Five years ago, Kia turned a corner with its third generation Rio, which simply eclipsed its demure predecessors.
It essentially took a number of design cues from the previous Sportage, which was one of Peter Schreyer’s most revered designs since taking the reins as head designer at the time.
The Rio outclassed the Volkswagen Polo on both styling and cabin appointments, not to mention the Korean’s lower pricing point, too.
It was, as you can imagine, popular among the trendy young sets, particularly in high specification Tec trim.
Now the marque has launched its fourth generation Rio in an attempt to pick up where the previous model left off.
To be frank, it has taken elements of the previous model, but instead made it less daring and youthful and more mature and generic.
While this is not a bad thing, it has not particularly moved the game forward.
That said, the exterior is clean in its execution with a wider tiger nose grille and swept back headlights with U-shaped LED daytime driving lights.
The cabin has been moved 110mm rearward compared with its predecessor, while the C-pillar is thinner to improve blind spot visibility.
At the rear, LED taillights are standard fare on the Tec models, so too are the 17-inch alloy wheels.
Moving inwards, the cabin has been improved thanks to a touchscreen infotainment system that now also incorporates both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, although the latter is not yet supported locally.
Overall, perceived quality is good but some materials, particularly those used on the door inserts, are of the shiny and hard variety and not quite at the levels of the now aged VW Polo. There is more legroom both front and rear, while the boot measures 325 litres, which is fair in this class.
Power comes in the form of a 1.2 litre engine with 62kW and 125Nm driving through a five-speed manual transmission, which powers the entry-level LS model, while the EX, LX and Tec derivatives are powered by the 1.4-litre powerplant with 74kW and 135Nm in either six-speed manual or archaic four-speed auto gearbox.
At the vehicle’s launch in Gauteng, we drove the top tier Tec in six-speed manual guise through mostly urban routes where the cars are most likely to spend most of their time.
Both the clutch and gearbox actions were easy to use, while the steering was light enough to twirl in traffic and while parking.
The engine, however, felt decidedly lacklustre on pull off, but was adequate once on the move.
Sadly, this means the Rio is left by the wayside in the performance stakes where many of its rivals including the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and Volkswagen Polo have turbo engines that punch well above their weight.
This, in my view, is where the Rio grossly loses out against its aforementioned rivals.
Then there is the damping, which feels a bit stiffer than I had expected and led me to believe that perhaps the upshot is its handling.
Well, it is not flimsy around bends, but nor will it upset its rivals.
Overall, the Rio is good, but I feel it hasn’t quite pushed the boundaries far enough to stand out in a crowded segment.
It has matured in its disposition, grown in size and extended slightly its convenience equipment. Whether this will be enough to upset the applecart remains to be seen.
The company says previous Rio buyers have moved upstream and the new model has adopted a similar take and aligned itself accordingly.
As a result, the next generation Picanto, which will launch in South Africa in July, will be the one that will pander to the Y-generation, much like the previous generation Rio did half a decade ago.
So, then, in essence the Picanto will be the one to push the boundaries in its segment, while the Rio will now appeal to a more mature audience than was previously the case.