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The new Kia Rio boasts an impressive infotainment and sat nav system. AFP
The new Kia Rio boasts an impressive infotainment and sat nav system. AFP

Road Test: Its name is Kia Rio and it's set to dance on the sand

Redesigned and reinvented, the modus operandi for Kia's newest models, the Rio offers customisation and, finally, comparable performance in its class.

Forget virtually everything you know about the car called "Kia Rio". Here's a new one sharing only its name and the impressive warranty with its predecessor. The latest Rio continues Kia's design-led new product onslaught, following the new-look Sportage and the shapely Optima.

The Rio adopts the so-called "tiger grille" of its bigger relatives, although the style is accentuated by large, distinctive headlights. This is all allied to a pert hatchback shape. The rear of the car is less distinctive than the nose - echoing several rivals such as the Volkswagen Polo, Seat Ibiza and Toyota Yaris - but it's a stylish, tasteful design. There will be a handsome, four-door saloon available too.

Kia will let you do weird and wonderful things with the new Rio's cabin, by paint-matching trim colours and offering a decent leather option. Along with that there's an impressive infotainment and sat/nav system available. Of course, many buyers will opt for the standard Rio, and the good news is that it's not at all bad. The all-black cabin may be a little dark, but, like the exterior, it looks good.

Crucially, the interior works well too. The switchgear is designed neatly and is tactile to use, especially the new toggle switches that form part of the climate control system. The leather steering wheel is chunky and good to hold, and the seats are quite comfy. Although the Rio has physically grown, rear legroom is, at best, adequate while there's more luggage space in many of its rivals.

We're not convinced that potential buyers will be comparing boot volumes though. The styling will grab them and then it's up to the driving experience to seal the deal. Whereas the previous Rio traded solely on its value-for-money proposition, this one stands up to comparison with the best in its class - and not just because it's cheaper.

The Ford Fiesta is regularly placed on a pedestal as the dynamic benchmark in this sector, but the Rio runs that car remarkably close. The Kia's chassis is agile and stable and is comfortable on most road surfaces. Keener drivers won't get too excited about the Rio, but it's as satisfying to drive as most alternatives in the class. A suite of safety systems such as electronic stability control, electronic brake force distribution and emergency brake assist is standard, to lend a hand in an emergency.

In the Middle East, it's likely that the only engine to be offered initially will be a 1.4L petrol unit. Thankfully, the new power plant has a little more go than the asthmatic engine in the outgoing car. A maximum of 108hp is on tap, along with a modest 137Nm of torque. As I say, this is no performance car, but it can handle its intended number of passengers and their luggage with ease. Where this engine does excel is in refinement and economy.

Under duress, a Kia source confirmed that a hot hatch version of the Rio will be unveiled next year. This is likely to use a turbocharged 1.4L engine with about 160hp, plus a dual-clutch automatic gearbox with paddle shift. Although no decisions have been made on its name, the smart money is on GT.

Such news from the Kia brand would have been laughable a few years ago but it no longer is now. It's amazing how far the Koreans have come in a short amount of time.

Kia has clearly stepped away from being the bargain basement option and is easing towards the higher quality end of the mainstream.

That means the new Rio can be compared to the likes of the Ford Fiesta, the Volkswagen Polo and the rest. It deserves that on merit alone, although Kia has not forgotten its value-for-money roots.

Price Not yet on sale

Engine 1.4L four-cylinder petrol

Gearbox Six-speed manual

Power 108hp @ 6,300rpm

Torque 137Nm @ 4,200rpm

Fuel economy, combined 5.5L/100km

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