The Kia Rio S is one of the cheapest cars on sale in Australia: can it keep up with some of the best-selling first cars?
Is the Kia Rio S the best value first car that money can buy?
After stepping away and thinking long and hard for a while, that question might just ring true. The Kia Rio is a popular option for first-time buyers, even if it can’t quite keep up with the rivals from MG and Suzuki in the sales charts. In 2021, Australians bought 3926 Rios, compared to 9129 MG3s and 2416 Balenos.
The Kia Rio was once one of Australia’s cheapest cars, going on sale here in third-generation guise for just $15,290 before on-road costs back in 2013.
Almost ten years later, the little Rio is now pulling ahead of the expensive new Toyota Yaris in the sales charts – but the Kia is no longer the cheapest car on sale locally. That award goes to Rio’s little sibling, the Picanto, which is currently $18,490 driveaway, closely followed by the MG3 that costs $18,990 driveaway.
But the Kia Rio is still a cheap proposition and one to seriously consider if you’d like to buy a brand new car with a warranty over something second-hand.
The Rio S manual that we have on test is currently offered at $21,490 driveaway.
This little car is entertaining to drive and a lot of fun, but let’s take a deep dive into everything to do with the Kia Rio and discuss whether the cheap price of entry has an overarching impact on drivability, safety and comfort.
After all, the Sport grade with an automatic transmission, AEB, lane-departure warning and 17-inch alloy wheels is only $2K, all things that make a huge difference to safety, convenience and livability of the Rio.
On the test loop through the south of Sydney, the Kia Rio was the perfect companion, bringing with it a decent suspension ride, well-weighted steering and a revvy little 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine.
I felt it was a unique experience being able to change gears myself – most new cars today are offered only with autos. So it was so refreshing to row through the six-speed transmission as I ducked and dived through Sydney traffic.
The Kia Rio S is a very light car, weighing only 1077kg on our scales. It feels it, too, and despite only having a small engine, the Kia Rio S gets up to 60km/h pretty easily. The little 1.4-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine makes outputs of 74kW/133Nm.
Those figures aren’t going to break any land-speed records, however the little unit returned great fuel economy – 5.4L/100km combined, beating its claim of 5.6L/100km.
The powertrain is happy to rev out, which you will have to do a lot as the maximum power does not arrive until 6000rpm. Maximum torque arrives lower at 4000rpm, but still, it needs to be revved to get up and going.
Navigating through tight urban backstreets, the Rio S is brilliant fun and felt incredibly planted and safe through the corners. I did find the brakes to be a little spongy, though, which I think could be improved upon.
Thinking in the mindset of a young buyer who is thinking of purchasing their first car, the Kia Rio shines on the driving front. But surely at this price point, something must have been sacrificed.
And so the big BUT in the equation of the Kia Rio: modern, adaptive safety technology.
Unlike many of its rivals, the Kia Rio S goes without active safety aids such as AEB, blind-spot monitoring or lane-keep assist.
One of the Rio’s biggest rivals – the Mazda 2 G15 Pure base model – comes fitted with AEB, lane-keep and lane-follow assist and rear cross-traffic alert as standard.
Yes, it does come at a higher premium, but if you are looking for a cheap first car, or buying one for your teenager, would you sacrifice what we have come to expect as important safety features?
While the Rio S falls short in terms of safety, it does still have driver and front passenger, front-side and curtain airbags fitted as standard.
This being said, spending a bit more money in the Kia Rio range with either the Sport or GT-Line variants means you gain AEB, lane-keep assist and driver attention alert as standard.
For the extra $2000, it’s worth going up the range to a Sport manual with which you also receive 17-inch alloy wheels over the stock standard 15-inch steel items.
The Kia Rio S is a simple car on the inside. It’s clear that the priority was to keep the price of the car low – and refinement isn’t what you expect here.
Still, cabin quality remains reasonably good, but a plastic steering wheel – rather than leather – reminds you the Rio S is not a premium vehicle.
For a premium wheel, you’ll need to step up to the Sport model, however I think it’s worth paying the extra $2000 for the nicer wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels, too. Cruise control is also added with the Sport, along with a premium gear shifter.
The 8.0-inch central touchscreen works well and paired perfectly with my Google Pixel without any issues thanks to wireless Android Auto.
And while the Rio S has simple features like single-zone air conditioning, basic cloth seats, the upside was that the six-speaker audio system sounded pretty good and the buttons on the steering wheel were functional and easy to use.
One surprising omission from the interior functionality was the lack of cruise control which I think most drivers would find tiresome on a long highway drive.
There’s plenty of storage for the front seats, too, with multiple cup holders and bins to keep drink bottles or coffee cups.
The main instrument cluster and dials were really easy to read, with the small central screen able to display all the useful information such as digital speed, fuel economy and more.
The backseat is surprisingly roomy for a small car and adequately fits two adults, however three in the back would be a stretch. The 300-litre boot is plenty big enough to store several school bags or the week’s shopping with no issues at all.
All new Kia Rios come standard with Kia’s seven year, unlimited kilometre warranty, with all models also equipped with 12 months of complimentary roadside assistance.
Five years of scheduled servicing costs $1965, with services occurring every 15,000km or one year, depending on which occurs first.
Kia’s warranty and servicing is a step above Mazda’s five year, unlimited kilometre warranty for the Mazda 2. However, the little 2 will cost owners slightly less to service for five years, coming in at $1702.
The MG3 comes in significantly cheaper at $1380 for five years of servicing, and has a seven year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
For fuel consumption, the Kia Rio S manual averaged 5.4L/100km on our drive loop, beating Kia’s claimed combined figure of 5.6L/100km.
Traditional ‘first cars’ in Australia are getting better and better as time goes on – if more expensive to match – and the Kia Rio S in manual guise is such a car. But it isn’t flawless.
This entry-level Rio has good infotainment, smartphone connectivity for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a frugal engine, a fun gearbox and a decent six-speaker sound system for the money.
What it does fall short on is safety and this may very well be a deciding factor for a lot of first-time buyers. When compared to other similar vehicles, its lack of basic safety equipment makes it well and truly stand out.
However, if you can see past this downside, the Kia Rio S is a great starter car and a lot of fun on the road.
If I had my pick, I’d save for a little bit longer and get the $2000-dearer Kia Rio Sport with the larger and frankly nicer 17-inch alloy wheels. Plus, you will gain the safety technology missing on the base S.
When I had my first car, a bright blue 2010 Honda Jazz, it had none of the features on the Kia Rio S. I had no infotainment screen, no phone mirroring or steering wheel buttons.
Standard specification in the first car market is getting better and better as we go along. We just need to remember that safety, more than ever, is king.
Key specs (as tested)
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