Not so long ago, ‘basic’ meant ‘pretty rubbish’. Actually, you could probably switch basic out for ‘entry level’ in fact. Cheap cars used to be pretty, well, cheap, but that’s not the case anymore.
- Easy infotainment
- Pretty roomy
- Great urban friendly size
- Average performance
- Lacks some safety tech
- Also lacks equipment
Now, the 2020 Kia Rio S is anything but pretty rubbish for buyers on a sharp budget, despite the fact that the pricing is so sharp. It’s still cheap and cheerful in many ways, but it’s also a handy little runaround for budget-conscious buyers.
The city car segment has always been an interesting one in that the buyer profile is hard to pin down. Manufacturers love to know (or love claiming to know) who they are selling a car to, but this segment is an interesting one. It could be a first-timer, it could be a down-sizer, it could be a family looking for a second car, it could be a young male, or an older female, or vice versa.
The city car segment doesn’t quite have to be all things to all people, but it’s not far off, and while Kia has a long history of competing hard in this segment, the likes of Mazda’s 2 and Toyota’s Yaris make the going as tough as it gets.
Pricing starts from $18,490 drive-away for the Kia Rio five-door hatch in manual S specification grade. This model kicks the range off, while the most expensive variant is the GT-Line, which starts from $24,990 drive-away.
There’s no doubt the Rio S represents solid value for money with standard features including wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, six-speaker audio system, air-con, and a conventional Bluetooth phone connection as well.
Sadly, those wheels that look like they have plastic hubcaps, are in fact plastic hubcaps. Minor gripe, sure, but we’d love the Rio S to get alloy wheels. S misses out on AEB, for example, and you’ll need to cough up the extra cash to step into the mid-grade Sport model that does get that safety system included.
Beyond the fact that you get wireless smartphone mirroring, you immediately notice how not-cheap the cabin feels. Close the door, get comfortable and take in your surroundings, and you could easily be convinced that you’re in a larger, more expensive car.
The Rio S is well put together, neatly executed and ergonomically sound. There are a few harder plastic surfaces, with only the section that you can whack your elbow on at the inside of the door being annoying.
The screen itself is placed nicely, it’s clear and responsive, and we found that wireless CarPlay worked faultlessly on test. Keep in mind also that there is no proprietary satellite navigation, so it’s smartphone or nothing. Nowadays, most people prefer that anyway, so for me that’s not a negative and it means your nav is always updated along with your phone, whichever brand you happen to prefer.
On the other hand, the monochrome driver’s display looks a bit on the old side now – in terms of the graphics – but it does have the right information and it’s easily visible. There’s a 12V and USB input up front, near a clever shelf for smartphone storage, which is fantastic because it means your phone isn’t flying all over the cabin.
There are two console-mounted cupholders, proper bottle holders in the door pockets, and manual AC that might be old school but works well. We reckon the steering-wheel-mounted controls are neatly included, don’t get in the way, and are easy to work out.
We liked the cloth seats, which are comfortable and supportive. You won’t get tired of them on a road trip either, so they aren’t just about short trips in town. Not all small cars are created equal in that sense, so it’s worth noting that the Rio S is useful for more than just short trips in the city.
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There’s a broad range of adjustment in the driver’s seat, so it won’t matter how tall or short you are, and both front and rear doors open almost square to make getting in and out as easy as it can be. That’s a factor for older buyers, or if you drive elderly relatives around often, too. A neutral seat height and broad-opening doors make that a cinch.
As befits the segment, there’s not an enormous amount of room in the second row, especially if you’re a taller occupant. You can still transport adults around in the second row, just not for a long road trip unless they are shorter.
So long as the front-seat occupants aren’t giants, adults will be okay in the second row. The second-row seats fold down, but they don’t go completely flat as there is a small step and the boot floor is quite deep. That means you can fit more gear in, though.
There is a USB port for passengers in the second row, and the parcel shelf is easily removed if need be. We like the clever system that Kia has included to tuck the rear seatbelts out of the way when you fold the second row down, so they don’t get hung up and in the way.
The 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine makes 74kW and 133Nm, and is the same powerplant used in the Sport grade above this S. The top-of-the-range GT-Line gets a zippy three-cylinder turbo, which has its own unique appeal. You can get the S with a six-speed manual, but we have the six-speed automatic driving the front wheels.
Against the ADR combined claim of 6.0L/100km (which is miserly), we used an average of 7.2L/100km, which is also pretty impressive. The live figure dropped well into the low sixes on the freeway at a constant 90–100km/h, too.
Despite the real-world efficiency, you do get the sense that the engine has to work hard, certainly when you give it a kick in the backside to get off the mark in spritely fashion. At cruising speeds it’s relatively sedate, but it does rev hard up to redline when you ask it to work. That’s all par for the course with smaller four-bangers, of course, and to be fair, the three-cylinder variant does all the same things the S does, but seemingly a little easier.
The gearbox is smooth and unfussed, though, no matter how hard you’re working the engine. Up through the ratios or back down, it shifts neatly and swiftly at any speed, and makes the most of the power and torque the engine does develop. You get the sense a manual might make for a sharper driving experience, but not much.
As we’ve come to expect from Kia, the ride and handling balance is spot on. Once again fettled with a local suspension tune, as is Kia’s MO, the ride and handling make the most of the Rio’s diminutive chassis over all surfaces, and it actually feels like a nicely tied down, taut-riding small car.
The Rio S is one of those small cars you get in and immediately feel like you’re in an agile go-kart. You can fire it through tight laneways, into and out of parking spots, and through tight roundabouts with ease. It fills the daily driver niche beautifully in other words.
The Rio gets Kia’s seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, with services on the schedule every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. Capped pricing for the service schedule works out to approximately $3000 over the first seven years of ownership.
Whether you need or want a small city car doesn’t really matter. The Kia Rio S will do exactly what is expected of it in pretty easy fashion. It’s also a lot of fun to drive into the bargain, which you may not have expected.