Punchy three-cylinder Rio with bite

·4-min read

Motor companies, it must be said, are pretty good at getting money out of customers.

Many a buyer has marched into a dealership, determined to walk out with a big bargain, only to end up with all manner of accessories they never knew they wanted.

In fact, research shows that new car buyers are more likely to spend $25,000 on a car than the more obvious benchmark of $20,000. About five times as likely, in fact.

Most of that extra spend, presumably, ends up ticking the "extras" box before signing on the dotted line. Or simply opting for a more highly optioned variant that brings the added kit for the one price.

Enter the Kia Rio GT-Line. One of those cars that costs $25,000.

But rather than all the usual trinkets and gadgets that inflate the asking price, this little Rio has got something even more impressive. An entirely new engine and transmission.

While the most basic versions of this fourth-generation Rio make do with a modest 1.4-litre, four-cylinder engine (producing 74kW and 133Nm), the sportier, more expensive GT line gets a baby 1-litre, three-cylinder engine.

Yes, that's right - paying for the privilege of a smaller engine.

However this version comes with a turbo-charger. One that lifts the 1-litre engine's outputs to a whopping 74 kilowatts which, surprisingly, is exactly the same power as the four-cylinder engine.

Still not quite a compelling argument. Wait to drive it.

The GT-Line's secret ingredient is the torque - all 172Nm of it compared to the normally-aspirated car's puny 133Nm.

It might not sound like much, but in such a small, light machine it gives the Rio GT-Line surprising performance, including a high-tech, double-clutch transmission which adds further zip to the little Korean runabout.

With its $24,990 (plus on road costs) price tag it also makes a fairly convincing argument when it's stacked up beside other rivals - the Mazda2 GT ($25,990) for instance; or the Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo ($27,990) and even the VW 85TSI ($25,690).

The little Kia undercuts them all on price, despite boasting a long list of those "extras". Think 17-inch alloys; special GT styling and body kit; LED running lights, rear parking sensors, eight-inch touch screen infotainment, reversing camera, power folding mirrors, power windows and sports seats.

Suddenly that $25,000 has never sounded so good.

What's more, it looks very much the part.

Since the very outset the Rio was a stand-out contender to be the least fashionable car on Australian roads. Launched in 1999 it was an awkward-looking, oddly-designed hatchback-slash-wagon that didn't register at all on the list of cars anyone would aspire to own. More like something Mr Bean might drive.

It was butt ugly to look at - and not much better to drive.

So the current sharply-styled, impressively dynamic Rio probably reflects the amazing strides made by its manufacturer over the course of those two decades.

Of course, despite being the "flagship" of this model, the Rio makes no pretence at being a premium vehicle - like other entry-level Korean (and Japanese) machines it's largely built down to a price, not up to a particular standard.

Still, it presents a modern, quality vibe both inside and out.

And that perky little three-cylinder engine delivers quite a raspy, raucous exhaust note which matches the quite spicy performance for a modest little thing.

In sports mode the Rio even has a rev matching system that blips the throttle as it downshifts through the twin-clutch auto. It's really quite a hoot as it revs and roars pulling up at the traffic lights - like a Chihuahua baring its teeth at a rottweiler.

None of these things should deter drivers from testing this engaging little machine.

Fun to drive, cheap to buy and to run (it's quite happy with the slightly cheaper 91 RON fuel, and uses just 5.3L/100km), it makes sense for young first-timers and older empty-nesters. It's not exactly fast, but feels frisky in Sport mode where the seven-speed self-shifter gets busy and keeps the engine nicely on song - something of a requirement.

The good looks are just a bonus.

KIA RIO GT-LINE

* HOW BIG? It's not the smallest member of the Kia family - that honour belongs to the baby Picanto. The Rio is a compact hatch which will comfortably seat four, five at a pinch

* HOW FAST? Even though its tiny engine produces just 78kW, it's a spirited performer thanks to its turbocharged power and nimble handling.

* HOW THIRSTY? Another area where its little engine helps - although it could be reasonable to expect better than its official thirst of 5.3L/100km.

* HOW MUCH? While the Rio range starts right on $20k, this one is the flagship at $24,990 plus on-road costs.

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