What Car? says...
The Kia Rio has always offered plenty of space at a very keen price, but it's never really stood out for sparkle or desirability. For a car competing in the competitive small car class, it fell short on must-buy magic.
So when Kia started work on this fourth generation version, it took strides to sort that out. It gave the Rio a new platform and turbocharged engines in the hope of improving interior practicality and driving appeal. In fact, so thorough was the redesign that you’re far more likely to recognise the name than the model.
To keep its look in line with other cars in the current Kia line-up, the Rio has a sleek grille gracing the front end and a lower, wider front bumper than on the previous generation model.
A 2021 update added new wheel and colour options, plus (more importantly) more safety kit, 48v mild-hybrid engine technology and a clever ‘iMT’ electric clutch that aims to make the Rio more efficient. The Rio comes with Kia’s class-leading seven-year warranty too.
So, is all that enough to transform the Kia Rio into one of the best small cars around? And can it really get the better of class stalwarts such as the sharp-handling Ford Fiesta, the keenly priced Skoda Fabia or the plush Volkswagen Polo?
That’s what we’ll be exploring in this full Rio review, which will cover everything you need to know, including how good the performance is, how big the boot is, what the running costs are like, and which engine and trim combination we recommend.
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Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The Kia Rio engine range starts with a 1.2-litre petrol (badged 1.2 DPi) with a meagre 83bhp. We haven't driven one yet, but we suspect it will feel out of its depth on faster roads. Next up is the 99bhp 1.0 T-GDi. It's our pick of the line-up because it’s as flexible as the small turbo engines you’ll find in the Ford Fiesta and Skoda Fabia and sits comfortably at motorway speeds.
If you want a little extra power, there’s the 118bhp 1.0 T-GDi 48V. It uses mild-hybrid technology, with a small electric motor and battery giving the engine a little electrical ‘kick’ as you drive around. You won’t notice it unless you’re pushing on particularly hard, so we don’t think it’s worth the additional outlay.
The entry-level 1.2-litre petrol engine comes with a five-speed manual gearbox as standard. Both 1.0-litre engines come with the choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic.
Suspension and ride comfort
Previous-generation Rios were sometimes criticised for being too stiff, and Kia has made an effort to improve things here.
The car is still not what you’d call supple, though. At low speeds, you’ll feel the surface of rough urban roads through the base of your seat in far too much detail, with every pothole causing a real thump.
It improves at higher speeds, but even on roads that look smooth, you’ll feel yourself moving up and down more than you would in rivals. The larger 17in wheels of top-spec models make things even worse – we’d stick with the 16in wheels or smaller.
One benefit of the distinctly firm edge of the Rio's ride is that it stays nicely upright even on winding country roads. Its steering is quick too, making the car feel quite darty when turning into a bend.
It’s not all good news though. The steering is light and gives you very little feel of what the front wheels are up to or how much grip you have to play with. For a more enjoyable driving experience, a Fiesta is far more fun.
Noise and vibration
The Rio’s three-cylinder turbocharged engines are among the more refined of their type. There’s very little vibration, even at idle, and they’re quiet unless you work them really hard. Past 4000rpm, the Fiesta’s Ecoboost engines are better, but you’re only likely to push that hard occasionally.
The hybrid's ‘clutch-by-wire’ iMT manual gearbox allows the car to automatically coast when you’re not on the accelerator (without you having to depress the clutch). It's not as odd as it sounds, and hardly feels any different to the non-hybrid car’s conventional clutch. We’d avoid the optional seven-speed DCT automatic gearbox because it’s slow to react on pull off and doesn’t like to drop down a gear when you need a sudden burst of acceleration.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
The driver’s seat in the Kia Rio has plenty of adjustment and the steering wheel has lots of rake and reach adjustment, so you should find it easy to get comfy, no matter what shape you are.
Adjustable lumbar support isn’t available (that omission isn’t uncommon in small cars) but the seat gives decent lower back support. The gearstick falls easily to hand and all the main controls are well-positioned and easy to operate on the go.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
The Rio's relatively slim front pillars mean that forwards visibility is good, even when you're pulling out of awkward junctions. You also get a good view out of the side windows because the window line stays quite level along the length of the car, instead of sweeping upward like it does on some rivals.
The rear view is less impressive – the rear window is rounded at the sides and the rear pillars are broad, making reversing tricky. Thankfully, all versions except entry-level 1 models get reversing sensors and a rear-view camera as standard. Top-of-the-range GT Line S models add front parking sensors, for even easier manoeuvring.
Sat nav and infotainment
Entry-level grade 1 Rio models get a small 3.8in monochrome infotainment display that could be hard to read on the move. On all other trims, it's upgraded to an 8.0in colour touchscreen system with wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring. You can connect two mobile devices at the same time – one for hands-free phone and multimedia use, the other for media use only.
There are physical shortcut buttons under the touchscreen, so you can jump quickly between radio and navigation, for example, and the infotainment menus on both systems are clear and responsive. Top-spec 3 and GT-Line S trims add built-in sat-nav.
