THE KOREANS ARE on an automotive charge the likes of which havenâ€™t been seen since the Japanese trio of Toyota, Honda and Nissan took on the might of Detroit in the latter part of the previous century â€“ and won.
Some of the best looking cars on our road today carry Hyundai and Kia badges. Even the best looking cars from Chevrolet, that bow-tied granddaddy of American muscle, are designed and built in Korea.
Kia, now possibly the coolest Korean of them all, stepped it up two years ago with the launch of the funky Soul â€“ designed by Peter Schreyer after he was poached from Volkswagen in 2006. His brief was to make the incredibly bland but well priced Kia range sexy, and the quickfire launches of the Sportage, the Cerato and the Picanto are proof that heâ€™s succeeded beyond expectation.
In an interview earlier this year with Topcar he said that a decade from now he wants his cars to be bought because of their looks first and their price second. We reckon he doesnâ€™t have to wait a decade. Itâ€™s happening already. The new Rio, which will go head-to-head with cars like the Polo Vivo and Ford Figo at the lower end and the new Polo and Fiesta at the top end of the B-segment, is no exception.
Like all new Kias, it bears no resemblance to its predecessor. Instead it wears the new Kia corporate grille with pride. Thereâ€™s quite a bit of Sportage DNA at the front and rear of the hatch. It certainly looks sporty, even dynamic when standing still.
All of which makes the anaemic performance of the 1.2- and 1.4-litre petrol four-cylinder engines that will be available locally so disappointing. Schreyerâ€™s nailed the sporty look down to a T, but Kiaâ€™s engineers havenâ€™t kept up with the visual promise. While the Europeans are bolting turbos and superchargers on their small capacity engines, the Koreans are still relying on natural aspiration to move things along sedately. No doubt Kia has woken up to the fact they need new boosted engines, so look out for more vooma and dual clutch transmissions in the near future.
If you want a city commuter youâ€™ll be just fine with the Rio, especially if youâ€™re driving it at sea level as we did at the launch near Lisbon in Portugal. The six-speed transmission on the 79kW 1.4 and the five-speed transmission on the 64kW 1.2 offered positive throws and you could row things along smoothly and efficiently. Youâ€™ll have to row harder when driving at the Reef though.
The ride itself is comfortable and reasonably quiet, in keeping with the dynamically challenged engines. Iâ€™m not sold on the rather lifeless and artificial electric power-assisted steering of the latest small Kias. Itâ€™s very light at low speeds, which is fine in city streets, but it needs to be nudged back towards centre when travelling faster on highways.
Rear leg- and headroom have been improved dramatically, with my six-foot frame fitting comfortably behind a driverâ€™s seat set for my driving comfort. The striking exterior design extends to the interior as well. There are some pleasant premium elements, with soft-touch surfaces, Bluetooth, iPod and MP3 compatibility, air conditioning and six airbags.
South Africans will be able to buy the first Rios shortly after its local introduction at the Johannesburg International Motor Show in October. Although pricing and spec levels havenâ€™t been set, the car will slot between the Picanto and the Cerato. As with all new Kias, the Rio will offer a competitive and convincing after-sales package.