On the surface there’s not a lot new to see here, but delve deeper and you’ll find Kia’s smallest local model has fresh tuning changes as the Australian arm of the Korean conglomerate continues its drive for ride and handling respectability.
WHAT IS IT?
In the Kia range the buck starts with the Rio. It is the entry point to the improving Korean’s line-up, competing in the light car (or mini-car) class. The range is quite comprehensive – three-door, five-door, 1.4 and 1.6, manual and auto – although the sedan has been terminated.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
The UB Rio has been around since 2011 and has just gone through its mid-life facelift. Considering the integrity and attractiveness of the Massimo Frascella-designed exterior (incidentally, Frascella’s now at Jaguar Land Rover and did the new Discovery Sport), there’s no need for a lot of work there. No, the big opportunity lies under the skin, where Kia Motors Australia’s in-house development crew have taken the opportunity to have another go at delivering European levels of ride and handling out of a Korean car.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
It’s a dynamic lift, not a facelift, for Rio. If you value ride and handling, then the progress achieved with this car is worthy. Combine more enjoyable dynamics with existing style, equipment and dollar value and this is a decent contender in this cut-throat class.
PLUS: Looks good, rides and handles better; offers decent value
MINUS: Flaccid four-speed still paired with 1.4; no manual with 1.6
THE WHEELS REVIEW
THE crux of Kia’s midlife facelift of the Rio is buried in the second-last paragraph of a one-page press release: “Across all grades the Rio has benefitted from additional refinement of the ride and handling localisation program from Kia Motors Australia. Ride comfort and control have been improved while steering feel has been moved to a new level.”
That’s it. That’s what a couple of years of number crunching and planning, and six months of negotiating, testing and tuning are reduced to. No mention that the power steering computer processor has doubled in capacity from 16- to 32-bit, meaning the old car’s notable step moving from centre has been tuned out. Nor that spring rates are lighter front and rear, and shock absorbers retuned so the ride is smoother, especially on the most aggressive 17-inch tyre option.
Instead, Kia’s PR blurb focuses on the addition of a new model dubbed S Premium, which sits between the carryover S and Si models, and at the upper end of the range the SLS is replaced by the Sport while the SLi carries on. Also hyped are new front and rear bumper designs and a new grille pattern for the good-looking exterior, as well as a new centre fascia, audio unit design and “a touch of chrome around the air vent” for the functional and attractive interior.
No surprise then that much remains familiar. The 79kW 1.4-litre four-cylinder entry-level engine still mates with either a six-speed manual or four-speed auto, while the more impressive 103kW direct-injection 1.6 now drives solely via a six-speed auto as the manual has been dropped. The sedan has also been given the chop, while the more popular three- and five-door hatch bodies continue.
Pricing carries over, although with the manual gone, the Si we are driving here now starts at $21,490 rather than $19,490. The entry point to the range continues to be the $15,990 S three-door 1.4 manual. Prices for the Sport and SLi have yet to be announced as they are yet to arrive.
So far so ho-hum. But while KMA’s announcement officially plays it down, there’s no doubt the progress in ride and handling is where the real story is – for Wheels readers at least.
The local chassis-tuning program has been around since 2008 and has slowly grown in influence and reach, to the point where no car in the local line-up is untouched. This is the second crack at UB Rio and, after a back-to-back drive of old and new, the incremental but noticeable improvement is obvious.
The Kia team – which works closely with independent ride and handling tuning consultant Graeme Gambold – has unquestionably smoothed the steering without dulling its immediacy, to the point where it’s a real highlight of the car. Light, yet positive, it twirls through one hairpin bend after another with ease. Suburbia is no challenge.
The Rio feels tied down, as the suspension set-up targets are Euro stars led by the Volkswagen Polo. Some may find the tune of the MacPherson struts and torsion beam too terse because there is some bump intrusion. But it is well contained, especially on the Si’s 16-inch rubber. Hit a big depression that would set some cars wobbling and the Rio just keeps on tracking.
Allied with a drivetrain that has good initial tip-in response and respectable performance as it revs without crude intrusions or obvious and uncultured shifts, this suspension improvement makes the Rio Si a good drive. And there’s no need to affix the ‘for a Korean car’ rider to that statement.
Add in the looks, the decent equipment level, efficiently utilised interior space and price competitiveness and the Rio’s credentials are strong. Not as strong as a Mazda 2 or Volkswagen Polo, but certainly better than a Toyota Yaris or the latest, sadly underdone, Honda Jazz.
Model: Kia Rio Si
Engine: 1591cc 4cyl, dohc, 24v
Max power: 103kW @ 6300rpm
Max torque: 167Nm @ 4850rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 10.3sec (est)
On sale: Now
Click here to read the full range review of the Kia Rio.