x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Tech-heavy fuel sipper 2012 Kia Rio saloon beats its rivals

Road Test It's impossible to ignore how much car one gets for a seemingly paltry sum with Kia's saloon edition of its cheerful workhorse Rio.

The saloon is nice but it's not quite as charming as the hatchback. Courtesy of Kia
The saloon is nice but it's not quite as charming as the hatchback. Courtesy of Kia

Can you imagine being Brad Pitt's brother? You could take up saving dolphin's full time, volunteer as a paediatric heart surgeon in leprosy-infested jungles, maintain a scratch handicap at golf on the side and you'd still be "oh yeah, the brother". And can you imagine if Charlize Theron had a female sibling? All those chromosomes could align in perfectly sequenced synchronicity and chances are you'd still be the ugly sister. Such is the plight of the lesser sibling.

I think the saloon version of Kia's new Rio may face a similar uphill battle for the hearts and minds of subcompact shoppers. It's not that it's ugly. Indeed, the opposite is true. It's just that the five-door hatchback version of the same car is the most attractive small car not wearing a Mini badge.

The saloon is still very fetching, designed, like the Rio5, by ex-Audi chief designer Peter Schreyer, who has transformed Kia into one of the most fashionable car makers. Like the hatchback, which looks like a baby Audi, one can see a Germanic influence in the saloon's silhouette; it could be easily mistaken for a Volkswagen Jetta. Its headlights seem more bulbous than the hatch's and no matter how slinky the rear roofline, it can't match the hatch's cute-as-a-bug charm.

In almost all other ways, the saloon emulates the Rio5's technology, equipment and performance. That's no small compliment since the basic Rio's list of superlatives in the subcompact segment is long, making it more like a five-star luxury saloon and not a subcompact econocar.

It's impossible to ignore how much car one gets for a seemingly paltry sum. Included is an incredible list of big-car features such as power windows, doors and locks (almost unique in base trim of subcompacts), intermittent wipers, anti-lock brakes and a high-tech electronic stability control system. At the high end, you can outfit a Rio with heated seats, an audio infotainment system and even a power sunroof.

Yes, a full-boat EX Luxury edition even contains a voice-recognition navigation system, a rearview camera for parking and an electrically heated steering wheel. Wasn't it just last week that Kias were cheap and cheerful?

Of course, as with the hatchback, Kia is trumpeting the technology that drives the Rio as much as the gadgets that coddle. First and foremost of these if the 1.6L direct-injected inline four that Kia says is the most powerful in its class. And indeed, the Rio's 138hp is the most of any in this segment, save for the Hyundai Accent, which shares the same powertrain. Certainly compared with the Toyota Yarises of this world, the Rio is a veritable powerhouse.

It's also a sophisticated little beast, with variable valve timing, a variable inlet tract and a drive-by-wire electronic throttle control system, all of which, we're told, are designed to deliver mucho high-rpm horsepower and prodigious low-speed torque. It certainly accomplishes the first, but the second is open to interpretation. Yes, the Rio's 167Nm is superior to all but Chevy's new Sonic, but it occurs at a rather heady 4,850rpm. On the other hand, it's not as if the Rio feels less torquey than the rest of its subcompact competition, only that it so overwhelms them at high rpm that one expects a similar superiority right off idle.

For that reason, I actually found the engine better suited to its six-speed automatic transmission, mainly because the slushbox automatically keeps the engine singing in the meat of its powerband.

The manual, by comparison, requires that the driver row the box their own selves and, considering that passing is sometimes best accomplished by downshifting two gears, letting a computer do the hard work is more relaxing. The Rio's "Gamma" four-banger will never be mistaken for a Lexus V8 or even an Audi four-banger, but it does get the job done with a minimum of fuss, more than can be said for all engines capable of eeking out 100km of motorway travel with just 4.9L of fuel consumed.

Kia also claims that it is the sportier of the two South Korean car makers - it shares a chassis and suspension components with the Accent but not damper and spring settings. I can't attest to the claim that the Rio is sportier than the Accent but I can say that, except for a steering system a little shy on feedback (thanks to the fuel-consumption-reducing electric power steering system), the little saloon handles with as much aplomb as anything in this class. Same goes for braking, where even that base Rio comes standard with four-wheel discs.

Kia used to be the simple purveyor of odd-looking, cheap and cheerful econocars long on value but short on desirability. With the addition of Schreyer, it has dumped the stylistic eccentricity, kept the value-packed and thrown in some state-of-the-art technology.

Base price Dh46,000

Engine 1.6L inline four-cylinder

Gearbox Six-speed auto / manual

Power 138hp @ 6,300rpm

Torque 167Nm @ 4,850rpm

Fuel economy, combined 6.0L/100km