When I first drove the current Kia Rio back in 2017, I can’t say it was a car that left me particularly blown away. Sure, it might have had a solid list of interior kit and some award-winningly cute looks, but with a lacklustre 1.4-litre engine and an antiquated four-speed automatic transmission, a strong performer it was not, leaving it feeling outclassed by its increasingly sophisticated rivals like the Suzuki Swift and Volkswagen Polo. I recall calling it a case of style over substance in the headline of the newspaper article I wrote about it, and not the cheap and cheerful runabout I felt it should’ve been.
Thankfully, however, Kia has wisened up to the fact that the Rio needed a punchy, turbocharged engine and a decent gearbox to help it compete with these rivals and that’s exactly what the new GT-Line variant you see here brings to the table.
Positioned as the new range-topper in the Rio lineup, the GT-Line aims to bring some much needed sporty flair and dynamics to the party, without the company going too overboard with making it a proper full-fat GT model that would blow the price out of the water.
Compared to the outgoing SLi that previously sat in its position, this new range-topper might look even more dressed-up on the outside with its more aggressive bumpers, diamond-cut wheels, and shiny twin exhaust tips, but it surprisingly takes a bit hit to spec list when it comes to the interior.
With a grand having been shaved off the price of the Rio range-topper, you can clearly see how they’ve managed to do it. Not only is the interior mostly composed of hard, scratchy plastic, but luxuries like the sunroof are now in the bin, as is the automatic climate control unit, with manual air con dials now in its place.
The faux-leather seats are also gone, with cloth-trimmed ones now in their place, and even the infotainment system has been downgraded, with it now only sporting the lesser version of the system shared between Kia and Hyundai that fails to offer satellite navigation and digital radio, although thankfully, it does still have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity to make up for it.
Thankfully, then, most of the money here has gone into the drivetrain, which is an incredibly marked improvement over what was previously offered. Although the 1.4 and four-speed combo is still fitted to the base S model, while the mid-range Sport has the same engine with an improved six-speed auto (both are available with a six-speed manual as well) it’s the GT-Line model tested here that’s the only one to gain an all-new drivetrain.
Under the bonnet, there’s a tiny little 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine that’s turbocharged to help it deliver 88kW all the way up at 6600rpm and 172Nm between 1500-4500rpm. Perhaps even more important than the new engine is the new gearbox it’s paired to – a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that channels the power to the front wheels.
While with such meagre power outputs, it’s clearly no rocket ship, the fact the Rio tips the scales at just 1176kg means that it can feel surprisingly pokey. When you wind the thrummy little engine up – like most off-beat three-pots, it sounds a tad lawnmower-like on idle but has a fantastic tone through the mid-range – it definitely gets the thing going, with the short gearing of the seven-speed helping to extract the most of what it has to offer.
The shifts from the dual-clutch box are usually fairly quick, especially when you’re giving it a boot-full from standstill, but as there’s no dedicated sport mode – or any driving modes, for that matter – the shifts are always at the same smoothly-calibrated pace. That’s great for if you’re driving around town, but ask it to quickly drop a few cogs while driving it spiritedly and it’ll hesitate for long enough to become annoying.
Being just a 1.0-litre, it’s thrifty on fuel as well, consuming a very respectable 7.6L/100km given the way I was driving it across a mix of city, freeway, and spirited drives.
By comparison to what was here before, the difference is night and day – punchy, zippy, and geared properly, it’s everything the old drivetrain was not, so despite the odd foible, it’s a definite winner in my eyes.
Now while giving it a new heart is perhaps the most important improvement that’s been made, the ride and handling of the previous range-topper was not exactly stellar either, with light steering, tonnes of body roll, and a generally disconnected feeling from the road.
Thankfully, Kia’s Australian engineers have been busy getting on top of the ride and handling package by significantly stiffening the Rio’s suspension while still tuning it to cope with the overall poor conditions of our roads, and as they usually manage, they’ve done a great job of improving this thing tenfold.
While it may feel perhaps a tad too stiff for some, the rigid feel of its improved suspension gives a great amount of feedback to you from behind the wheel. You can clearly feel what each wheel is doing and how the road surface is changing beneath you.
The steering feels much heavier and more direct than before, too, and with the fantastic new flat-bottomed steering wheel controlling it, it really makes the Rio fun to drive with some vigour.
All that being said, some unsurprising complaints do still carry over. Being a small city car, it can be a bit noisy on the open road, with distinctly noticeable tyre roar on coarse chip surfaces. The wind noise suppression isn’t the best at freeway speeds, either, although it’s not quite as bad as some.
Around town, where it is brilliant in traffic given the punchy engine and its diminutive proportions, it suffers slightly as a result of one thing aimed at making it an even better cheap runabout – the start/stop system, an unusual fitment to see as few other Kias offer it, is slow to react when you lift your foot off the brake and want to take off, which doesn’t bode well with the dual-clutch box being eager to engage and get you going, making it feel pretty jerky in rush hour traffic as a result.
But for just $21,990 how much can you really complain about little niggles like that? Quite frankly, the Rio GT-Line is pretty well done for what it is – an affordable, sporty little hatchback aimed at those who aren’t bothered by it not being the last word when it comes to advanced gadgetry and interior finishes.
Factor in that it offers Kia’s still industry-leading seven year unlimited kilometre warranty with roadside assistance and capped price servicing over the same period to boot, and it looks like a good bet for those looking for a hassle-free city car that will get up the freeway and into the countryside on the weekend if required.
Most importantly to me, it’s a massive improvement over what it was before – at least in the way it drives, as I’ll forgive the downgraded interior given the price cut – and progress is the most important thing to see. Zero to hero? The Rio might just have done that with the new GT-Line, which, finally, manages to nail that all-important ‘cheap and cheerful’ brief I hoped it would.
2019 Kia Rio GT-Line List Price: $21,990
Pros: Zingy engine and DCT make it a decent performer, much-improved handling, affordable to buy and run
Cons: Lacks a number of features seen in the old range-topper, tacky interior finishes, ride feels a tad firm at times
In a nutshell: With the new GT-Line, the Rio finally manages to nail the cheap-and-cheerful brief.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Kia Motors Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.