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Kia's updated, fourth-gen supermini gets mild hybrid tech and boosted standard kit levels.

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The Kia Rio is now one of the biggest-selling global models of the world’s third-largest car-making group, worth almost half a million annual sales to Kia

The car has a much greater profile elsewhere in the world than it has here in Europe, where, despite consistent sales growth, it has yet to break into the top 10 best-selling cars in the supermini class, and it remains out-sold by both the Kia Kia Ceed and Kia Sportage.

‘Tiger-nose’ grille is longer and thinner than it was on the last Rio. It helps to emphasise the car’s more refined and sophisticated overall look

You don’t come by a top-10 place in the European supermini sales charts easily, of course.

In order to earn one, the Rio needs to displace a more established European-built small cars, such as the Seat Ibiza, Citroën C3, Peugeot 208 or Skoda Fabia (it already sells better than the Mazda 2, Honda Jazz and Nissan Micra).

With that in mind, slowly but surely over the past couple of revisions and not at all by coincidence, the Rio has begun to feel more and more like a small car tailored to European tastes – and this latest version develops that trend.

Now in its fourth model generation and recently facelifted for the 2021-model-year, this new Rio is outwardly a match for the pre-facelifted version, although Kia claims that it has gained a little on cabin space. It was designed by teams working in parallel at Kia’s design centre in Germany and North America charged with the idea of making it look more cleanly and sharply cut, and more smoothly surfaced, than it used to. A revised 'tiger nose' front grille and bumpers are among the features new to the latest version.

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Under the bonnet, the car gets a choice of very Europe-focused petrol engines: a pair of new 1.0-litre turbocharged three-pot petrols making 99bhp or 118bhp (the latter being available for the first time as a 48-volt mild hybrid), and a cheaper 1.2-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol with 83bhp. Diesel engines were discontinued for the car's 2018-model-year, and so only very briefly figured in the fourth-generation car. Both manual and seven-speed twin-clutch automatic gearboxes are on offer in the Rio, depending on selected engine.

That's a powertrain lineup that promises to bring the Rio bang up to date and in line with the likes of the Volkswagen Polo, Ford Fiesta and Renault Clio on driveability, economy and emissions.

Inside the cabin there’s a new ergonomic approach to the fascia design and a focus on new connectivity features, while Kia's very latest infotainment system has now been added to the car also.

Perhaps most interesting of all, there’s even a new focus on dynamic sophistication for the Rio. Kia has trumpeted the efforts of its chassis engineers in introducing more agile handling, crisper steering, greater driver appeal and a more compliant ride.

We've tested two versions of the car so far: the 1.0-litre, 118bhp, 48-volt hybrid with automatic gearbox and highish-end 'GT-Line S' trim, and a 1.2-litre car in cheaper mid-range trim.  

Kia Rio design & styling

The Rio was stretched by 10mm in the wheelbase and by 15mm in overall length in its transition from third- to fourth-generation version.

You might not imagine you’d notice that kind of difference, but combine it with a longer bonnet and front overhang, a shorter rear overhang, a roof that has been lowered by 5mm and a C-pillar that’s much slimmer and more upright than it was, and it begins to explain why the new car appears so markedly changed when compared with the old model.

The Rio not only has a better stance but also just a suggestion of visual sophistication and maturity about it than the cutsie-looking, big-featured third-generation car had.

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It may be a touch less characterful, but it certainly looks serious about its assault on Europe. It also looks more like a car deserving of having what you might consider a 'proper' amount of money spent on it, which is handy; because proper money is what Kia is asking, albeit it's giving plenty for it.

Under its skin, the Rio remains a conventionally constructed supermini with a steel body, a front-mounted engine, an in-line gearbox, driven front wheels, a MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion beam at the rear.

The car’s structure has been stiffened as well as enlarged and it now consists of 51 percent high-strength steel (up from 33 percent in the last version).