Entry-level grade 1 Rio’s get a basic four-speaker sound system, Bluetooth connectivity, a DAB radio and USB and aux connections in the front. Stepping up to grade 2 gives you a more powerful six-speaker sound system and an extra USB charging port in the back.
Value is a big part of the Rio’s mission, so it’s no surprise that you won’t find acres of soft-touch materials or premium trim pieces. With the exception of a soft dash pad, all the interior plastics feel hard.
There’s nothing wrong with such durable materials, but the door trims look slightly cheap with their scratchy, shiny finish. The Skoda Fabia proves that even the hard stuff can be made to look appealing. That said, the Rio certainly feels built to last and the switches are nicely damped.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
The Kia Rio’s comparatively boxy shape means that front-seat passengers have plenty of room above and in front of them. You might find yourself rubbing elbows with your passenger, though.
Front storage is plentiful. The door pockets are shaped to take a bottle of water with ease and can even hold a medium coffee upright.
Between the seats are another couple of cup holders and, in 2 trim and above, Kia gives you a storage box between the front seats. There are also a couple of handy shelves beneath the heater controls that can hold even a large smartphone.
Head room is good in the back of the Rio and, remarkably, there’s more leg room than in the Skoda Fabia. Passengers in the back will only find their knees pressing into the front seats if the front-seat passengers are particularly tall.
If three large adults need to sit in the back, a shortage of shoulder room means they’ll want to get out after a fairly short journey. The middle seat will be more comfortable for a child or smaller adult, although there's only a small central hump on the floor, so they’ll have ample space for their feet.
The rear door pockets are big enough to each take a drinks bottle but that’s pretty much all the storage space back-seat passengers get in the Rio.
Seat folding and flexibility
There’s nothing particularly clever about how any of the seats adjust, and, with just the usual 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks to enlarge the boot when needed, the Rio doesn’t offer any clever solutions to increase versatility.
If you’re looking for a truly adaptable interior, you might want to look at the Honda Jazz – it has lift-up rear-seat bases so you can fit tall items in the rear passenger compartment.
The Rio’s boot is a helpfully uniform shape and comes with a variety of hooks and lashing eyes to stop your shopping careering around the boot at every roundabout. It’s considerably larger than the Ford Fiesta boot but can’t compete with the capacious Fabia.
Our only complaints are that there is a big step down from the loading lip to the boot floor, and another big step along the floor when the rear seats are folded down. A variable height boot floor would help, but isn’t available, even as an option.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
At first glance, the Kia Rio seems good value when compared with the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and Skoda Fabia but only the least recommendable engine and trim combination actually undercuts them on price.
However, the grade 2 trim Rio looks like decent value because of its high equipment levels, plus you get access to the punchy 1.0-litre turbocharged engine (badged 1.0 T-GDi). Disappointingly, if you want the more frugal, mild-hybrid version of the same engine, you have to step up to 3 trim, which pushes the price too close to the more desirable Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris.
The Jazz and Yaris are also predicted to hold on to a significantly larger proportion of their value over the lifetime of the car. And if you’re a company car driver, their lower official CO2 emissions mean they will cost you less in company car tax.
Equipment, options and extras
The Rio in entry-level 1 trim has air-conditioning, front electric windows, heated electric door mirrors, Bluetooth phone connectivity, automatic lights and a multi-function steering wheel.
We suggest moving up to our favourite 2 trim, mainly to get the AEB safety feature. It adds 15in alloy wheels, a leather steering wheel and gear knob, rear electric windows, electric folding mirrors, cruise control and an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system. At the top of the ‘normal’ trims is 3. That has 16in alloys, climate control, faux-leather seats (heated up front), plus a heated steering wheel, automatic wipers and extra infotainment features.
The range is topped by GT-Line S trim, which gets 17in alloy wheels, gloss-black exterior highlights, a rear spoiler, LED front and rear fog lights, twin exhaust tips, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, faux carbon-fibre interior trim, aluminium pedals, keyless start, front parking sensors and a blind-spot warning system.
The Rio finished around mid-table in the small cars category of the 2021 What Car? Reliability Survey. That’s above premium rivals including the Seat Ibiza, Skoda Fabia, Volkswagen Polo and Ford Fiesta, but below the Dacia Sandero and Honda Jazz.
Kia as a brand did pretty well too, managing to claim ninth place out of the 30 car makers featured in the survey. That’s no mean feat and means that it beat Ford, Honda, Seat and Skoda.
If things go wrong with your Rio, you have the peace of mind that its warranty is valid for an industry-leading seven years or 100,000 miles. If you sell the car in that time, you can transfer the cover to the new owner.
Safety and security
That rating is increased to the full five stars on 2 trim and above, which has those vital systems as standard. You can also add them to 1 trim by opting for the reasonably priced safety pack. All models get six airbags and hill-start assist.
Experts Thatcham awarded the Rio four stars (out of five) for resisting theft but only three stars for resisting a break-in. Both results are lower than most rivals’ scores.
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