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First Drive: Kia Rio

The Rio feels suitably tailored to European tastes considering its global roots, says Alex Grant.

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SECTOR: Supermini  PRICE: £11,995-£17,445 FUEL: 46.3-80.7mpg CO2: 92-140g/km

For a carmaker once known for cheap and cheerful small cars, it’s a sign of recent changes at Kia that the Rio – competing in Europe’s largest-volume supermini segment – is outsold within its own range by the Sportage and Cee’d in the UK.

Sales are less anomalous globally. This is still the world’s best selling Kia – half a million were sold last year, making this new version a significant launch.

Though it looks more like a heavy facelift, it’s all-new underneath, based on a more rigid structure which aids cornering stability without requiring stiff suspension. Don’t expect Fiesta-esque sportiness, but it handles neatly and rides with the sophistication of a bigger car. It feels more substantial, more like a European supermini, than the outgoing Rio.

That’s also true of the way it looks – there will only be a five-door version, matching customer demand, and Kia has toned down the styling to something that’s with Polo-esque sensibilities, though it’s arguably also a little too close to the Hyundai i20. But the silver lining of being slightly more conservative is it’s less prone to looking under-wheeled in its pared-back trim levels.

The big changes are inside. It’s not up to the soft-touch, perfectly-damped cabin of the Polo, but the dashboard’s hints of downsized Optima are a big improvement let down only by an over-use of black plastic which can make it feel a bit drab. But it’s very functional, with reshaped seatbacks offering plenty of room for rear-seat adults, and a generously sized boot with a wide tailgate aperture.

Engine options vary depending on trim level, but it’s likely that fleets will opt for the tax-efficient 1.4-litre diesel engines. These produce 76bhp or 89bhp, the former replacing the old Rio’s 1.1-litre three-cylinder diesel with a smoother, less hard-working four-cylinder which should make the claimed 80.7mpg easier to achieve. For a small car, refinement is very impressive.

There are some appealing petrol alternatives. The 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol offers the sort of sparky throttle response that once sold diesel engines in droves, with the 102g/km CO2 emissions to match, but it’s also £700 cheaper. It feels like the right engine for the car, one that’s only likely to make increasing financial sense in the coming years.

Thankfully, both are available in the mid-spec ‘2’ trim, which Kia expects to account for 70% of UK customer orders. This gets the widest selection of engines – the 1.0-litre turbo, 1.25 and 1.4-litre petrols, and the lower-powered diesel, but also includes digital radio, autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warnings. Unfortunately it doesn’t get the biggest touchscreen, with its internet-enabled navigation, and Android and Apple connectivity.

So the Rio shapes up to be a competitive supermini, in a segment which can be hard to rival in Europe with a product developed for global tastes. Behind spotlight-stealing crossovers, Kia hasn’t lost its talent for thinking small.

What we think

A competent, if not class-leading, supermini with plenty in its favour, the Rio feels better suited to its small petrol engines than the default diesel.

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Alex Grant

Trained on Cardiff University’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Motor Magazine Journalism, Alex is an award-winning motoring journalist with ten years’ experience across B2B and consumer titles. A life-long car enthusiast with a fascination for new technology and future drivetrains, he joined Fleet World in April 2011, contributing across the magazine and website portfolio and editing the EV Fleet World Website.