Kia's new manual Rio is the pick of the crop

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The styling incorporates the latest-version of Kia's trademark tiger-nose grille, and echoes that of its larger sibling, the Cerato, about the tail. PHOTO: David Thomson

When Drivesouthintroduced the latest, fourth generation of the Kia Rio a few months back, the brand's prediction that 90% of buyers would choose the four-speed automatic version over the six-speed manual was prominently referenced.

No surprises there, given that older motorists overwhelmingly prefer automatics and an increasing proportion of younger drivers have never driven a manual. But a bit of a shame too, especially if open-road driving features heavily in your plans, as the manual Rio is more of a treat.

Granted, in opting for the manual you must take the Rio in entry level LX trim rather than in mid-range EX or flagship Limited guise, so no rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry or satellite navigation, all of which are standard on the EX. Nor the premium leather and soft-touch trim that grace the flagship Limited. 

At $22,490 though, the Rio LX manual still delivers plenty of kit for its cost. Alloy wheels for starters, shod with sensible 185/65 R15 tyres. Air-conditioning, cruise control, central locking, a trip computer, auto locking, multifunction steering wheel and height adjustable driver's seat are on the menu too. Then there is the car's prominent dash-mounted centre touchscreen, which houses the audio system, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android connectivity, and a reversing camera display.

The smartphone interfacing is especially neat, both because it's not often seen at this price point in the compact car segment, and because it enables tech-savvy owners to overcome the Rio LX's lack of satellite navigation by activating a smartphone alternative.

Kia is a subsidiary brand of Hyundai, so the Rio shares its underlying platform and mechanicals with Hyundai's equivalent model, the i20.

Despite this, the Rio has a look and feel all its own. The styling incorporates the latest-version of Kia's trademark tiger-nose grille, and echoes that of its larger sibling, the Cerato, about the tail. It includes a high waistline that makes this new Rio look much more solid than its predecessor, and (as it indeed is) larger too.

The cabin is roomy by class standards. On test, we sat a 183cm tall (that's 6 foot) adult behind a similarly tall driver without either being unduly cramped for legroom. The rear of the cabin also delivers adequate headroom, and is comfy for two adults or three children width-wise.

In this segment only the Honda Jazz decisively outscores the Rio for boot space and load-carrying flexibility. Practically shaped, this Rio's boot can swallow a 325-litre load (up from 288 litres on the previous model). The rear seats are split 60:40 for additional flexibility, and there are plenty of handy bins and cubbies within the cabin.

The look of the cabin is tidy rather than visually arresting. It is well put together, with a predominance of hard surfaces being exactly what you would expect from an entry-level variant in this class. Assessed from the well-bolstered driver's seat, the sweep of the dash is dominated by the centre touchscreen, the main instrument cluster is neatly arrayed, and key controls are well located.

The primary reason for considering the manual Rio over the automatic is that it is a much better mate for the car's 74kW/133Nm 1.4-litre petrol engine. This is because - with six forward ratios - the manual is able to extract performance from what is a modestly powerful engine far more effectively than the alternative, an old-hat four-speed automatic, can manage.

The engine provides adequate pep for round-town work or easy open-road cruising from around 2500rpm, but it doesn't muster peak torque until 4000rpm, and peak power comes much later, at 6000rpm. As a result, the Rio's motor needs to be revved with vigour to achieve snappy highway overtaking, or to maintain 100kmh progress on decent hills. 

With those six forward ratios of the manual Rio, Kia's engineers have been able to meet these demands by providing gearing in top that is tall enough for economical and refined highway cruising, while leaving two ratios - fourth and third - to enable travel at decent speeds on steeper hills with relative ease.
On standard economy tests the manual is roughly 10% more economical than the automatic. Additionally, the manual gearbox's light, precise action means flicking between gears is never a hardship and at times is an absolute pleasure.

It is a shame then that the steering, which is light and precise, lacks in feel. Similarly, a chassis and suspension set-up that is conservatively tuned to deliver cosseting everyday ride and predictable handling, lacks sparkle when more is sought by a driver keen to press on in a spirited fashion through challenging twists and turns.

In consequence, I would rate the Rio manual as a missed opportunity but for two important factors.

Firstly, Kia may well hold a sporting Rio card up its sleeve: rumours abound of a much more potent 88kW/172Nm turbocharged ‘‘GT'' version that, with suitably tweaked suspension and perhaps even a six-speed automatic transmission, is under evaluation for Australia. If such a variant lands across the Tasman, we will probably see it here too. 

Secondly, though its manual gearbox adds a welcome fun factor, the entry-level Rio LX makes no claim to sporting prowess. Rather, it does what it is designed to do - serve as practical, likeable everyday transport - and with considerably more polish than the model it replaces.

Kia's new manual Rio is the pick of the crop
At a Glance

KIA RIO 1.4 MANUAL LX

Overall: ★★★+
Design andstyling:★★★+
Interior: ★★★★
Performance: ★★★
Ride/handling: ★★★★
Safety: ★★★★
Environmental: ★★★★+
For: Roomy and practical interior, comfortable ride, sweet manual gearbox
Against: Engine lacks verve, steering would benefit from more feel
Verdict: The entry-level manual may be the pick of the current Rio range

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: $22,490
Engine: 1368cc four-cylinder petrol, maximum power 74kW@ 6000rpm, maximum torque 133Nm@4000rpm
Transmission:Six-speed manual, front wheel drive
Brakes and stabilitysystems: Front and rear disc brakes, ABS, ESC, EBD, BA, HAC, VSM
Safety rating: Not yet rated
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 185/65 R15 tyres
Fuel andeconomy: 5.6 litres per 100km, fuel-tank capacity 45 litres
Emissions: CO2 129g/kmon combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 4065mm, width 1720mm, height 1455mm