Kia claims this delivers better refinement and handling and improved crash performance; a statement confirmed to an extent when EuroNCAP crash-tested the pre-facelifted car in 2017, giving the one fitted with Kia's optional safety pack a five-star full-house endorsement, but only giving the standard version three stars.

The car's structure seems to make for no significant weight saving; we weighed an upper-mid-spec, 1.0-litre version of the 2017 car at 1228kg, before Kia put any electrification gubbins onto ti. That figure would have been pretty typical of an equivalent 1.2- or 1.4-litre naturally aspirated petrol version of the previous-generation Rio.

There are now effectively three petrol engines to choose from in the Rio. The entry-level 1.2-litre petrol produces 83bhp while the 1.0-litre turbos make either 99- or 118bhp; and plumping for one of the latter gets you six speeds in your manual gearbox instead of five - assuming you wouldn't prefer a seven-speed twin-clutch auto. All 118bhp versions of the car come with mild-hybrisation, even the six-speed manual (which now has intelligent 'by-wire' clutch actuation for automatic coasting).

No Rio offers a spare wheel; a fact that helps make way for the hybrid's lithium ion drive battery and power inverter which are packaged and carried, in a roughly briefcase-sized box, where the spare wheel might otherwise be under the boot floor.

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Kia Rio

Functional and ergonomically sound is how we characterised the last Rio’s cabin, and neither description is misplaced in its replacement.

Kia measures itself chiefly against Volkswagen, and it’s a yardstick that manifests in sensible placement and scale for most the car’s switchgear.

No one has a deeper love of heated steering wheels than me, but Kia perhaps needs to rethink the grade of its covering. After a while there was a slightly sweaty pong about the cabin

The temperature and blower are controlled by knobs, as they should be, and they're of a large, grabbable, idiot-proof size that makes them childsplay to operate, with impressive solidity of feel. The car's wired USB socket, which glows invitingly, is sited front and centre, while a smattering of other ancillary functions migrate to buttons on the centre console; but you won't need to wire up your handset to connect to the car's new 'UVO Connect II' touchscreen infotainment system, which handles smartphone mirroring wirelessly even in lower-middle spec cars. 

The Rio's build quality provided a pleasant surprise in the last generation. You might say that it's failed to move the game on significantly in this car in terms of material richness, but there is a striking solidity and robustness to the feel of this car's fixtures and fittings which are simply rendered and seem made to last.

The cabin materials are fine to look at; hard to the touch, but not unpleasant and apparently well secured. They are not a match for the best of the European competition for outright tactile plushness, but they're certainly solid-feeling.

The Rio’s cabin design is correspondingly simple if unremarkable. The car declines the opportunity to try to be aesthetically interesting in its fascia layout, choosing instead the sort of conservative, pared back look that won't appeal much next to more colourful, eye-catching supermini interiors, but should certainly prove easy to live with.

Kia’s multimedia set-up mirrors the straightforward overall appeal of the Rio’s interior. Even in updated form it's a fairly workmanlike effort that eschews a flashy interface and graphical animations in favour of easily understood icons, good responsiveness and easy usability. It may not impress your friends to look at; but it's certainly pleasing to use.

You get the full-size, 8.0in setup included as standard from '2' trim upwards, which integrates with iPhone well enough; up to two mobile phones can be connected to it simultaneously. 'Connected' online factory navigation, with cloud-based route planning, appears on pricier versions of the car.

Kia’s by-the-numbers approach also pays dividends in terms of spaciousness. The last Rio was a large car for its class, and its replacement makes even more of the advantage. The driving position is a pleasingly low one to find in a small hatchback, and makes plenty of room for your elbows and knees. The car's extended wheelbase, meanwhile, only underlines the idea that this is a small hatchback built to accommodate adults in the rear.

The lower roofline has not significantly impinged on head room, and the largely flat bench will cater for three abreast at a push.

The boot is also adequately large for a class that tends to underwhelm in the stuff-swallowing department. Naturally the load bay’s seats-up length is not hugely plentiful at 700mm, but its claimed 325-litre capacity – a 13 percent increase on that which went before – is certainly not to be sniffed at. Much like the hard work that has gone into the marginal gains everywhere else. 


