The KIA Rio (2021): Lost in translation

In a sea of SUVs and Active a-segment vehicles, KIA has gone and refreshed the Rio. Once the middle child between the Picanto and Cerato, it filled a gap that helped solidify it as a value for money option that was both practical and feature-rich. That’s why I was excited when given the opportunity to test the 2021 refreshed KIA Rio 1.4 LS MT.

KIA currently offers more SUVs than any other segment vehicle in their stable, which speaks volumes to where KIA see the market heading. The biggest question for the Rio in 2021, was whether it could still be the car it was designed for in a market filled with worthy competitors.


The 2021 refresh showcases minor changes – 15-inch alloy wheels and slimming down the tiger-nose grille and connecting it to the headlights – to what is clearly a winning design found on the 2017 iteration. It also features more aggressive plastic air vents, which in the higher-spec models house the fog lights.


Having installed my son’s baby seat in the back (the Rio offers ISOFIX connections in the rear) I found the interior space to be deceivingly spacious. Having said this, fitting 3 adults, a child, and myself in the Rio for a road trip, cabin space starts feeling slightly cramped which means that larger families will struggle with space.

The LS model does not come with leather upholstery, but you’re provided with attractive and comfortable clothe seats. To liven up the interior, the Rio has contrasting grey plastic spanning the distance of the dash which helps break the dark interior. Visibility was great, even for my toddle in his car seat in the back, and the height adjusting driver and passanger seats afford you great visibility out the front.

The layout of the dash is minimal while still giving you the physical buttons you need while relegating all other functions to the ample-sized touch screen. The physical buttons and volume rockers feel good to the touch, providing the right amount of resistance, elevating it to a more premium feel.

My biggest disappointment with the interior is the lack of soft-touch surfaces and the excess amount of hard plastic with the armrest on the center console a notable exclusion.

You’re spoilt for choice with storage as you get the obligatory door storage compartments, center console storage, 2 cup holders, cubby hole, and a place for your phone which has built-in wireless charging (a nice touch). The 325-liter boot space has grocery bag hooks, tie-down buckles, and you have the option to fully drop the rear seats or do a 60/40 split. Compared to its rivals, the Rio falls short, but not by much.


The updated infotainment system sports a larger 8-inch touch screen system perched on top of the dashboard which spans the entire model range. This comes standard with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth connectivity, and a multifunctional steering wheel. There are two USB ports, one just below the cellphone tray and another in the rear for the backseat occupants. The speaker system has been beefed up from 2 speakers to 6, making a welcome difference that my toddler enjoyed while listening to a funky song.

The infotainment system is simple to use and has usability and practicality at the forefront of its design and implementation. Using it for the first time was not confusing by any measure and felt intuitive. I experienced a few issues when my phone was connected and Android Auto was in use, but this could have been an anomaly and possibly just a user error.


The KIA Rio 1.4 LS MT comes with a 1.4-liter inline 4-cylinder naturally aspirated engine producing 73kW of power and 135Nm of torque, which will get you from 0-100 km/h in 12.9-seconds.

The 1.4 LS is a new model to the lineup and supplements the 1.2-liter on offer. Available in both 6-speed manual and automatic transmission, you’ll find the Rio maxing out at 176 km/h. The gearbox is smooth but once you get to the 6th gear, your overtaking ability decreases. I found the engine to be punchy and responsive. Taking the Rio down twisty roads on Chapman’s Peak and Gordon’s bay were the perfect playground for this powerhouse. It ate up the curves and twists, getting to a nippy speed on a straight. The caveat here was that the KIA Rio has hard suspension, which is perfect for addressing these curves and twists, but left suburban driving a bumpy affair.

KIA claims a fuel consumption figure on the combined cycle of 6.2 l/100km but our time with the car saw us returning 5.5/5.4 on average. This was me following the gear selector suggestion on the 4.2-inch LCD screen by the instrument cluster. A pleasant surprise when automakers’ consumption numbers rarely translate to the real world. One nifty piece of information on the instrument cluster was a fuel consumption gauge, the higher in the revs you went the higher this gauge would go, signaling its consumption at that point.


The model we were provided with, the Rio 1.4 LS MT, is priced at R291,995. This is the Rio’s biggest problem. When the Rio sat between the Cerato and the Picanto, it made sense. On its own, the Rio offers amazing drive and comfort, modern amenities, a solid built, and quality for that price. Having said that, The KIA Rio seems to be lost in translation when you compare it to KIA’s other offerings. KIA has recently released an all-new Sonet, starting from R264,995 which offers you a compact SUV with standard features such as wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Hill-start assist, and ESC (Electric Stability Control) that costs little under R30k less than the Rio. If you do not want a larger vehicle like an SUV and are perhaps a young professional without a large family unit, I’d even suggest getting the KIA Picanto X-LINE which offers more features like leather upholstery, LED Daytime Running Lights, and rear-view camera at R251,995. A saving of a whopping R40k. All these features aren’t available on the 1.4 LS MT model.

Do not get me wrong, there are pros and cons for when comparing these vehicles but in terms of value alone, the Rio struggles to hold its own. This even when compared to its own siblings. When comparing it against its rivals, the same could be said as it has an uphill battle on its hands in a very competitive segment.

This is a competent vehicle that stands out in the crowd and reminds you that you don’t have to purchase the same car as everyone. It drives really well, and the sporty suspension will meet the needs of many, while the practicality will suit many but not all homes.

To answer the question we first posed, I do not believe the Rio is value for money anymore and this isn’t because the Rio is a bad car, but KIA itself provides better options in its stable today that it never had to contend with before. My experience with the Rio showed me something more than just 4 wheels and an engine, it showed me a quality vehicle that was built very well and felt purposeful. A testament to KIA.

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