Automotively speaking, the Koreans are no longer the new kids on the block; their latest cars are mature, coherent designs with solid build quality and (mostly) decent materials.

Kia in particular, since the advent of ex-Audi design chief Peter Schreyer, has produced distinctive vehicles that will not only stand comparison with the best from the east, but also with the best from anywhere.

Schreyer's “tiger nose” front styling may not be as well-known as a kidney grille or VW's “flat line” face (yet) but you'll know a Kia when you see one - and that's Schreyer's intention.

He succeeded magnificently with the current-generation Sportage, which we first drove in September 2010, and now he has extended that look into the B segment with the fourth-generation Rio, released in South Africa this week.

Longer, wider and lower than its predecessor and on a 70mm longer wheelbase, the new Rio seems (if this is possible) more at home on the road, with a chunky, high-waisted shape that's blessed with short overhangs (especially in front: Peugeot take note) and a crisp interpretation of the tiger nose grille that stretches all the way out to big, tilted headlights (which are underlined on the top Tec variant with LED running lights).

All the horizontal lines in the profile slope down towards the front, especially two wing-shaped character lines that meet just behind the front wheel-arch and suggest clean, smooth airflow over the body even when it's standing still.

Boot space on the hatch version is increased only 6.6 percent to 288 litres, however; most of the extra space generated by the 2570mm wheelbase is allocated to rear legroom, with impressive results by B segment standards.

I'm 1.78m tall and I was easily able to a “sit behind myself” by adjusting the front passenger seat until I was comfortable and then moving to the left rear seat - a test not all the Rio's more expensive rivals will pass.

The new Rio is available now as a five-door hatch, with a four-door sedan to come early in 2012, in a choice of two petrol engines and three trim levels.

The base 1.2 model has a 1248cc, four-cylinder mill for which Kia quotes 65kW at 6000 revs and 120Nm at 4000rpm. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard issue, as are 15” steel rims, aircon, power mirrors and windows, and a four-speaker radio/CD/MP3/iPod/USB audio set-up with satellite controls on the steering wheel.

Kia claims 0-100 in 13.1 seconds, 168km/h flat out, 5.4-litres per 100km and 129g/km of global warming, but there were no 1.2s on the launch drive in Gauteng, so we'll have to take that on trust.

The 1.4 models boast a new, 1396cc Gamma engine with die-cast alloy block and head, an offset crankshaft, variable valve timing and multipoint fuel-injection. It's even more hard-revving than its smaller sister, rated at 79kW at 6300 revs and 135Nm at 4200rpm, and drives via either a six-speed manual 'box or a four-speed auto tranny.

According to Kia it’s good for 0-100 in 11.5 seconds (13.2 for the auto) and a top speed of 183km/h (auto 170) at a cost of 6.4 litres per 100km (seven with auto ‘box) and 151 or 165 g/km, depending on transmission type.

The straight 1.4 comes with 15” alloys, and all the features of the 1.2 plus foglights, auto headlights with an “escort” function, a trip data computer and an uprated, six-speaker sound system.

The 1.4 Tec adds leather seats, auto aircon, rear parking sensors, a cooled glove compartment, auto windscreen wipers, LED daylight running lights and tail lights, and 17” machined-finish alloys shod with 205/45 rubber.

I first drove a manual 1.4, and was pleasantly surprised at its willing, smooth-revving engine, seemingly quite happy to rev to 6500rpm through the quick-shifting, very slick six-speeder.

The rather remote electric power-steering took a little getting used to, but was way better than the similar set-up in the Picanto and pleasantly light and quick in the car-park tango which will be most Rio's daily dance.

The brakes felt reassuringly firm underfoot, with plenty of initial bite, and the ride was firm, without being choppy. The Rio generally went where I pointed it, although the suspension could be betrayed into an occasional unexpected lurch when pushed hard on uneven tar surfaces, almost as if the dampers had been caught on the hop, so to speak, by a too-rapid sequence of inputs.

That said, it was as competent as anything in its class with the exception of the Ford Fiesta, the only mainstream B-segment hatch with seriously sporty handling.

The seats were comfortable, supportive rather than squishy, and the elegant instrument panel and centre stack logically and very neatly laid out, let down only by (I felt) slightly low-rent seat-upholstery fabric and a hard-plastic one-piece dashboard moulding that seemed to stretch into the middle of next week under the steeply raked windshield.

All the switchgear felt solid and positive in operation, however, an important tactile indicator that significantly raised the car's “perceived-quality” score.

Then I moved into a top-of-the-range 1.4 Tec with auto transmission. Even before I moved the shift lever into “Drive” the leather upholstery (a little firmer in feel than the fabric finish) and slightly different trim elements lifted the car's premium quotient a step above that of its stablemates.

I suspect that this variant may come as something of a surprise to slightly older customers looking to downsize from a C-segment car and could earn the new Rio a few unexpected sales.

Even the chunky, leather-trimmed steering wheel seemed to offer better feedback, although I'll concede that's purely subjective.

The four-speed automatic transmission, by contrast, seemed a little unsophisticated; its changes were quick, clean and smooth but it displayed a distinct tendency to hunt and a firm prod on the accelerator would sometimes cause it to make two downshifts in one move, accompanied by a sudden burst of revs from the engine that seemed at odds with the Tec's more dignified persona, as did the amount of road noise generated by the 45-profile tyres..

Mind you, on re-reading that last paragraph, it seems less a condemnation of an adequate if old-fashioned transmission than a compliment to the ambience Kia has managed to create in what is essentially a budget family hatchback.

And that's the new Rio is all about; it's a grown-up, stylish little car that punches above its weight in several important aspects other than just pricing.

PRICES

1.2 - R136 995

1.4 - R154 995

1.4 a/t - R164 995

1.4 Tec - R168 995

1.4 Tec a/t - R178 995

Included are a five-year or 100 000km warranty and a four-year or 60 000km service plan.