As little as fifteen years ago, Kia was virtually unheard of in the UK, and a brand whose cars youd probably avoid at all costs.
Today, things couldnt be more different. Every car the company releases improves hugely on its predecessor, leading to excellent vehicles like the Ceed, Picanto - and the Kia Rio. We drove an example of the firms 1.1-litre ecoDynamics range to discover whether it lives up to the high economy claims - and whether it can challenge the established class leaders.
Kias design boss Peter Schreyer has really turned around the companys previously staid range, and modern Kias are some of the most attractive cars in their class.
The Rio is no different. The front end is most successful, and the most distinctive aspect of the car. It features Kias now traditional tiger nose design, flanked by large headlights and a deep, sporty-looking front bumper. It certainly doesnt look like your traditional eco model from any angle, which will no doubt appeal to customers wanting the benefits of excellent fuel consumption, without feeling like theyre making too many sacrifices.
The side profile is attractive too. Kia describes the flowing roofline as coupe-like - wed not go that far, but its certainly one of the sleekest vehicles in its class. Its also one of the longest, which works wonders for interior space, as youll see later. Like many cars in the class, a rising window line gives it a moving while standing still look.
The back end is less successful, but not a bad effort. The rear lights are large and clear, and only a small ecoDynamics badge on the boot marks the car out as anything more than a regular Rio.
Wed also add that the looks on our car were certainly enhanced by the 2 trim level with its 16-inch alloy wheels and fog lights, and the optional Electric Blue paintwork, that looked absolutely fantastic in the sun.
An overwhelming impression you get when sitting in the Rio is that its a larger car than it is. At over four metres long its one of the longest vehicles in the class, and that translates to good leg and headroom whether youre in the front or the back.
The windscreen is also pushed quite far forward, which enhances the feeling of spaciousness. We found a low driving position to be most comfortable, but theres plenty of adjustment in the seats to suit all shapes. The seats themselves are comfortable and reasonably supportive - but perhaps lacking in lumbar support, leading to a little discomfort after a few hours at the wheel.
The instrument cluster, like other Kias, is made up of three pods - one for the speedometer, another for the rev counter and another for the fuel gauge. Theyre permanently illuminated, making them easy to read, and they look sporty. However, wed prefer to see a coolant temperature gauge too, letting us know when the engine is warm - something that can take a while in diesels.
All the controls, major and minor, fall easily to hand on the simple but not unattractive dash. We also like the placement of the power sockets and USB input, to which an iPod can be connected. Once you do, it can be controlled through the cars stereo (or the controls on the steering wheel), and it works brilliantly. Sound quality is pretty good too.
Boot space is more than adequate, again helped by the cars long footprint. If you need more space the rear seats fold forward, though not level with the boot floor. Thanks to the sloping roofline, the boot aperture may also prevent some large loads from fitting in the back.
Just as the interior conveys a sense of being in a larger car, so too does the driving experience.
Youll immediately notice the mature ride quality, which shrugs off most bumps with few problems, and generally handles poorly-surfaced roads very well. Larger bumps can still be felt, but rarely with any discomfort. The Rio is generally very refined too, with little wind or tyre noise until you get to higher speeds. The engine does make its presence felt on occasion - more of this in the next section - but at a steady cruise its not particularly intrusive.
The Rio also feels superficially quite sporty to drive. The steering is relatively quick, endowing it with a sense of nimbleness, and theres also surprising grip available considering the car has an eco-bias.
When pushing harder, the chassis starts to run out of ideas. The steering is a little short of feel, and mid-corner bumps and crests seem to affect the front and back of the car differently - the back end seemingly floating around a little even at modest speeds. Youd not notice it around town, but it doesnt inspire as much confidence as wed like on the open road.
Our cars official title is Kia Rio 2 1.1 CRDi ecoDynamics. Quite a mouthful, but from it you can determine a few different things.
One, is that it uses Kias ultra-efficient three-cylinder, 1.1-litre turbodiesel. The other, is that being 2 spec rather than the basic 1 trim level, our model doesnt have the headline-grabbing 88 miles per gallon figure you may have seen in Kias advertising.
