Korean car manufacturer Kia is not a new player on the South African motoring scene: their 2.7-litre pick-ups and small SUV, the Sportage, has been especially popular since their local introduction. Even their larger SUV, the Sorento, and the Sedona MPV (previously known as the Carnival) has seen their share of popularity in their respective segments – not to mention the mid-sized Shuma – which makes the lack of interest in their smaller cars quite surprising. Their small Picanto is deemed an excellent choice by many people in the know, yet we don’t see many of them on our roads. Of Kia’s small-car range it is, however, the Rio that has been on the South African market the longest. The first variants to reach our shores were strange-looking cars than didn’t immediately create an impression of confidence and quality, but that is soon to be a thing of the past.

Late last year, Kia launched a brand new Rio in South Africa; a new range that comprises eight models with exactly the same engine. More engine choices are bound to follow, but for now we will have to make do with the 1.4-litre fuel injected engine. The new Rio is available in either hatchback or sedan, as standard or with a higher specification level, and with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. Of this range, it is the 1.4 Hatchback with higher specification level that is a nominee in the 2006 SA COTY contest. The Rio hatchback is aimed at people in their twenties and early thirties with its main selling points being its style, comfort, cabin space and excellent safety ratings – a definite competitor for cars like Renault’s immensely popular Clio, the Peugeot 206, Volkswagen Polo, and Honda Jazz, not excluding sibling rivalry with Hyundai’s Getz.

From the outside, the new Rio is considerably larger than its predecessor, especially its wheelbase. Exterior styling is more conservative, yet more in-line with current trends, and while it can’t be described as a looker, it remains a handsome car – especially in hatchback form. It has short front and rear overhangs and, with its larger wheelbase, should have class-leading cabin space. The general look and feel is chunky yet solid. Safety is a priority and the new Rio achieved five and four stars respectively in American and European safety tests. Fourteen-inch steel wheels with full covers sit inside pronounced wheel-arches that further add to the Rio’s cheeky looks.

The Rio’s 1.4-litre engine produces 70kW of power and 127Nm of torque, and reaches 100km/h in 12,3 seconds with a top speed of 177km/h (in manual guise). Fuel consumption is a claimed 7,2 litres per 100km’s, and Kia claims that it will improve to about 5,6 litres in a normal urban cycle. The new Rio shines when driven though, with a good turn-in and minimal body roll, although some testers have complained that the steering isn’t very communicative and the ride a little bouncy on bad roads. Standard features on the high-spec models include air-conditioning, power windows, power steering, an immobilizer, central door locking, anti-lock brakes, central locking for the front windows, rear fog lights, front airbags and a radio/CD audio system. Both the steering wheel and driver’s seat cushion are height adjustable.

With the new Rio, Kia has upped its game considerably in South Africa. Their products have evolved, matured and improved in many areas and with current sales of roughly 1 500 units per month, the new Rio is bound to notably improve this figure. Prices range from R119 995 for the manual and R129 995 for the automatic, and include a three-year or 100 000km warranty, a three-year or 60 000km service plan and three years of roadside assistance. Whether it has what it takes against its competitors is an open question, but one has to commend Kia for taking up the challenge.

Renault’s Clio is still selling very well, and when Clio 3 arrives I suspect it will create a whole new following for the marquee. Peugeot’s 206 is also aging but remains popular, but not as popular as Citroën’s funky C2. The Honda Jazz is the best car in its segment for a second year running, but lacks in popularity when compared to the Volkswagen Polo (a previous COTY winner), the Opel Corsa and Ford Fiesta. And let us not forget about Toyota’s funky new Yaris, a car that is also nominated for the 2006 title.

These cars are not quite entry-level anymore, but do fall in a segment of the market where a large number of cars are sold every month. The Rio is an affordable and worthy alternative to many of the cars listed above, but I can’t help thinking that it remains slightly inferior to them – even if it is only in terms of brand perception.

And brand perception unfortunately plays a huge role when buying a car. With a diverse and just plain odd selection of nominees for the title, the Rio was a surprise for many people. Technicalities aside though, I believe the Rio is a worthy contender after all. A vast improvement over its predecessors, it does however have an uphill battle to fight, and it remains to be seen whether it will come out tops.

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