Kia Rio

The introduction of Kia’s latest three-cylinder, hybridised 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine is welcome. The third-generation Rio suffered for its lack of a decent downsized motor, and in the ways likely to matter to most buyers, this new model prospers where previous incumbents floundered.

Principally this is because it fulfils the modern three-pot brief of being relatively quiet, tractable from low revs and parsimonious enough to compete with a small diesel’s running costs. And given that so much was true of the old 'Kappa' version of Kia's 1.0-litre T-GDI engine, it stands to reason that the new hybridised 'Smartstream' one (which offers decent improvements on mid-range torque as well as everything else) ought to have what it takes to impress.

There's a slightly reedy quality to the refinement of the 1.2-litre engine, but unless I had regular backroad and motorway use in mind it's the engine I'd plump for, I think.

And so it does. Kia's range-topping 118bhp petrol makes for plentiful performance, good response and matchingly good flexibility in the Rio; you are unlikely to want your short-hopper supermini to go much faster, be more amply responsive, or be much easier-to-drive than this.

Kia's mild hybrid system melds seamlessly with the engine, and so if you didn't know or care what it's doing for your fuel economy, you can simply get on with your driving without giving it a second thought. On a trailing throttle the car simply displays a yacht icon amid its instruments to tell you that it's 'sailing' along without burning any fuel. Otherwise you wouldn't notice.

The Rio's cheaper 1.2-litre petrol engine doesn't come with high expectations on performance, but also deserves credit. Kia's latest variable valve control technology allows it to create useful torque from well under 3000rpm, and while it doesn't make the Rio quick, it's quick enough for easy urban and inter-urban hops. The cheaper engine can sound a little tappety under load, and a slightly over-sensitive accelerator pedal obliges you to be ginger with your pedal inputs while you're operating the clutch - but those are the most grating bugbears here.

The five-speed manual gearbox that comes with the 1.2-litre engine lacks much in the way of precise shift quality, and that it's a slightly heavy, cumbersome shift to operate makes for a note of dischord with the other, generally lighter controls in the car. We would recommend against seeking to avoid it by plumping for the seven-speed twin-clutch automatic in the 118bhp Rio, however; that two-pedal gearbox can shift in pretty hesitant, clunky fashion at times.



Kia Rio

The third-generation Rio’s handling was some way short of compelling. This would have been less of a problem for it if the car didn’t necessarily rub shoulders with some standout supermini specimens; but now the Kia’s Ford Fiesta, Mini Cooper, Seat Ibiza and Mazda 2 rivals provide concrete evidence of the sporty and engaging dynamic compromise that can be successfully struck in a supermini.

The latest Rio, although dynamically competent, provides no additional evidence that Kia’s engineers are any closer to reproducing such a savvy state of chassis tune.

Transmission humps don’t unduly upset the Rio's suspension, but the approach to the apex is woolly enough to confirm that you’re not in a Fiesta

Instead, they have persisted with something of a route-one approach, and produced a car that is easy to use and operate; competent and contained both in town and out of it; but ultimately not very memorable. Something firmer than a VW Polo, but plainly less agile and vivacious than a Ford Fiesta or Renault Clio. Something middle of the road almost by design.

The Rio's ride is medium-sprung; firm at times around town, when dealing with bigger inputs particularly, and guilty of seeming just a little wooden and under-isolated over rougher Tarmac. At higher speeds, though, that firmness of both spring and damper makes for good body control even when you're hurrying it along. You wouldn't call the result fun, and it could be more fluent-handling, too; but, even at B-road speeds, the Rio works well.

The car's wheel control lacks the light-footed, rubbery élan that some rivals benefit from having plumbed into their suspension travel, yet, and on motorway journeys in particular, it’s hard to find fault with the deliberate care Kia has taken in solemnly covering the dynamic bases.

