punchier performance compared with its 1.2 sibling – it’s the Rio to get.
Priced on the acceptable side of R300 000, the 1.4 LS offers particularly good value against such rivals as the costlier Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost Trend and Hyundai i20 1.4 Fluid. The main hindrance to bigger sales success, though, will likely remain the slightly cheaper Volkswagen Polo 1.0 TSI Trendline. For those buyers who don’t want to be part of the 35% buying the German option each month, the Korean contender is arguably a more compelling alternative than ever before...