Great value for money and with a generous helping of features, the fourth generation hatchback is a sophisticated package posing a tough challenge to European brands. Alvin Thomas is convinced of the ‘power to surprise’.
Remember the good old days when the only options you had when buying a hatchback were the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and the Toyota Yaris? Well, those days are long gone. And replacing that list today are a slew of new hatchbacks that are not only taking the challenge to these greats but also beating (or rather annihilating) them at their own game.
One such new entrant is the Kia Rio. Sure, the car has been zooming on the roads in sedan form for about 17 years now, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it really caught the public eye as a hatchback.
And boy, it certainly has upped the ante for competitors in this segment. The Rio, which is only in its fourth generation, maintains both form factors – sedan and hatchback – but this time around it’s the hatch that’s taking the cake.
Why wouldn’t it? It looks pretty darn fabulous for a hatchback. My tester, which was finished in crimson red, looked bold. Albeit, that could also have been because the Rio is longer, wider and shorter – by 15mm, 5mm and 5mm, respectively – than its predecessor.
The front fascia of the new Rio finally earns the respect that it deserves. The newly redesigned wedge-shaped headlamps, which are connected to the faux-gloss black plastic-grille, gives it a very distinct – if a bit European – look. The real intakes are, however, buried in the lower portion of the bonnet, and close to the radiator. Still, the bumper gets distinct character lines that start from the lip and finish at the fog lamps housing.
As the Rio sits lower, the side profile of the hatchback is characteristically sporty, but the roofline that swoops down slightly and the small windows probably add to the effect too. Discerning buyers can also opt for 44cm split eight-spoke alloys. I’ll tell you this: At no point did it look like the Rio was shrunken down from a sedan to a hatchback.
The posterior, on the other hand, keeps in line with its predecessor’s neat and clean look. But yes, the tail lamps, with the three light diffusers, are new. In all, the Kia Rio could easily be the best-looking budget hatchback that you can buy today.
Much of this peppiness and funkiness carries over to the interior too. For instance, there was a large grey metallic-looking strip that took much of the dashboard, and a small but functional 13cm-wide touchscreen right in the middle. The screen is fairly responsive (in a very Kia-ish way) and provides you with multimedia, clock and phone functions. This is also where the reverse camera – with predictable guide lines – resides.
The tachometer is what you would normally find on a Kia product – and it’s nice to see the Rio benefit from that. Kia even chucks in a small information display that will monitor vehicle functions, and even display a digital speedometer, should you need it. The three-spoke steering wheel is thick rimmed, and offers excellent ‘10 and 2’ holding positions. Surprisingly, you can operate up to 16 functions with the 12 buttons on the wheel.
The air conditioner is excellent and comes with a strong blower – which is perfect for this region, and the four-speaker audio system works like a charm around all corners of the cabin.
Space inside the cabin is on a par with its European competitors. There was enough space left for rear seat passengers after I – a quite generously-sized adult – set the front seats to my liking. Meanwhile, the seats were covered in grippy fabric that felt nice and soft. The front seats are moderately bolstered and offer good lumbar, but I didn’t push the car to a point where I could test its support threshold.
The boot space is above average and should hold three medium-sized duffel bags without a hitch. To fit larger bags, you would have to fold down the rear seats (which are split 60:40). Howbeit, there’s a bump to look out for when laying down fragile cargo.
Overall, I felt the Rio to be put together very well – as sturdy as an Audi even! Though, I feel Kia could have chucked in some soft, padded surfaces into the mix; but hey, you shouldn’t really complain when you’re on a budget. I mean, Kia is even caring enough to throw in a decent-sized sunroof for you.
Speaking of decent-sized objects, the new Rio comes packing a 1.6-litre in-line four-cylinder engine. This is good enough for 123hp and 151Nm of torque, but the powertrain is rounded up with a new six-speed automatic gearbox with tiptronic function.
The gearbox and engine combination is good – and they complement each other more than they do on other Kia products. The transmission holds gears till the very end and the motor is happy to rev all the way to 6000rpm. But yes, there will be quite a lot of pandemonium when you do that, and by the time you hit the 4000rpm range, you’re already out of steam.
On the upside, the transmission is smooth but downshifts have a bit of lag, so you’ll have to do a bit of pre-planning if you’re looking for a swift overtake. Once you’re settled into the speed, though, the Rio is unwavering – as it sits happy even at speeds of 120kph and above.
Wind noise is quite low, even though it’s single glazed windows throughout the car. Still, the larger alloys make way for a firm ride (in a nice way) and more tyre noise at speeds above 90kph. But, the 205/45 Kumho tyres offer admirable levels of grip when taking sharp or tight corners.
Push the car past its limit and you’ll be treated to liftoff oversteer. It’s really, really amusing and the chassis copes with it very well. If you’re feeling bored, you can also pull the traditional handbrake lever; though I wouldn’t advise you to do so. There is a substantial amount of body roll, but it is less than what you would find in a Volkswagen Polo or even a comparable Japanese hatchback.
Unlike both Europeans and Japanese competitors, the steering is nicely weighted straight from the factory. There’s no finicky button to press or a mode to switch to when you need some more resistance from the rack. Yet, there’s no feedback from the steering.
The brakes are strong and linear. Somehow, the pedal resistance felt similar to that of an Audi, too. Maybe Peter Schreyer did more so than just design on Kia’s cars – and that’s a compliment.
Overall, the new Rio seems to sit as a formidable package in a segment that is primarily occupied by European cars. But somehow, the Kia Rio manages to upset its counterparts by simply offering higher value for money and a host of discerning features. Dare I say, the Rio is definitely a remedy to a market that is slowly losing faith in sub-compact hatchbacks.