First drive: Kia Rio

Not heard of the Rio? You're not alone as Kia's B segment contender has struggled to make its mark in the UK with just 1.6% market share of the segment.

Originally launched as a slightly odd-ball estate back in 2001, the outgoing hatchback car was revealed in 2005 and apart from a new family nose, it will soldier on until this car debuts at the beginning of next month, with prices starting at £10,595.

So why does Kia think this Rio will be more of a hit? Well apart from the strong design, it's longer, wider and lower than the old car and includes a 1.1-litre three-cylinder diesel that promises to have the lowest emissions of any non-electric vehicle on sale in the world.

Finally, Kia are making great claims about improved build quality and of course the Rio benefits from the Korean brands high value, seven-year warranty.

So is the new Rio as interesting and exciting as Kia think it is? I headed for an early drive to find out.

The new Kia gets off to a good start in the looks department, with possibly Chief Design Officer Peter Schreyer's best work yet.

At the front, the new Rio has the latest interpretation of the Kia family tiger nose, that is neatly integrated with the large and distinctive headlight units. The Kia badge sits above the grille, with a bold bumper and spoiler below.

From the side, the most obvious styling feature is the forward-leaning wedged profile and the coupe-like roofline. other neat design touches include the sculpted wing mirrors, the distinctive undercut on the doors and the short rear overhang.

At the back of the Rio, the design highlight has to be the curvy, coupe-like rear window with its sporty spoiler. Less distinctive than the front, the rear of the Rio is dominated by the lights. The large, sleek light clusters are mounted high up the rear of the car and stretch across the tailgate.

About the only thing I'd change about the design is the small rear window, which restricts vision.

The interior design is clean, with the soft dashboard finish making the Rio feel much more of a premium model that Kias of the past. The dials with their chunky needles are easy to read and the chrome-trimmed ventilation controls with the four push-button switches look similar to those you'd find in an Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

In terms of quality and finish, there's no doubt that Kia are making improvements with every new model they launch, but the Rio's cabin isn't quite up to Ford Fiesta or Volkswagen Polo standards just yet. The door cards in particular are made of shiny plastic that looks as though it will scratch easily. Also, the ventilation switches feel a bit insubstantial.

The driving position is comfortable, the seats themselves are nothing particularly special, but are supportive.

Rear space in the Rio is average; I'm over six-foot and there was enough head- and legroom despite the sloping roof line to get comfortable. A 288 litre boot is also a surprise considering the curvy shape; fold the rear seats forward and this increases to 923 litres.

Four new engines will be available just after the launch, including two diesels and two petrols. Diesel engines include a highly-efficient EcoDynamic version that's fitted with a 1.1-litre three-cylinder unit, that is capable of 88.3mpg and produces just 85g/km of CO2. There is also a more powerful 1.4-litre that returns 70.6mpg and 105g/km.

Petrol engines include a 1.25-litre that I've just sampled and enjoyed in the latest Picanto and a 1.4-litre, which is available with an optional automatic gearbox.

Only the Rio 1.4 2 was available for me to try at the launch; it's powered by a 107bhp 1.4-litre engine, mated to a six-speed manual transmission and costs £13,095.

The car we drove had less than 1,000 miles on the clock and felt very tight, but I don't think its lack of torque and thrashy nature at high revs will improve with miles. C02 emissions of 128 g/km and a Combined consumption figure of 51.4mpg are more impressive.

This six-speed manual transmission isn't the slickest either. The gearchanges are quick enough, but there's no pleasure to be had working your way through the ratios like in a Ford Fiesta.

The Rio's refinement instantly impresses on the road, the ride is supple on the 16-inch alloy wheels with surprisingly little road noise. It's a shame then, that the Rio lacks the dynamic polish of European rivals. The steering could do with more feel and the handling although tidy, doesn't feel particularly dynamic.

Still, the latest Rio is a fine effort and is no longer an also-ran of the highly contested B segment. You won't buy this car for driving thrills, but if you're in the market for a good-looking, high-value supermini with a seven-year warranty, this Kia is well worth a look.

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