2006 Kia Rio | road test

Posted on Oct 21, 2006 by

Is this really a product? This was the very first thought that came to my mind about the new . This model has shown that the Koreans are getting out of their fixation of yore of Japanese design and are looking increasingly westward as they move ahead with their avowed goal of being in the top ten auto manufacturers in the world by 2010. Any which way you look at it, the new Rio looks absolutely stunning…for a Korean product – and I am not being sarcastic, mind you. Just cover the Kia badge and this hatchback can easily pass off as an Opel or any other contemporary European model.

Kia has been taking great pains to step out from the shadows of big brother Hyundai’s giant’s umbrella, stylistically and in terms of what the brand represents. Hyundai has been steadily moving upmarket – recent additions like the all-new Sonata and the redesigned Coupe to its portfolio say it all. This leaves Kia free to go for the presumably more hip markets, and according to the company it has indeed been consciously shedding its ‘previously conservative styling image to emerge with an all-new, sportier and distinctive appearance,” and has a target group of “young single men and women” squarely in its sights.

The new Rio is here to do exactly that and for starters, the new one looks far more attractive than the rather stodgy outgoing model. Like its predecessor, the Rio is available in hatchback and sedan body styles. We at AutoMiddleEast.com were provided with the hatchback version for the test.

From the front, the new Rio is distinguished by large headlamps flanking a neatly styled grille with a honeycomb mesh insert that happily eschews the chrome embellishments. The grille also features a horizontal slat across its middle that is unique to the hatchback. The Rio also gets attractively sculpted bumpers adorned with tough-looking black plastic rubbing strips. These also find their way onto the doors, and help to create a side profile that is distinctively European. The rear tail lamps are neatly styled and boast fashionable, clear indicator housings. The Rio is clearly aimed at Europe, and along with the similarly crisp-looking Picanto, it points the way to Kia’s future European presence. And it does not at all feel out of place here in the Middle East too!

Created by Kia design teams with a passion for engineering and aimed at consumers with a passion for life, the new Rio’s ‘dynamic, youthful, aggressive, sporty and bold’ appearance has been styled to attract image conscious modern consumers. The 3,990 mm long new Rio hatchback and the longer 4,240 mm saloon are taller (+50 mm), wider (+15 mm) but shorter (-250 mm in five-door form) than the model they replace.

The new Rio also has a much longer wheelbase (+90 mm), which combined with skilful packaging of the mechanical components, enables it to claim ‘best-in-class’ interior space for maximum occupant comfort and (on the saloon) 290 litres of luggage space that is 29 per cent larger than the previous model.

Past Kias have felt cheap and unsophisticated, but reliability has never been an issue with them. Like the design, the quality of the new Rio is streets ahead of where it used to be. The car feels rock solid with no rattles or squeaks (at least till the time the car was with us). The doors shut with a solid thunk and everything fits together neatly and tightly. Move inside the cabin and you will notice that the interior too is neatly rendered. There is a nice and airy feeling to the whole cabin – one of the reasons being the tan colour interior of our test car. Kia has other colour combinations for the interior, but we think that the tan colour suits the best. Unsurprisingly the cabin has no interior padding apart from the seats and the door trims, and hard plastic predominantly rules the interior. But the textures are pleasingly enough, avoiding a hard, shiny look and appearing almost convincingly soft until touched. There is nothing so drastic about the way the designers have conjured it all up together, with everything in the right places with emphasise on function first and then form. All this comes more into perspective when we see quite a few established brands selling cars with not-so-pleasant and more-or-less plasticky interiors that signify a cutting of corners here and there. Without a doubt, the new Rio’s interior does come across as a breath of fresh air.

The dashboard is curvaceous and all the major controls are simply laid out. The dials are quite stylish; the switchgear is obvious – the foglights switches forming two halves of a circle are easy to find in a hurry, and there’s a good all-round view too. The two-tone colour code on the dashboard with darker plastics on the top-end does its job well, especially considering the hot/humid weather in this part of the world which leads to cracking over extended exposure to sun.

