New Kia Rio: Cruisin' on the river

LISBON, Portugal - Back in 2005 Kia rocked the small-car market in South Africa with the introduction of the previous Kia Rio on its world launch in France; it's about to do it again with the latest high-tech version just launched in four-door hatchback form to the world in this historic city on the south-west coast of Portugal.

Driving a car whose name means 'river' along the Iberian Peninsula's longest river, the 1038km Tagus, seemed particularly apt...

Global sales of the third-generation car reached 860 000, 219 000 of them in 2010 when the Rio was Kia's third-best export sales product.

The Korean Kia is, of course, Hyundai's sister company and the two – like most automakers around the world – keep their (and your!) costs down by sharing design, technical and engineering skills with other brands so it's no secret that the sharp new Rio shares engines and many other parts with the Hyundai i20 launched back in 2009 to replace the well-respected Getz.


You can spot similarities in general shape but this fourth-generation, B-segment Rio, designed by Peter Schreyer and his team, exudes a more youthful character and indeed Kia sees it as a car for "the young at heart" – then adds with a corporate grin…"of any age".

And if you don't think Kia has soul, check out the latest US advert for the Kia Soul.

Kia's PR guru Michael Choo put it this way: "Kia is now a truly global automaker with plants not only in Korea but also in the US, Slovakia and China; its products used to be lacking in their ability to promote emotional attachment with buyers but then came the 2005 global strategy to make our cars 'enabling and exciting'.

"Our target customers are now young not by age or youth but by heart."

The 2011 Rio is longer (by 155mm) than the previous model, 25mm wider and has stretched its wheelbase by 70mm while dropping its roof by 15mm. The internal result is 8mm more headroom and 45mm more front legroom with a marginal extra 3mm squeezed from the equation to benefit rear passengers.


Andrew Park, a senior member of Kia's marketing team, said at the Lisbon launch the new Rio was being introduced into what he called "a continuously growing market segment" and that the only thing the new cars had in common with their predecessors was the brand name. The Rio, he said, was more luxurious than its competitors, its body much stronger (thanks to high-strength steel being used for 63% of its shell) and the whole product lighter that before.

Byung-Tae Yea, president of Kia for the Middle East and Africa, said the new Kia Rio was the latest in the company's rapidly expanding range of vehicles and – eventually – would offer three body styles and three engines, one of them a diesel which will not, at least for now, be available in South Africa.

The future will, however, hold a whole range of new propulsion systems, including battery power, diesel hybrid and hydrogen fuel cells. And in the past two years Kia has expanded its sales catalogue from seven to 10 ranges. The Rio and other models will by 2014 variously incorporate constantly variable transmissions, an eight-speed gearbox double clutch gearbox; stop/go technology is already in use.

PRETTY IN PINK: You won't be able to buy a Kia Rio dressed like this but  the stripes do emphasise the fourth-generation cars' sporty character.

The car, Yea added, was designed to meet worldwide demand for downsizing as fuel prices and other motoring expenses continued to rise; Kia's challenge to its competitors was a gradual upscaling of its vehicles' styling and sophistication with maximum possible depression of price.

"This all-new Rio is a timely introduction following the Picanto," he added, "and has already won an award in Germany despite it only now reaching world markets. The car is a perfect example of how to accommodate consumer demand with the right product at the right time.

"There is a change in perception of Kia across the world."

Which figures; Kia and Hyundai have for 30 years been eroding public perceptions of eastern Asia's products and developing technology and products that now equal and even better those of Japan and Europe but the wakening giant that is the Chinese automaking machine is chasing along the Koreans' corporate tail.

Neverthelesss, Yea believes there is no threat yet from across the Yellow Sea. Time will tell on that one… but it's going to be a tough race if this latest car from Kia is to be caught in a market segment projected to be selling 14-million cars a year by 2014

So, what does it have in its armoury? What was shown in Lisbon and its beautiful outlying areas of old Sintra and cosmopolitan Cascais. and on the various drive routes through the mountainous and tree-covered hills of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park and along the Atlantic "sunshine coast" and out to Europe's westernmost point, Cabo da Roca?

First, there will for the first time be three body styles: four-door and two-door hatchbacks and a four-door sedan in LX and EX specification. South Africa, Kia SA boss Ray Levin hopes, will have the four-door hatch here in time for the Johannesburg International Motor Show in October.

GETTING REAL: A stripeless 1.25-litre version of the fourth-generation Kia Rio takes a rest stop during the world launch in Portugal at Cabo da Roca. The lighthouse complex is on a cliff at the westernmost point of Europe. The 'tigers-eye' grill is a feature, the alloy rims an option.

All models will be assembled in Korea, their engines the same as those in the Hyundai i20 – a 1.4 Gamma and a 1.25-litre Kappa generating respectively 80kW/135Nm and 66kW/121Nm. The narrow, seriously twisting roads around Lisbon don't allow spirited driving and in many places there's a 100m drop into the ocean, but Kia claims the 1.4 will reach 100km/h in 11.5sec and top out at 183km/h.

The spunky 1.25 is rated for 13.1sec to 100km/h with a top speed of 168km/h. Frankly, the lesser-powered car felt more relaxed, given the driving limitations; it has a five-speed manual gearbox against the larger car's six-speed and handled the climbs and corners of the mountains better than the on-paper more powerful car.

A four-speed auto transmission is in the parts catalogue or the 1.4 model.

Make sure your Kia dealer has both to drive before you sign for a deal if outright performance (and feature levels) don't matter much to you. If you have a green conscience, the 1.25 makes only 125g of CO2/km and is capable of 5.4 litres/100km, the 1.4 does 151g/km while burning 6.4 litres/100km.

Those tight roads do, however, show off (or up) a car's suspension and steering and the Kia came through with a stellar performance. The EX steering has speed-sensitive electric assistance that absolutely does not interfere with your connection to the road and is quick and accurate.

It's an option on the LX, according to Kia, though Kia SA might include it. Certainly anti-lock brakes will be standard on SA models.

The standard wheel/package for the new Rio will be 14" steel with 175/70 rubber. Larger 15" (185/65 tyres) and 17" alloy rims will be available with low-profile rubber – Kia SA would do well to make one or the other standard. Check out the metal on the striped red car in the pictures taken outside the media centre at the Penha Longa resort!

Kia confidently expects the Rio to achieve a five-star European crash-test rating: safety equipment variously includes four or six airbags, reversing sensors and the best reversing camera I've yet seen on a car though that might not reach SA as it's included in the satnav video screen package.


Standard items on the LX include a roof antenna, four-lens headlights, heatable rear window and a third brake light, power mirrors, steering tilt adjustment and 12V power plug – SA models will probably have aircon standard.

The EX's global spec adds chrome-trimmed grille, height adjustment for the driver's seat, power front windows and rear wash/wipe. Prices for the South African market have yet to be announced but (again, variously) could include leather steering wheel and gearshifter; the cars have the option of an audio system with CD player and MP3 capability and sockets for USB and AUX connections.

Also hope for stop/start technology, cruise control auto wipers and screen demisting (with auto aircon), power rear windows, engine start button, leather upholstery, steering-wheel audio control, Bluetooth phone connection.

The cars will be sold with a five-year or 100 000km warranty and, apparently, an aftermarket satnav system – though really why anybody except professional drivers, sales reps and taximen bother with a fitted unit when Garman and other accessories are so good continues to be a puzzle.
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