Kia's new Rio is not flashy, but does have some nice touches. It's due to launch in South Africa this year.
Kia's new Rio is not flashy, but does have some nice touches. It's due to launch in South Africa this year.

Kia's all-new Rio is due to land in South Africa during the course of 2017. Our UK Correspondent Sean O'Grady got behind the wheel recently and tells us what to expect.

London - Would it be a mistake to buy a Kia Rio? Depends what you want, really. If you want practical transport rather than a fashion statement, the answer is, very likely, “no”. You and your Kia will be very happy together, in your unshowy way.

Here is a smart, contemporary reasonably good value smaller hatch in the traditional style. I liked the glossy grille, the choice of engines and the nice touches they add to the top-of-the range trim, such as a heated steering wheel. The controls for the satnav, entertainment and aircon were easy to use, far from a given with today’s complicated cars. And of course you’ll get Kia South Africa's excellent five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty as standard.

This is a very sober sort of design. Though all-new, the exterior styling is very close to the model it replaces, and there are none of the dramatic swooshes around the bodywork that feature on some of its toughest competitors, such as the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and Vauxhall Corsa. Nor is its handling quite as tidy, but that’s probably of marginal importance for many buyers. Indoors, things are just as conservative. The special “First Edition” models get a splash of colour around the dash, bigger alloys and all the creature comforts but otherwise, even with these fancier versions, things are predominantly monochrome and sombre.

It contrasts strongly with, say, the new Citroen C3, which is as avant-garde French, modish and faddy as the Kia is business-suit Korean. Sadly the new French contender will not be coming to SA following the brand's withdrawal from our market.

There are very few talking points in the Rio; no air-bumps, no door pulls in contrasting leather, no crazy options for personalisation as with, say, a Mini or Fiat 500 or Skoda Fabia, no unusual pastel shades. But I suspect the Rio will last the test of time rather better than the more fashionable competition. To that degree it’s more like a VW Polo, but not yet endowed with the VW’s slightly more upmarket image. My only gripes with the Rio are the high lip on the boot, and the lack of a proper spare wheel.

However the Kia is a dedicated follower of engineering fashion. As you’d expect from a Korean maker, it boasts state-of-the-art consumer electronics: 6-speaker audio system; 7 inch touchscreen satellite navigation/entertainment, including DAB and live TomTom updates; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity; lots of USBs front and rear, plus a colour reversing camera/display.

Or take its new engine design – the upper half of the petrol range now powered by a small capacity but turbo-charged three-cylinder motor of the kind that's increasingly the norm across the market. Note, however, that the South African engine line-up has yet to be confirmed. 

The European range kicks off with a pair of normally aspirated petrol engines, in 62kW/121Nm 1.2-litre and 73kW/133Nm guises, then moves on to a 1-litre direct injection turbopetrol in two states of tune (74kW and 88kW), with both producing 171Nm. Kia also offers a meaty 240Nm 1.4-litre turbodiesel option in 57kW and 66kW guises.

On the plus side the increasingly popular three-pot turbo engines are lighter, more economical and cheaper to make than their four-cylinder predecessors, so they ought to work for both manufacturer and consumer. On the other hand I remain a bit of a sceptic about their long-term performance, and am not yet convinced they won’t turn out like other engineering fashions, and leave the motorist with a very bad case of buyers’ regret, the most egregious example of that being the diesel boom of the last couple of decades. 

Day-to-day, drive-to-drive, you’ll find three cylinder power quite “thrummy” and not quite as smooth as a four-cylinder you might be used to. They need a bit more revving and working the gears, though, as I say, willing enough. Kia, may be hedging its bets a little, offering three- and four-cylinder petrol-powered options. I didn’t have the opportunity to try out the more conventional normally aspirated four-cylinder models, though I’d put money on them lasting somewhat longer than their smaller-engined, more stressed siblings.

Then there’s the diesel (four cylinder only). I confess I was one of the journalists who pretty much bought the line that modern turbo-diesels were the holy grail; sporty performance really was compatible with excellent fuel economy, lower CO2 emissions and, with advanced engine management and filters, “Nox” pollution (soot really) could be kept down as well. Anyway, we all know better now. Then again, when you jump into a diesel-powered Rio straight after a petrol version, you do see how diesel makes a difference – much more power at low revs, a more flexible response and not much less sophisticated, if at all. 

The Kia Rio is not destined for the same level of success as its stablemates – the Sportage, a hugely successful entry into the SUV sector, the mid-range c’eed, the funkadelic Kia Soul, or the Picanto (a favourite choice under the scrappage scheme a few years back). Kia has shown that it can punch way above its weight, and the brand has travelled a huge distance in recent years – with the Optima saloon more than a match for the mainstream opposition. The Rio just lacks a bit of showroom magic. No one should regret buying a Kia, though.