For a better Korean small car, you might go to Rio
The small Corolla-sized car is still the best selling class of passenger vehicle in the New Zealand market, with a healthy 39 per cent share. But it's also inconsistent, with sales numbers varying widely year-on-year. It has also started to come under attack from the big predator of passenger car sales - the SUV.
The "light" segment - that's your Suzuki Swift-sized cars - is somewhat more stable and also happens to be the second largest in the passenger-car sales charts, with a 28 per cent slice of the market. Medium cars are 14 per cent and large cars are ever-decreasing, currently at 8 per cent.
So having something in the light segment is still an important - but often overlooked - part of business for mainstream car brands.
While the Suzuki Swift dominates the segment, Korean manufacturer Kia has been quietly climbing up the sales charts with its small Rio over the last few years, moving from 10th place in 2014 up to seventh last year.
Why? Quite simply, the Rio has been getting better and better for some time now. There's an all-new version that has just landed on these shores that packs a load more equipment and a slick European-style look.
The Rio is based on the same platform as the Hyundai i20 that we already have here which, if you are a follower of these things, is something of a mixed bag.
The Rio comes to NZ in three forms - LX, EX and the new LTD - with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions in the LX, while the EX and LTD are auto only.
The LX comes standard with 15-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, a seven-inch touch-screen infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a reversing camera and rear parking sensors, cruise control and hill-start assist. It costs $22,490 for the manual and $23,490 for the automatic.
The EX adds 16-inch alloy wheels, projection headlights with cornering lights, LED daytime running lights, LED tail lights, exterior chrome trim, push button start, climate control, satellite navigation and rain sensing wipers. The EX is $25,490.
The new LTD trim adds 17-inch machine-finish alloy wheels, privacy glass, artificial leather upholstery and dash trim and alloy pedals for a further $1500 ($26,990).
All models of Rio are powered by the same 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine as the i20, which means it it produces 74kW of power and 133Nm of torque. While the manual transmission is a six-speeder, the automatic is a four-speed unit. Not something that is exactly cutting edge these days.
However, both the engine and transmission feel far livelier in the Rio. This is probably due to the programming of the transmission, as it seems far more eager to kick down in the Rio than it ever does in the i20.
Around town the transmission's lack of ratios is barely noticeable, largely thanks to its agreeable responses. However out on the open road it becomes more more of an issue... but strangely, never as much as it does in the i20.
If an old-tech four-speed auto bothers you, then Kia also offers that increasingly rare thing - a manual transmission on the entry-level LX.
Hooked up to the manual transmission, the Rio's engine seems even more eager. It isn't exactly sports car-like, but has a nice feel and a good shift action, while the clutch is nicely light, yet still also nicely progressive. It is extremely easy to use at low speed and actually fun on a winding road.
The Rio's chassis is a thing of surprisingly broad ability, with an impressive bigger-car ride allied to nimble and agile handling. The nose turns nicely into corners in response to input through the pleasantly weighted and decently communicative steering and the Rio feels nicely composed, even over rough surfaces.
On the outside, the new Rio is a handsome, if conservative car, with a distinct European bent to it. The main criticism we have of the exterior is that it swerves a little too close to the Volkswagen Polo for its own good, but otherwise it's not going to offend anyone. Or excite them too much.
On the inside the conservative yet modern styling continues with an interior that is attractively designed and extremely well laid out, but somewhat monochromatic and drab, with quite a lot of hard plastic present. While a bit of colour would be a welcome relief, everything is very ergonomically sensible and the touchscreen is a highlight, being nicely responsive and boasting excellent integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The Kia Rio is an exceptionally well-equipped car at a sharp price. It handily out-does its Hyundai i20 cousin in terms of equipment and pricing, as well as making the four-speed auto work far better.
The availability of a manual is a bonus, but the whole package is a rather impressive one.
Will it outSwift the Swift? No, it doesn't have the personality for that, but Kia's predictions of selling 700 of them (an increase of 20 percent) is more than reasonable.