Kia Rio1.5 CRDi

Kia has come out of the motoring journalist's file of horrors and started to make cars you would want, not just tolerate. John Simister hails the reformed and confident Rio

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Model: Rio 1.5 CRDi
Price: £9,000. On sale October
Engine: 1,493cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 110bhp at 4,000rpm, 173lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 109mph, 0-60 in 11.2sec, 60.1mpg official average
CO2: 121g/km

We motoring journalists are increasingly being denied our pleasures. There was a time when we could get thoroughly stuck into a really bad car: Moskviches with no brakes, Morris Marinas that went straight on at corners, Simcas that spontaneously morphed into piles of rust, that sort of thing. These cars made for great copy, easy to write, amusing, in a kind of share-the-dread way, to read.

Car magazine did it well. "A new view of the untouchables" ran the cover-line for a group test of three pariahs, a Skoda Estelle, a Lada Riva and a Reliant Rialto, all photographed in the dramatic way normally reserved for Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Curiosity couldn't hold the readers back. They had to know just how awful these cars were.

The recently buried Kia Rio was one of the last vestiges of this breed. It was suspiciously cheap (a Ford Focus-size car for Ford Ka-size money), and thus a misfit in the auto pantheon. Some aspects of it worked moderately well given its cheapskate engineering, but you wouldn't have wanted one. It was the hair shirt of cars, the Lidl of low-cost transport, a pure utility purchase. And aside from the SsangYong Rodius it has been our last chance to sharpen those poison pens.

Now there's a new Rio. Kia, as I'm sure you know, has undergone a process of reinvention and now makes cars you would want, not just tolerate. There's a European design and engineering centre in Germany, shared with Hyundai but about to move to its own facility, and a new generation of cars has been emerging to suit European tastes. Kia has also worked hard on quality and refinement, even though the resulting Focus-size Cerato, designed with Korean and American markets in mind, does not represent the future Euro-Kia look.

The Rio, however, does. So does the little Picanto, which has proved a success, and so will the eventual Cerato replacement that will be made at a new factory in Zilina, Slovakia. The Sportage 4x4 will also be made there, as will a Cerato-based coupé-cabriolet.

All of which means the new Rio stands a chance of being a decent prospect. So why keep a name associated with its unloved predecessor? Kia will reply that it's a good name, it ends in "o" like some other Kia names, it will attract owners of the old Rio and won't put off non-owners because they probably won't have been aware of the old one's existence.

The new Rio fits more easily into normal car categories, too. That said, it's still slightly bigger than competitor super-minis and like the Picanto it comes only with five doors even though rivals offer an option of three. It has engines at the upper end of the size scale, a 1.4-litre petrol engine with 97bhp and, for about £500 more, a 1.5-litre diesel with 110bhp. Kia also makes a 1.6-litre Rio, and indeed a version with a four-door saloon body, but neither will come to the UK.

Sales of the 1.4 will be minimal with such a diesel on offer, but Kia would have been over-brave not to have offered a petrol alternative. The diesel is the unit tested in these pages a few weeks ago under the bonnet of a Cerato, but with more power and compliance with stricter Euro IV emissions rules (the Cerato follows suit soon).

So, I'm face to face with a new Rio. There has been no revulsion, no dread at the drive ahead. This is a neat, confident-looking car with nothing apologetic about its styling. The wheel arches are big, bold and wheel-shaped, the rear roof-line is uncannily like that of a three-door Renault Mégane. Inside we find hard plastics, seats and fabric door inserts excepted. But the quality is good.

The whole Rio has a quality feel. It's a roomy car yet will start at £8,500 or so when sales begin in October. There are no squeaks, rattles or resonances and the doors shut with a thud. Kia says the noise levels at 62mph (100km/h) are well under half those of the old Rio, and it's true that this is a restrained, relaxing cruiser for something approximately super-mini-sized.

But a super-mini-size car needs to be fun to drive, to capitalise on its compactness - not just feel like a bigger car's poor relation. The Rio pulls off this trick quite well, eager to whip round bends even if its steering is hardly the last word in precision and feedback. Just like a smaller version of its Cerato sibling, in fact, although unlike that car the Rio can get unruly on ripply roads after a while. The dampers get too hot and lose their effectiveness. And it's more obvious in the nose-heavier diesel. Kia's engineers hope to fix this by UK on-sale time.

The diesel is otherwise the version to have, though. Its overtaking ability outstrips that of the smooth but lacklustre 1.4, and its easy torque makes for a relaxing and economical drive as well as a rapid one if required (no rival diesel has as much power as the Rio). The 1.4 goes three-quarters as far on a gallon of fuel, too.

To drive, then, mainly good. But how will you live with it, day to day? There are plenty of places to store things and the rear seats fold forwards fully, cushions and all. Air-conditioning is likely to be standard, probably automatic in the top LX model, and the stereo plays MP3 files. It's an after-market JVC system, though, and less attractive than the built-in (but non-MP3) unit in Korean-market cars.

I also tried versions with a "Sporty pack" (red stitching and a leather steering wheel) and a "Colour pack" which has bright red seat inserts, a red leather rim for the steering wheel and red air-con controls and gear lever knob. Kia's British importer is holding back on these and on the extra-bright metallic colours, though, saving them for future special-edition Rios.

There really is very little that's wrong with this car and much that is right, not least the price. Between them, Kia and its Hyundai parent intend to be the world's fifth-largest car company, in terms of sales, by the end of the decade. The Rio shows exactly how this could just happen.

The rivals

FORD FIESTA 1.4 TDCI STYLE, £10,395

The basic-spec Fiesta is fun to drive, but no fireball - its engine kicks out only 70bhp and the car has a heavy body. The interior is also a little on the austere side, but an imminent face-lift will make for a homelier life on board.

PEUGEOT 206 1.4 HDI ZEST 3, £10,095

The 206 is old now, but it's still the most popular privately bought car in the UK. This HDi model is a little livelier than the Fiesta, whose engine it shares, but the driving position of the Peugeot is peculiar.

NISSAN MICRA 1.5 DCI S, £9,800

This entry-level Nissan Micra is short of equipment but represents good value. But progress is leisurely, thanks to its 65bhp Renault engine. More money buys 82bhp, but all Micras look distinctive and cuddly.

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