When the Kia Rio GT-Line first lobbed in last year, it marked a huge turning point for the tiny hatch’s fortunes. While the Rio had always charmed with its likeable looks, the original atmo four-pot and four-speed auto it featured for the Australian market at its 2017 launch was, quite frankly, a pure disappointment.
But along came the GT-Line with its charming turbo triple and more sophisticated dual-clutch box to save the day. With a more eager drivetrain and a far better suspension tune as well, the Rio had the drivetrain it deserved. Not all was perfect just yet, though, as what it made up for in the drivetrain department, it lacked on the inside when compared with the prior Rio range-topper.
Cue, then, this minor update for the 2021 model year, which aims to right those shortcomings on the spec list. The price might be up rather substantially – at $24,490 before on-road costs, it marks a $2500 increase over the 2019-20 model – but so, too, is the level of standard equipment, which only makes it continue to look like a sweet deal.
Now, if you were expecting this to feel like a premium small car on the inside, you’ll want to look elsewhere as the interior is largely bereft of soft-touch materials, with its cabin composed almost entirely of simple and durable black plastic. It’s not exactly the most interesting interior design either, simply feeling more purposeful and utilitarian.
However, what it lacks in those regards when compared to many of its rivals, it more than makes up for it when it comes to the indistinguishably sporty feel this cabin has. Take, for instance, the lovely flat-bottomed steering wheel that’s perfectly-sized and wrapped in perforated leather, or the seats that add at least some visual interest thanks to their combination of cloth and leather with some unique white embroidery. Even the slab of faux carbon fibre on the dash fascia adds to the effect in a good way.
The biggest point worth mentioning on the inside, though, is in regards to the technology it’s packing as it marks a big step up from before. Most notably is a new infotainment system housed on an 8.0-inch screen that impressively features both wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
It’s an easy to use system for the most part, and having that wireless phone mirroring tech at this price point is pretty impressive, although I did find the wireless CarPlay connection to be a tad glitchy at times – my music would keep playing, but it’d throw up an error message saying the phone connection was lost, which it wasn’t. Worth noting as well is that this new infotainment system lacks both DAB+ digital radio and integrated sat nav as well, although you can at least use your preferred mapping program on your phone with ease.
On a good note, though, automatic climate control finally makes a return, having last featured in the old SLi model, while a 4.2-inch colour display has been added to the gauge cluster as well for good measure. The addition of lane centring technology is an impressive one as well, although it does still lack adaptive cruise control to accompany it for true Level 2 semi-autonomy.
In total, while some of the additional equipment is a bit hit and miss, the fact all of it is there is impressive for the price increase the model incurs. What is unquestionably a good thing when it comes to the Rio GT-Line, though, is the way that it drives.
Packing a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine that makes 74kW at 4500rpm and 172Nm between 1500-4000rpm, with that power sent to the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, its power outputs might not be much on paper but in reality, this featherweight feels far more eager than you may expect.
Its tiny engine makes a cracking noise as you give it some welly, and the harder you push it the better it starts to get, with it feeling potent and willing either side of its powerband peak.
The dual-clutch ‘box feels a good fit for this engine, as while it’s hardly the fastest unit out there, with the gear changes often clearly noticeable and a certain degree of hesitance at times, it is smooth enough around town and is generally pretty predictable.
What’s most fun about this particular version of the Rio, though, is its brilliant chassis. Benefitting from a locally-developed suspension tune for the Australian market like all other Kia models sold Down Under, when it comes to the GT-Line, the Rio serves as a reminder of just how much fun a small city car can be when set up correctly.
With a pliable and compliant chassis, it never struggles for grip thanks to the quality Continental hoops it wears on its 17-inch alloys, while its quick and well-weighted steering rack only adds to the feeling of fun it delivers.
The ride is tuned perfectly for this sort of car, too – there’s a touch of firmness to it, but its not overbearingly stiff, with it still feeling perfectly daily-drivable and able to handle the poorly-maintained roads my usual testing grounds, the Adelaide Hills, are littered with.
While the Rio is never going to be the most thrilling car you’ll ever drive, for what it is it’s a right old laugh, with its tossable chassis and charismatic engine genuinely able to put a smile on your face.
What’ll keep that smile there is the strong ownership proposition it presents like all other Kia models, as its seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty, seven years of capped price servicing, and seven years of complimentary roadside assistance is one of the best deals you’ll find in Australia.
Its fuel consumption of a mere 7.0L/100km over the course of my 440km of testing – an impressive return compared to a claim of 5.3L/100km given my spirited driving style – only means it should be easy on your hip pocket at the bowser, too.
The price might be up, but the Rio GT-Line is still a car that genuinely fills the ‘cheap and cheerful’ brief, with a particular emphasis on the latter as this is genuinely among the most fun drives you’ll find in the class.
2021 Kia Rio GT-Line List Price: $24,490
Pros: Eager and charismatic engine, pliable but composed chassis, added features for 2021 make it feel far more well-rounded
Cons: Glitchy wireless CarPlay connection, slow and at-times hesitant DCT, notable price rise
In a nutshell: The Rio GT-Line continues to prove itself to be a fantastic value buy – despite the significant price rise – thanks to its strong ownership proposition and low running costs, along with the added gear this 2021 model brings. It might not be the perfect small car in every single regard, but there’s no doubting that ‘fun’ is this thing’s middle name.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Kia Motors Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.