Rio’s bigger and better

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NOT long ago the big car makers in Europe kept their beadiest eye on rivals in Japan. Today it’s the Koreans who have them worried, and no wonder.

The speed with which the big Korean car makers have improved their models to match most of Europe has been simply astonishing.

If you need to prove the point, take a leisurely stroll around the new Kia Rio. It’s the company’s most important car for years, designed to snatch sales from the heartland of Euro car-land, where the likes of the Fiesta, Polo and Clio rule the roost.

Soon this sort of car is expected to take one third of all car sales in Europe, so getting yours right is rather important. With only modest reservations (of which more later), Kia has hit the target with its latest Rio.

Apart from the obvious pull of Kia’s seven year transferrable warranty and carefully set prices, there’s the look of the latest car. Styled by an ex-Audi high flyer, the Rio looks every centimetre the modern small family car, from sculpted bonnet to pert behind.

Inside, there’s a bit too much gloomy black plastic but just enough soft touch surfacing and natty patterning on the cloth seats to comfortably lift it out of bargain basement territory. Big, bold instruments and chunky, easily reached switches, add a touch of thoughtful design.

Priced from £10,595 to £14,895, the Rio range has a choice of petrol and diesel engines; one of the latter producing less carbon dioxide from its tailpipe than any non-electric car in the UK.

That’s for the least well equipped model. Spec it to the grade 2 level of the (petrol powered) test car and it would cost £700 more than the car you see here and Kia expects not to sell many of them.

Most Rio drivers don’t do big mileages and will find the test car’s 2,000 mile average of 45mpg perfectly acceptable, along with zero road tax in the first year and a modest £95 thereafter.

They will also enjoy a car a little longer and wider (but lower) than the outgoing Rio and with extra passenger space inside, thanks to pushing front and rear wheels further apart. Split/fold rear seats and a bigger boot than before are plus points too.

There are four trim grades, with the test car’s grade 2 likely to prove popular. It comes with air con, alloy wheels, electric windows all round and heated and folding door mirrors.

Fire up the engine and you may wonder if it’s actually going, so quiet is the tickover (no cheap diesel was ever this hushed). Dip the light clutch and engage a gear with the equally easily moved gearlever and you’ll discover a car so easy to drive it ought to top a driving school’s wish list. The steering is featherlight but a bit numb and lifeless.

My test car arrived with a scant 200 miles under its tyres and felt flat and lifeless whenever the suggestion of a slope appeared.

A month and 2,000 miles later and it was transformed; easily keeping up with hurrying traffic and only occasionally needing a downchange – or two – on something approaching a hill.

It proved a mostly comfortable companion, good at absorbing the worst bumps Britain’s hopeless roads can throw at you but never quite settling down on the better stuff.

Low speed pulling power and a sometimes jittery ride apart, the new Rio presents Europe’s finest with a genuine challenger. And that’s before you compare prices and aftercare.