I was staggered to discover, moments before settling down to write this, that it is more than five years since I last drove a Kia Rio, but in truth there hasn't been much reason to. It came on the scene in 2005 and remained pretty much as it was thereafter. Things are different now, however, since Kia has applied the name to a new model.
It's the third in the series, following on from the 2005 model, which was okay, and an earlier version which, though it had its admirers (quite shouty ones in some cases), was pretty awful, and worth considering only because it didn't cost much.
The latest Rio is, I think, the best-looking yet, and quite distinctively Kia-ish at the front, though less so at the rear. There's an awful lot of SEAT going on back there, and perhaps a bit of Renault too - not so much in the detail as in the overall effect.
Inside, the design is simple and the materials cheap, but none of it is offensive and I'm quite fond of basic, honest transport if it's done well. I especially like the way Kia seems to have put effort into making sure that none of the minor controls are too small to be seen or operated conveniently.
In particular, the four large switches protruding from the bottom of the fascia - for, reading from left to right, air-conditioning, heated rear window and choosing recirculated or fresh air - may not look very appealing, but they're very easy to use.
The major controls are good, too, and that contributes to the fact that the Rio is extremely non-threatening to drive round town (except in reverse, because or poor rear visibility, though this is no worse than in many other cars of similar size, or indeed than in many other Kias of any size). Several times during this test I thought that the Rio would be ideal for learners, or inexperienced motorists, or people who just don't like driving much.
For emphasis, I repeat that this is the situation in town. On the open road the Rio rides and handles not too badly on exceptionally smooth roads, but as with many cars which, like this one, were developed in Germany, it reacts badly to the sort of surface which German engineers still have difficulty believing UK drivers are prepared to accept.
Even quite small undulations upset it, and when the going gets tougher still it doesn't know what to do. "There are bumps on this road! Nobody ever mentioned bumps. What am I supposed to do with these?" On one occasion during this test it even skipped off-line when it met something I had never previously considered to be a bump at all, and not by any means at high speed either.
High speeds. Hmm, about that. This particular Rio has a 1.4-litre petrol engine, and with a maximum power output of 107bhp it's very potent for its size. In fact, if you rev it hard, it's quite a screamer. The problem is that if you don't rev it hard, very little happens. It's not so much that it doesn't produce much power at lower speeds (which would be perfectly understandable), more that it just fails to perform the way it should.
It isn't comfortable with more than half throttle at anything below 3000rpm, becoming hesitant and clearly wanting you to drop down a gear or, in some cases, two. It's almost as if either the fuel or ignition mapping aren't right - perhaps both. I like the way it behaves at high revs, but I would trade all of its willingness up there for better throttle response further down the range. This is, after all, hardly the sort of car which most owners are going to take much beyond 3000rpm except on very rare occasions.
There's plenty of room for passengers in the front and a reasonable amount in the back, where the limiting factor for taller folk is the lack of indents in the front seats. On the contrary, they have large and unyielding plastic panels which, in my case, forced my knees so far apart that I felt as if I was in a position to give birth. If the seat ahead had been set for a smaller driver there would have been more room, of course, but I think things might have been organised better.
Luggage capacity is 288 litres with the rear seats in place and 923 when they're folded, making the Rio slightly less practical in this respect than the shorter Ford Fiesta. More importantly, the rear sill is very high, so if you need to put anything in there you have to lift it further off the ground than seems necessary.
There are four trim levels in the Rio range, but this engine is available only with the upper two, which are called 2 and 3. (No, we haven't miscounted. The others are 1 and 1 Air.) The 2 tested here comes with 16" alloy wheels, front foglights, a chrome grille surround, black cloth upholstery, all-round electric windows - the rears being manual in lower spec versions - a cooled glove box, heated folding door mirrors, a central armrest and leather upholstery on the steering wheel and gearknob.
The 3 costs an extra £700, and for that you get 17" wheels with low-profile tyres (no - the ride doesn't need to be any worse), solar privacy glass (probably not - there needs to be more visibility, not less), LED daytime running lights, automatic air-conditioning, cruise control, automatic headlights and wipers, heated front seats and two extra audio speakers, making six in total.
It's not a bad package, for a reasonable if not startlingly good price, and you also get a seven-year/100,000-mile warranty which is transferable anyone who buys the car within that period.
All in all, there's quite a lot to be said in favour of the Rio, but it's far from being Kia's finest effort. Surely the company which has, within the last two years, brought us such excellent machines as the Picanto and the Sportage could have done a better job here?
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