In August 2010, we had one of the worst hire car experiences of our life. It came courtesy of a Kia Rio saloon that looked like it had been dropped down a flight of stairs and housed a pack of wild dogs for the previous few months.
Above 50 miles an hour, the wheel wobble was so bad it practically shook our arms off the steering wheel, and it had that previous-generation Asian car thing of the wiper and indicator stalks being on “the other way around”. So every time we tried to indicate off a roundabout, we turned the wipers on instead.
Granted, some of this was not the Rio’s fault, more the life it had led and the people who had (ab)used it. But nonetheless, it felt like a throwback. A bad car from an age of motoring we long thought had passed. Nothing about it was nice.
But Kia, as you’ll probably know, is a firm that’s on the up. Great things are being promised of this new Rio. It’s a big car for its class, looks smart and is full of tech, says Kia. For a while, it even laid claim to being the most economical car on sale – with the most economical car in the range offering a CO2 figure of 85g/km and 88mpg. Lofty claims. So in the real world, is the new Rio enough to banish the memory of the hire car experience from hell?
Back in 2006, Kia hired a designer called Peter Schreyer. You’ve probably never heard of him but the man has done much to influence automotive design: he used to work at VW and Audi - under him, the original TT and the Golf Mk IV were designed. Since joining Kia, he’s not just made the designs look half decent, he’s also pushed them beyond where many Japanese makes sit, to a level that rivals some of the stuff turned out by his former German employers.
This Rio’s no different. It looks solid, pleasingly well resolved and is quite an elegant form. Schreyer’s team has even given it a family face – a so-called "tiger nose" grille.
Step inside and it hardly gets worse. Let’s not forget this is a cheap and (in some formats) sub-£10k shopping car. On our “2” mid-range trim level test car, you get a soft-touch upper dashboard, air conditioning and toggle switches on the centre console that - with a stretch of the imagination - could have come from a Mini.
It doesn't have he premium-feel of a Polo but it’s big inside and, more importantly, it's not a car you’d think twice about being seen on your drive, unlike the generation it replaces. Oh, and you might like to know the indicators and wipers stalks are now the “right” way round, too.
This isn’t going to be a discussion about the relatives merits of touchscreen interfaces and sat nav systems. Yet it’s pleasing to report that as standard Kia gives you not one but two 12-volt sockets, a USB port and aux-jack. And accessing it all is a doodle, thanks to the press-what-you-see buttons beside the red infotainment screen. This does look a little old-tech, to say the least, but pairing a phone was a doddle, as was playing songs from a USB device.
More impressive, given the low price tag, is the eco-tech that’s standard here. Given that Kia can make a stop/start system standard on a £10k Rio, we’re even more perplexed as to why VW can’t manage it on a brand new, £20k Beetle. It also helps you exploit the engine’s fuel-sipping capability with a nannying gear-change up indicator.
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Given that this is a 3-cylinder, 1.1 litre diesel car, it’s not fast. But as long as you’re not expecting Ferrari-like acceleration, it never feels as slow as its 0-60 time of 15-odd seconds suggests. It’s fun to drive because the engine has an un-diesel like thrum and is really quite flexible in its power delivery.
The ride, on our car’s 16-inch wheels was pretty cushy too - not as good as it could be, and lacking the finesse of a Ford, but the suspension’s tuned for comfort rather than aggressive cornering, which is as it should be in a car like this.
And that fuel economy? Well, given its bigger wheels and extra kit, the “2” level trim gets you 99g/km of CO2 and supposedly delivers 74mpg - if you want the super-low figure quoted at the start, you’ll need the lower level ‘1’ trim. Ultimately, we got only 58mpg. However, let’s put this into context. We ignored the gear-change indicator, liked hearing the sound of that thrummy three-cylinder engine and drove it like we were in a hurry.
What’s more, on a trip from Leeds back to London and with the tank on empty, we put £20 of diesel in and arrived in Hammersmith - after the most ludicrous of M4 gridlock sessions - with the needle still clinging to the last notch before empty. Be in no doubt, this is a very economical car. And we suspect a more gentle driver than us would see 65-70mpg without much trouble.
Every so often, a car comes along that you don’t have any expectation for, that doesn’t shout from the roof tops about how amazing it is and yet just works beautifully. This is one of those cars. From the solid thunk of the doors, to that soft-touch dash, the seamless stop-start system and the loping ride, the Rio fitted our lives better than we’d ever expected. In this world of extortionate fuel costs it’s on your side, yet need to do a long motorway trip and it’s got long enough legs and a refined enough manner not to tire you out.
Better than a Fiesta or Polo? No. And good though the Rio is, it’s now priced at a level close to the best in class. But if budget running costs and interior space are your priorities then this should be high up on your shopping list. Don’t forget, it comes with Kia’s best-in-industry seven-year warranty too. So thank you Kia, for banishing the painful memory of the hire car from hell.