The obvious drawback is that any attempt to break out of the suspension’s spongy morass is at once very difficult and singularly unrewarding.

Where its rivals seek to lift a driver’s mood via the levity that comes with the instant handling agility of a compact wheelbase, the Rio prefers an unruffled sort of plod that makes it seem larger and heavier than it actually is.

The mismatched weighting of the control surfaces don’t help: the light steering is too keen to promote muscle atrophy in your right arm, while muscle growth is promoted
in the left arm working the gear lever.

The clutch pedal is a shade heavier than it ought to be, too, and the result is a mild unevenness to the driving experience. It’s a minor gripe, but one that would nevertheless be noted by any owner of a Volkswagen Polo or Skoda Fabia.

At the limit of grip, the Rio remains stable and predictable, if dull. Placed under the microscope of the endless gradient changes of the Alpine Hill Route at Millbrook, the car occasionally feels a mite under-damped (although it seldom does on the road) and can fail to settle properly after crests, or else to hunkering down in the flat-bodied way that one of its more purposeful rivals might.

Off-camber corners also tend to unsettle the slightly blunt-feeling front end, which lacks both the precision and purchase generated by some (a facet hardly helped by the steering’s failure to find any weight at speed). Grip levels are meeker with near-base versions that on the 'GT-Line S', but even the latter has limited ambition to engage. There is also a tendency for the ABS to fire a little earlier than is realistically required.

Nevertheless, front-drive predictability and fail-safe composure are present in ample quantities in the Rio. Ultimately they are still the benchmarks for any dynamically respectable hatchback - and the Rio is certainly now one of those.


Kia Rio

Rio prices start from under £14,000 for the entry-level, '1'-grade petrol, rising north of £20,000 for the range-topping versions; prices that won’t instantly scream ‘bargain’ at anyone in a market where plenty of fresher budget players have stolen in of late and undercut what used to be a more simple, bread-and-butter value proposition.

Monthly finance deals are a little more tempting, though, with Kia offering near-£2000 deposit contributions on retail PCP deals as these words were written. Put your own £1750 next to Kia's deposit on the car, and a 1.2-litre '2'-grade Rio could be yours, over a three-year, 10,000-mile-a-year term, for less than £220-a-month.

From the 1.2-litre petrol expect a daily return of around 45mpg. From a mild-hybrid, depending on usage, you could see 50mpg or better.

The car comes in a choice of four trim levels (1, 2, 3, GT-Line S), and metallic or mica paint shades remain the only cost-options on most grades - so few buyers couldn't claim that choosing a car wasn't being made simple for them.

‘2’-trim cars will likely be popular and get 15in alloy wheels, heated door mirrors, electric windows all round, cruise control, rear parking sensors, leather-trimmed controls and the 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system we mentioned earlier. For active safety kit you get Kia's Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist, Lane Keep Assist and Lane Follow Assist systems here for no extra charge, the first one (an autonomous emergency braking system) being capable of detecting cyclists and pedestrians as well as cars, which should please the safety-conscious.



Kia Rio

The Kia Rio, one imagines, must have fulfilled its maker’s intentions for it rather neatly.

It’s an even more practical, parsimonious and mature prospect than ever, and you could hardly ask for a more resolutely worthy, servile or grown-up supermini.

More comfortable and more grown-up but not any more fun

Yet for all its functional virtue, the Rio remains a car that is made to look one-dimensional by the opposition.

And that’s because while it succeeds in its own fairly narrow lane, the Ford FiestaVolkswagen Polo and Renault Clio all go further and do better in one way or another, while in every way doing so in a more well-rounded and fulfilling manner.

Consequently, while none of those rivals can claim to accommodate a rear passenger quite as easily, all of them drive in a way better suited to indulging either the enthusiasm or the comfort-bias of their owner.

For us, the surprise of driver engagement is still what best distinguishes a small, affordable supermini. This Kia, although undoubtedly improved, still doesn’t offer enough of it to qualify as a true great, and doesn't quite count as a sophisticate or style champion yet either.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Rio First drives