Who would have thought 15 years ago that Kia would become a benchmark by which newcomers to the nation's Light Car battleground would be compared?
Customer satisfaction has gained significance in a sector where sharp pricing once was the only key to success, and Kia's webpage is brimming with details of awards recognising that late-model Rios are a vastly improved car.
The third-generation of Kia Rio landed here in late 2011 and within a year had secured 7.2 per cent of its market segment. That might not seem like a major achievement until you check the achievements of powerhouse rivals like the Mazda2, Toyota Yaris and Hyundai i20; none of which could better 12 per cent.
Price was still paramount and Kia came out punching with the 1.4-litre Rio S manual at $16,290. Again, that might not seem exceptional, but the base model offered customers a huge list of inclusions like air conditioning, power steering and heated mirrors, Bluetooth phone connectivity, all-disc brakes and a CD player. A year later, as the Rio range expanded to 12 variations, the entry price was cut to $15,290.
The Rio S, with the smallest engine in the range and developing just 79kW, was better suited to a manual gearbox rather than the ageing four-speed automatic transmission. Jumping to the 1.6-litre Si with six-speed automatic pushed the new-car price past $20,000. However, in a used market where Rios still hold their values pretty well, the price difference between 1.4 and 1.6-litre models is minimal. The Si also comes with the significant addition of cruise control.
Important also to Light Car buyers was the amount of space devoted to occupants and luggage. Despite its compact shape, the Rio UB accommodated five adults at a squeeze and offered plenty of rear-seat space for three mid-sized kids or one plus a couple of child seats.
Topping the range and delivering ridiculous amounts of included equipment for their price were the SRi and SRS. Both had the 1.6-litre engine with six-speed manual or the far more common six-speed automatic transmission. The manual cost a tad less than $20,000, with the auto boosting that by $2000. The leather-bound steering wheel looks good and the leather-edged seats are better than the cloth ones in a Rio Si.
Mid-2015 saw Rio freshen the range and further confuse stock controllers at Head Office with even more models. A Rio S-Premium, still with 1.4 litres but more equipment, was added to the sub-$20K price segment. Then as a preview to the imminent YB Series (but with a 1.6-litre engine) there was a Sport version with unique alloy wheels, metallic body embellishments and 'simulated' leather seat trim.
Safety has been a major factor in the Rio's popularity and a prime reason why prices in the used market remain strong. Parents looking for a safe and affordable car for newly-licensed offspring are appropriately impressed by the Rio's crash test performance and five-star ANCAP rating.
All UB Rios were fitted with driver and passenger airbags plus bags to protect occupants in a side impact. ABS and Electronic Stability Control were standard too and seat belts have pre-tensioners plus warning lights to show if a belt isn't being worn.
On the road
Initial impressions are important and people involved with the Rio's design were obviously aware of that. In addition to an eye-catching shape that is ageing very gracefully, the UB Rio dash makes an effort to look different while not compromising its purpose as a source of information. Some critics say the on-board display with its red characters is a bit jarring but if that's your only gripe it can't be too bad.
Looking at the listings of Rios on carsales.com.au it is obvious that the Rio S was by far the most popular when new – and most prolific today. However, if you can stretch the budget a little further – at most $1500-2000 - to afford an Si it will be worth the sacrifice.
The extra power from a larger engine is immediately apparent and even if you don't touch the transmission selector for the duration of the test-drive, Kia's excellent and intuitive six-speed will still do a great job of feeding you the right gear when required. The 1.6-litre Rio is also a decent performer with the manual and automatic both bettering 10.5 seconds when sprinting from 0-100km/h.
Another jarring element of the base-model Rio is the tyres. Baggy 65 Series on 15-inch steel rims rob the car of its sharpness when compared with the higher-spec 17-inch alloys and 55-Series rubber.
For a car that in typical 1.6-litre automatic form weighed only 1200kg the Rio has a robust feel and transmits less road noise than might be expected from a car of this category and price. That said, we didn't try it on rural roads and readers from 'out the back' who own Rios might like to complete the picture on that one.
Since they seem to be sold primarily in urban areas as single-user commuter or 'convenience' cars, most Rios in the market haven't done big distances. The typical example in a carsales listing is likely to be five years old, showing 50-80,000kms and still worth around half its new-car price.
The cloth seats are a reasonable shape but like many in this price bracket they fall short in lateral support. The dash with its groovy-looking conglomerate of overlapping dials and a jam-packed centre section turns out to be quite legible and easy to navigate. Working out which button on the steering wheel did what does take time though.
The oddly-shaped side windows deliver an impression that anyone trapped for long in the back seat will be needing a chiropractor. However that is an optical illusion because headroom is OK except for someone very tall.
Legroom is a problem and improves only slightly if you can convince the front passenger to roll forward 50mm or so. Luggage space as might be expected is tight and if you are travelling away from populated areas space also needs to be found for a full-sized spare wheel.
Fuel consumption adds some lustre to the Rio's already shining star. Manual models will get below 5L/100km in highway running and the average in an automatic is claimed to be 6.1L/100km.
Rio check points
>> Where possible and affordable, choose a Rio that is still covered by the manufacturer warranty. Check with the vendor that the car has been serviced in keeping with warranty requirements.
>> The timing belt needs to be changed at the 100,000km service, so be aware if this service interval is approaching that you will be up for a larger than normal bill. Replacing the water pump in conjunction with the belt and having the cooling system flushed is recommended.
>> Four-speed automatic transmissions can lag on up-shifts even when in good condition. Be wary though if changes are harsh or the transmission takes 2-3 seconds to select Drive or Reverse when stationary. The six-speed should be smooth and quiet; avoid any car that isn't.
>> Owners report random electrical faults so test all window switches, central locking and mirror adjusters. Also run the air-conditioning to ensure they all work quickly and quietly.
Used vehicle grading for Kia Rio
Design & Function: 15/20
Value for Money: 16/20
Wow Factor: 12/20
Also consider: Volkswagen Polo, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai i20