Is the updated fourth generation Kia Rio an upgrade from its predecessor? We recently got to spend some time with the new Rio where we were able to stack it up to its preceding sibling that arguably catalysed a rebirth for the brand not only in Mzansi but globally too.
Although Kia, the largest manufacturer and exporter of vehicles from South Korea, has been in existence since 1944, our local market only got to experience what the Seoul based marque had to offer in 1997. The first generation Rio was introduced two years later, just before the turn of the century but was ridiculed for its poor build quality and driving experience. In more recent generations, the Rio nameplate has evolved and improved over the years and has turned out to be a strong local contender that has helped carry the brand, specifically in the past decade.
The third generation, according to sales numbers, was the most successful of its kind averaging just under half a million units per annum since its inception in 2011. It is one of the cars that led to the upward sales trend of the brand and elevated the perception to consumers with improvements in styling, safety and comfort. The most recent fourth generation, originally released in 2017 has not fared as well, with annual sales numbers just above half that of its predecessor. Even with the mid-cycle refresh from 2020, the restyled offering can’t seem to generate the same momentum from before. So why exactly is that?
The third generation set the benchmark high. It was an affordable, quirky, funky and young-at-heart subcompact car that was easily accessible and comfortable to drive. Perfectly suited and priced for yuppies or students. Its stylish exterior and comfortable cabin could be paired with a selection of petrol and diesel engines with an assortment of trims according to budget, although the local market was only afforded with petrol motors.
Our time was spent with the more modestly priced but less kitted-out 1.4 LS variant mated to a conventional automatic 6-speed gearbox. From the outside, the updated range has undergone extremely minor changes with a reprofiled bumper and updated grille. It is still distinguishable and easily recognisable as a Rio from the modish design legacy from the preceding third generation shape. This is a good thing, it is one of the better looking contenders in the B-hatchback segment but the styling has the same issue as the rest of the car. Kia seems to have rested on their laurels with no significant progress from its predecessor.
Naturally, the new generation includes well integrated technology and creature comforts that were not obtainable a decade ago. The facelifted derivatives all feature a suitably sized 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system which has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability. Standard USB charging ports can be found in the front and the back of the cabin, while bluetooth connectivity and streaming is available through the infotainment display which reverberates via 4 speakers and 2 tweeters around the cabin, even on the base models.
In comparison to its predecessor, the quality and solid interior materials make for a welcome improvement while retaining its durable nature for years to come. That being said, there is an abundance of hard plastic on the LS model, but subtle leather details are standard on the more expensive derivatives. The dashboard and drivers dials are sensibly laid out and intuitive to use, but seem to be a simplified evolution to its predecessor’s interior which I prefer, particularly the scoped speedometer and rev-counter. Despite some vacant buttons reserved for higher end units, the interior was still a comfortable place to spend time in, with both drivers and passengers furnished with upscale spaciousness and amenities.
While the new platform that the fourth generation Rio is built upon is sharper and more rigid in handling, it comes at the compromise of additional weight coming in at as much as 50 kilograms. This does not sound like very much but the 1.4-litre motor with a maximum power output of 73kW (6kW less than before) can often feel lethargic when paired with the limited air pressure at Johannesburg altitude making it feel less spritely than its predecessor. The conventional 6-speed automatic gearbox trundles around comfortably with the occasional jerk and does the job without much complaint. I would personally recommend the manual option with the same number of cogs which makes the motor feel alive and controlled. The brakes are sharp and direct with immediate response from pedal input like before but the lower end derivatives have interestingly enough done away with rear discs from the previous generation and now incorporates drum brakes.
The fuel economy on the Rio for combined driving is rated just below 8l/100km while we saw just over that amount from our travels. A number which is simply too high if it is competing with the smaller displaced turbocharged variants from Ford and VW. The salvation of this funky looking Kia offering is its price tag, with our model priced at just under R310 000 with a fair amount of standard equipment, it is competitively positioned in one of the more cut throat segments in our local car market. Regardless of price, I would opt for a derivative with the projection headlights which provide more nighttime visibility than the outdated halogen reflector counterparts.
Having driven the previous generation Rio while I was still a student and epitomising the typical young driver that it was intended for, I had an excitement of experiencing what the latest offering was all about. While it feels much the same as before, inadvertently supplementing my nostalgia, I can’t help but feel that it was not enough of a step forward living in the grand shadow cast by its older sibling. However, this is still a great car, one that is comfortable and familiar for just about anyone of your younger family members or immediate friends to become acquainted with and start blasting their music through.