Space is pretty good for front-seat occupants, with no complaints about the lack of leg, shoulder or headroom. There is also a surprising amount of room in the rear, even more so when you consider that the new Rio hatch is 250mm shorter than its predecessor. There is enough legroom, headroom and shoulder room for two rear occupants, but with three full-size adults, the rear seats are just exact. The boot isn’t vast enough for all your needs, but with the 60/40 split rear seats folded, it definitely brings in some extra space. The materials used for the seat upholstery on our test car were impressive and the black and tan colour combination seats looked sporting and were pretty comfortable. We are sure that the Rio’s seats can take some thrashing, but still maintain its form and last for a long time.

The Rio as available in the GCC will come with a DOHC, four-cylinder in-line 1400cc powerplant. Developing 94bhp at 6000rpm and 124.5 Nm of torque at 4700rpm from its nearly square engine (75.5 x 78.1mm bore and stroke), the Rio is no wannabe sports car but is no slowpoke either. It does need a heavy foot on the right pedal to make good progress, but once at cruising speeds it feels like there is something left in the engine for emergencies. The four-speed automatic gearbox on our test car transmits power to the front wheels and did the job adequately without much fuss. The Rio also comes equipped with a five-speed manual for those who prefer shifting gears the real way.

On the move, the Rio feels steady and provides a ride that borders on the supple side. Now this can be a good thing or vice versa in that the ride is comfortable but the flip side is that the handling suffers. The dampers are set on the softer side and while they do soak up most of the road bumps providing a comfortable ride, they do tend to pitch and induce body roll in corners. Also the Rio tends to sway a lot more than comparable cars in crosswinds, with the driver having to make constant corrections to the wheel. Talking of the steering wheel, it does seem to be well-weighted but conveys quite a wooden feel back to the driver. For sure it does the job admirably but then again, for a vehicle built to a price, the Koreans still have some way to go to bring some life and character into their products. Overall though, the smartly dressed Rio goes well enough for what it is, and is quite smooth, except the engine turns noisy when revved hard. Anti-lock brakes with EBD are standard, allied to disc brakes all round, both of which are expected on today’s cars.

The ride as we have mentioned above is mainly smooth, level and well controlled. But the biggest question mark over the Rio is the ability to stay composed at speed over poor roads. We did not have a chance to check the car out over such roads as our test was mainly done inside Dubai’s city roads. But having driven a friend’s previous generation Rio a handful of times earlier, I would definitely say that this new Rio is spades ahead of its predecessor and drives with a greater composure. It is surprisingly a quiet car too, unlike its forbearer, with little wind noise (this only intrudes at speeds of 110kph and above). Kia engineers focussed on minimising vibrations over a wide range of frequencies, refining the Rio’s design in more than 40 areas. Rear space gets a real thumbs-up in the Rio going with the standards prevalent in the industry for notchbacks/hatchbacks. There is a lot of usable storage space in the cabin including an umbrella shelf below the steering column.

“Everything has changed apart from the name,” says Kia of its new Rio. The old Rio was a misfit car, almost Focus-sized but selling for supermini money and built as cheaply as a car could reasonable be. Kia has worked hard on quality and refinement, work that has already proved its worth in the Focus-size Cerato. In the USA, the Rio notchback is positioned as an upscale fashionable car, but Kia officials at its recent launch in the United Arab Emirates attributed it moving from a conservative image to a sporty one with the 2005 model year, saying that the Rio was a strategically important model for Kia as it moves ahead aggressively in the sales charts in the region.

Kia plans to sell something like 120,000 Rio units per year throughout the world with one-third of those sales coming in from the Middle East, Africa and South American markets. The subcompact car category being one of the fastest growing segments in the automotive market today; Kia has done just the right move in redesigning the Rio and launching it at the most decisive time. With the fuel prices having gone up by say 30 per cent in the UAE in recent times, fuel-efficient small cars like the Rio provide the right balance between price consciousness, size and power.

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