On larger 16-inch wheels and with air conditioning, the official combined figure for our Rio is 74.3mpg. Thats still very impressive indeed, but eco models are often known to struggle to hit official figures - well look at whether the Rio succeeds in the next section.
What the engine also offers is 74 horsepower and strong torque from low revs. Thats not bad considering the capacity, and we never found it difficult keeping up with other traffic. The official 0-60mph figure is 15.5 seconds, which feels about right, but as is often the case with diesels it feels stronger in-gear than the equivalent petrol car would.
Noise is well-suppressed most of the time, and vibration can only be felt at idle. Youll not even have to endure that too often, as Kias stop-start system means much of the time the engine will switch off when at a standstill. Like other systems, putting the gearbox in neutral and lifting your foot off the clutch kills the engine, and pressing the clutch fires it up again. It works very well, and we were unable to catch it out.
The engine does become a bit more vocal under hard acceleration, and although the noise isnt the sportiest of sounds, the three-cylinder layout means it doesnt grumble like some four-cylinder rivals. Overall though, this is a car better driven at lower revs than higher up the range.
Value for money
At one time, Kias would have significantly undercut rivals on initial purchase price, but as quality and desirability has improved, the company has been able to raise prices in line with others without sacrificing the cars appeal.
Our five-door Rio 2 1.1 CRDi ecoDynamics costs 13,795 on-the-road, and comes well-equipped - air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, electric folding heated mirrors and daytime running lights are all standard. Bluetooth connectivity, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and MP3 compatibility also feature.
By comparison, a five-door Ford Fiesta Econetic starts at over 15,000, and a Polo BlueMotion from 15,615 - so the Kia looks great value, before you even consider that a Rio ecoDynamics in 1 trim and with only three doors starts at little over 12,000.
The car we drove had only a single option, detailed below:
Electric Blue metallic paint (415) - Paint colour is obviously a matter of taste. We thought the metallic blue shade looked fantastic, but you can judge for yourself from the photos.
Official combined economy for the model we tested is rated at 74.6mpg. In a hundred or so miles of mixed driving, the on-board computer was showing just over 60mpg, which isnt bad at all. The driving took place on roads throughout the Yorkshire Dales, which meant plenty of hills and several low-speed sections through villages.
We also tested the cars motorway economy. This varied a fair amount thanks to head and tail winds - the computer showing as much as 10mpg difference between driving into the wind and driving away from it!
However, the car still returned some impressive figures when averaged out. At 70mph, you can expect around 55mpg. At 80mph, this falls to between 40-45mpg, and at 60mph, you could see as much as 65-70mpg.
Thats a little way off the claimed 80.7mpg extra-urban figure, but respectable nonetheless - this is unlikely to be an expensive car to run.
That extends to the Kias other running costs too. Its 99g/km CO2 figure qualifies it for free road tax and congestion charge exemption. You also get Kias famed 7-year, 100,000-mile warranty, a 7-year anti-perforation warranty, 5-year paint warranty and one year of KIAssist road-side assistance.
The Kia Rio ecoDynamics is an excellent car, and whether or not you go for the ultra-efficient 88mpg model, its a car thats capable of returning very impressive economy figures in day-to-day driving. Throw in Kias long warranty, free road tax and more, and youve a car that represents very good value for money.
Its also a small car that doesnt feel small, and should appeal to drivers looking to downsize to save a bit of cash on fuel - as you really dont lose much in the way of comfort or space compared to larger cars. You do lose a little performance - the 1.1 is by no means a quick car - but Kia does make a 1.4 CRDi model that could be a useful compromise.
Given slightly more secure handling, a little more performance and a few improvements to the interior, the Rio would score even higher. As it is, its still well worth recommending.
What the press think
The wider press are equally impressed with the Rio, and the 1.1 ecoDynamics in particular. There are similar reservations over the handling, but positive comments about the engine also echo our own findings.
Check out our full guide to the new Kia Rio, with reviews, videos, photos, stats and more!