Whereas Kia supply the American market with a hatchback and all-important saloon model, we must be content with just the five-door hatch, by far the most distinctively styled of the pair. If you get a sense of dej vu when you see that rising window line, it's because the same stylistic trick is used on the Rio's bigger sibling, the Carens mini-MPV. The styling could hardly be called run of the mill, with a shape that's pitched somewhere between a small hatchback, an estate and a tiny MPV, with some very nice detailing. The clear lens headlights are particularly smart and the styling avoids the frumpy appearance of so many five-door hatch variants.
The interior, whilst not up for any design awards, is nonetheless better than you might at first expect. Although the trim materials appear a bit flimsy, there's an absence of squeaks, rattles and vibrations amongst the plastics of the dash and centre console, although the body shape does suffer from significant wind noise at speed. The buttons and switches are all big and self-explanatory, with the large, rectangular hazard light and heated rear window buttons thoughtfully placed.
Accommodation is good, if not class leading, courtesy of that sharky profile and 'aerodeck' style roofline. The front seats are reasonably squishy and comfortable in the style of old luxury French cars, but they aren't particular supportive in the lumbar area. Head, foot and legroom up front is no problem whatsoever and the height adjustable front seat and seatbelt anchors are a nice touch on a bargain model. The rear bench, for it would be optimistic to call it anything but, is less successful, with headroom quite pinched although a by-product of the elongated shape is very good legroom. It's ideal if you're planning on transporting the kids about. Try not to carry more than two, as only the outer two berths at the back get three-point seat belts.
The Rio looks a little flimsy inside and the cabins are prone to minor plastic parts breaking and extraneous squeaks and rattles developing. The mechanicals are reasonably simple and rarely give cause for complaint. Kias bear up pretty well reliability-wise, but do check for its service history and contact a few franchised dealers to try to find the best bargain available.
(Estimated prices, based on a 2001 1.5 SE) Kia spares prices have gained an enviable reputation for good value, and replacement parts for the Rio are no exception. A clutch assembly is around £140, whilst front brake pads weigh in at around £40. An alternator will cost around £120, and for a starter motor you'll be looking at £110. A replacement headlamp will require £130.
Two engines are available, a 74bhp 1.3-litre unit and a 97bhp 1.5-litre sixteen valve powerplant, neither of which are remarkable in any particular measure yet combine to provide a competent all-round performance. The 1.3-litre unit (offered in base, L and LX trim) will reach 60mph in 12.7 seconds if you opt for the five-speed manual version or a yawning 18 seconds if the power-sapping four speed automatic is chosen. The manual will propel the junior Rio up to 102mph whilst your licence will hardly be quaking at the automatic's 98mph terminal velocity. Fuel economy is decidedly respectable, the manual car averaging 40mpg and the self-shifter returning 35mpg.
Opt for the larger-engined Rio (this engine only offered on the top-spec SE model) and you'll get a usefully zippier package. The 97bhp on tap may sound decidedly modest, but it's still enough to punch the manual car to 60mph in 10.7 seconds and the automatic to the same increment in 14 seconds dead. To put these figures into context, that makes the Kia Rio quicker than a 2001 Ford Fiesta 1.25 Zetec, a Honda Civic 1.6 SE, a Nissan Almera 1.8i Sport, a SEAT Ibiza 1.6 and a Volkswagen Polo 1.6 S. Fuel economy is class competitive too, the manual car able to run 39 miles on a gallon of 95RON whilst the driver of an automatic version will be thumbing a lift for seven miles, its 32mpg return looking a little less clever.
The Rio is a surprisingly tight-feeling package on the road, with a reasonably taut suspension set up that keeps body roll well in check. The downside of this is that our notoriously scabby roads will transfer tarmac irregularities direct to the driver's bottom, making for an occasionally bumpy ride. Pensioners negotiating speed humps may do well to place their dentures in a glass in one of the thoughtfully provided cup holders. Nevertheless, the Rio is good fun to hustle about, the rack and pinion steering is light and accurate; something that has defeated the best efforts of many more prestigious manufacturers. At speed the car is quite noisy, a steady whine entering the cabin above 75mph, and the Rio also feels quite susceptible to cross winds, but long motorway journeys probably aren't the Rio's native environment.
If you buy a used Kia Rio simply because it represents a cheap, nearly new car, congratulations you've fulfilled the brief. It's not the most dynamic vehicle your money will buy, but for those with little interest in motoring it'll satisfy most of their immediate needs. If funds are tight, a used Kia Rio might well fit the bill.