|Photos by Ulysses Ang|
Upon setting my eyes on the Rio, I can’t help but admire its European design flair. Penned by German Peter Schreyer, the Rio is one of the most attractive and distinctive sub-compacts available today. Though I find the 5-door hatchback the model to lust after more, the 4-door sedan isn’t bad. It’s still hunkered down; with a highly sculpted shoulder line and wedge-shaped exterior that projects athleticism. Upfront, it carries the family look first seen in the Sportage including the signature “Tiger Grille” which has been tapered to connect to the swept headlights. The youthful appearance is carried to its proportions: the front wheels are pushed out almost to the corners, meaning this car has almost no front overhang.
Because the Rio 1.2 SLX is more of a base model than a range-topper, Schreyer’s design had to have some compromises. First, though this model thankfully gets alloy wheels (compared to the LX’s steel wheels), the wheels could do better with larger diameter sizes. Second, the Rio features a rather extended rear end. It makes the Rio sedan look a bit mis-proportioned, subtracting some points from the Rio’s beauty. Nonetheless, it does open up to reveal a voluminous trunk.
Stepping inside the Rio, I find a welcoming mix of simplicity and elegance with just the right amount of room and features to keep all my passengers happy. There’s enough room whether it’s at the front or back and the two-tone beige-and-black interior scheme further emphasizing this feeling of spaciousness. Settling into the driver’s seat, I find it a truly modern affair with a beautiful three-cylinder instrument panel complete with LED backlighting and an integrated trip computer. And then, surprisingly, the Rio comes standard with things such as six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat, tilt-adjustable steering, power adjustable side mirrors, and power windows (front only). Additionally, all these controls are ergonomically placed and operate with nice, positive action.
Though the Rio’s ergonomics are generally good, personally I couldn’t find my “perfect” driving position. More than once, I found myself fiddling with the steering wheel height or the seat back just to feel more at ease. In the end, sitting at an almost 90-degree angle with knees almost banging the center console seemed to be the perfect compromise for me; though this isn’t exactly comfortable, it isn’t uncomfortable either. Perhaps, a tilt/telescopic steering should have come as standard across the line. Nonetheless, this slight ergonomic irritation is more than made up for by the Rio’s stellar all-around visibility.
With an instrument panel that sweeps upward during ignition, the Rio presents itself as a sporty sub-compact. Thankfully, the powertrain doesn’t disappoint. As far as budget cars are concerned, the Rio is high-tech with its 1.2-liter 4-cylinder engine with both double overhead cams and dual continuously variable valve timing. The power outputs are certainly modest: 87 horsepower and 119 Nm of torque, but the big news is how this power makes the transition from paper to reality.
On idle, it’s quiet and very refined, almost matching the noise levels of a gasoline-electric hybrid, I kid you not. As the speeds build up, it purrs evenly, matched very well by the Rio’s slick and precise 5-speed manual. With a light clutch, the Rio’s actually a fun car to drive around the city. Top speed and acceleration figures aren’t exactly on the Rio 1.2’s priority, but the short spacing between gears makes for a spritely sprint up to 90 km/h. After that, progress becomes noticeable slower. Nonetheless, as a city car, the Rio’s almost unbeatable in fun and it’s somewhat frugal as well, averaging 12.5 km/L in purely city traffic.
The Rio’s lively approach to its drivetrain is also carried over to its chassis which is both responsive and comfortable. The all-new platform, with extensive use of high-tensile steel, makes it danceable through city streets. It feels structurally rigid with no body flex and no unnecessary shock transmitted into the cabin. There’s no squeak or rattle as well, save for the audio panel where the 1-DIN JVC head unit resides. It’s fairly quiet, with good NVH isolation but the Hankook tires do make themselves heard at higher speeds. The steering effort is very light and quick making for excellent traffic slotting and parking ability. At the same time though, it makes the Rio nervous on the highway. Despite lacking anti-lock brakes, the Rio brakes commendably with a solid pedal feel.
Introduced just some months ago as an “in-between” of the 1.2 LX and the 1.4 EX, Kia is still marketing the 1.2 SLX towards taxi companies and fleet customers (pharmaceuticals to name one), as indicated by paperwork found in the Rio’s glove box. But this shouldn’t deter private buyers from considering the Rio 1.2 SLX. Though driving a stick is necessary (there’s no automatic variant), this is one well-engineered product that’s fun and solid. Locally, the Rio is Kia’s most important vehicle, and it’s immediately apparent that no stone was left unturned. I wouldn’t necessarily lust over the Rio 1.2 SLX, but it’s still nicely designed, fun to drive, and above all, affordable. If this is how good Kia’s base models have become, I just can’t wait to find out how excellent the rest of their line-up has become.