The popularity of any car is, in part, governed by its style. For example, Acura has been losing ground ever since the controversial “beak” was applied to its corporate nose. Conversely, Kia’s popularity has been growing under the penmanship of chief designer Peter Schreyer.
When Kia landed in Canada its portfolio was as attractive as a brick and just about as much fun to drive. Since then the company has pulled a 180 and now boasts one of the most dynamic portfolios on the market — dynamic to the eye (the Rio5 SX’s LED daytime running lights and taillights) and to the driver’s built-in yaw sensor. No, you will not mistake the Rio5 SX for a small Porsche, but compared to its peers it has a fun quotient many cannot match.
However, said outward appeal must also extend to the cabin. So it is with the Rio5 SX. To begin with, Kia’s cheesy plastics and hit and miss assembly quality has vanished in favour of a look and feel that has substance and style. Yes, there is still a lot of plastic, at least in the base model, but it is richly textured and soft to the touch. Likewise, the fit and finish is now on par with its peers.
Look a little deeper and things get even better — the content list is long and better than many of the Rio5’s peers. The height-adjustable driver’s seat is comfortable, as are the rest of the seats, the instrumentation is clean and, in spite of the hatchback design, the sightlines around the car are uncluttered. Besides, there was also a back-up camera on the test car. It is a combination that’s destined to appeal to those shopping on a budget.
This is reinforced by the content list. It reads like it belongs to something far more expensive. Heated leather front bucket seats, automatic climate control, heated steering wheel and a smart key with push-button start to go along with the usual power items and cruise control. It also had rain-sensing wipers and an auto-defog system that actively monitors the moisture on the windshield and automatically switches to defrost to clear the mess before reverting back to the driver’s preset setting. Now that is heady stuff! Heck, the tester even had a power moonroof and a full-on navigation system.
The Rio5 has the flexibility demanded of a hatch. True, sitting three adults in the rear seat is optimistic, but there is plenty of head- and legroom and enough cargo capacity to satisfy most eventualities. With the seats upright there’s 425-litres of space and 1,410 L with them folded flat.
The Rio5 is powered by a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine that features everything its more expensive rivals do — direct injection, variable cam phasing and a variable intake. In this instant, it produces 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. Pair this with a six-speed automatic with a manual mode and paddle shifters, and the powertrain’s work ethic is such that there is plenty of pull off the line (enough to chirp the tires) and a purposeful mid-range. No, I am not talking road rocket here, but for most eventualities the Rio5 satisfies driver demand. It runs to 100 kilometres an hour in 10 seconds and accomplishes the more important 80 to 120 km/h passing move in 7.3 seconds. Not outstanding, but in this segment it’s more than competitive — in a moment of exuberance I dusted a more expensive Fiat 500. The latter ambles its way to the metric ton in around 12 seconds, which is enough time to get half way through a crossword!
The Rio5’s ride and handling sits above many of its competitors. No, it’s not the sports suspension (it is taut, which limits body roll, but lets road imperfections filter through) or the ability to tailor the weight of the steering (Comfort, Normal and Sport modes). The latter, when in Sport, delivers a pleasant amount of weight without being too difficult to wheel in a parking lot. What is impressive is the advanced stability control system that keeps the Rio5 shiny side up. It not only uses the usual brake intervention to correct oversteer, it employs the steering to counter-steer out of the problem in a manner that remains invisible to the driver. Plus, the set up is such it allows the driver to take some liberties before it clamps down on the fun. The Rio5 SX and its larger P205/45R17 tires reinforced this playful nature as they bring a ton of lateral grip, which means the stability control is even less inclined to intervene. The SX also benefits from larger front brakes than the lesser models, which brings better fade resistance.
The Rio5, and its sedan counterpart, delivers a light, tight, city-friendly car that is big on entertainment and easy on the wallet — a test average fuel economy of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres and a starting price of $14,495. The bottom line is simple: If you want and/or need to cut your transportation budget without giving up on life’s luxuries the Rio5 is an ideal candidate. It has the right content and a fun-to-drive factor many cars at this end of the price spectrum simply can’t match.