Spicy three-cylinder Rio with bite

It must be said that car companies are pretty good at making money out of customers.

Many a buyer has walked into a dealership, determined to walk out with a big bargain, only to end up with all kinds of accessories they never knew they wanted.

In fact, research shows that new car buyers are more likely to spend $25,000 on a car than the more obvious $20,000 benchmark. About five times as likely, in fact.

Most of those extra expenses presumably end with checking the “extras” box before signing on the dotted line. Or just opt ​​for a variant with more options that brings the added kit for that one price.

Step into the Kia Rio GT-Line. One of those cars that costs $25,000.

But instead of all the usual trinkets and gadgets driving up the asking price, this little Rio has something even more impressive. An all-new engine and transmission.

While the most basic versions of this fourth-generation Rio make do with a modest 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine (producing 74 kW and 133 Nm), the sportier, more expensive GT line gets a baby 1-litre three-cylinder engine.

Yes, that’s right – pay for the privilege of a smaller engine.

However, this version comes with a turbocharger. One that boosts the power of the 1-litre engine to a whopping 74 kilowatts, which is surprisingly exactly the same power as the four-cylinder engine.

Still not really a convincing argument. Wait to drive it.

The GT-Line’s secret ingredient is torque – all 172 Nm of it compared to the puny 133 Nm of the naturally aspirated car.

It may not sound like much, but in such a small, light machine it gives the Rio GT-Line surprising performance, including a high-tech dual-clutch transmission that gives the little Korean runabout even more oomph.

With its $24,990 price tag (plus on road costs), it also makes a fairly compelling argument when piled alongside other rivals — the Mazda2 GT ($25,990), for example; or the Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo ($27,990) and even the VW 85TSI ($25,690).

The little Kia undercuts them all on price, despite a long list of those “extras”. Think 17-inch alloys; special GT styling and body kit; LED daytime running lights, rear parking sensors, infotainment 8-inch touchscreen, reversing camera, power folding mirrors, power windows and sports seats.

Suddenly that $25,000 never sounded so good.

What’s more, it looks very good.

From the very beginning, the Rio was a standout candidate to be the least fashionable car on Australian roads. Launched in 1999, it was a clunky looking, oddly designed hatchback slash wagon that was not at all on the list of cars anyone would want to own. More like something that Mr Bean could drive.

It was downright ugly to look at – and not much better to drive.

So today’s sharply styled, impressively dynamic Rio probably reflects the astonishing strides the manufacturer has taken over those two decades.

Of course, despite being the “flagship” of this model, the Rio doesn’t pretend to be a premium vehicle – like other entry-level Korean (and Japanese) machines, it’s built largely at a price, not a particular standard.

Yet it presents a modern, quality atmosphere both inside and out.

And that perky little three-cylinder engine delivers a rather raspy, raucous exhaust note to match the rather punchy performance for a modest little thing.

In sport mode, the Rio even has a rev-tuning system, which makes the throttle beat faster when downshifting via the automatic dual-clutch transmission. It really is a hoot when it revs and howls at the traffic light – like a chihuahua baring its teeth at a rottweiler.

None of these things should stop drivers from testing this captivating little machine.

Fun to drive, cheap to buy and drive (it’s quite happy with the slightly cheaper 91 RON fuel and only consumes 5.3 l/100 km), it makes sense for young beginners and older empty nesters. It’s not exactly fast, but feels playful in Sport mode, where the seven-speed self-shifter is busy and keeps the engine tidy – something of a requirement.

The good looks are just a bonus.

KIA RIO GT-LINE

* HOW BIG? It’s not the smallest member of the Kia family – that honor belongs to baby Picanto. The Rio is a compact hatch that comfortably accommodates four or five people in no time

* HOW FAST? Although its small engine produces only 78 kW, it delivers a snappy performance thanks to its turbocharged power and nimble handling.

* HOW THIRSTY? Another area where its small engine helps – although it might be reasonable to expect better than its official 5.3l/100km thirst.

* HOW MUCH? While the Rio range starts right out at $20k, this is the flagship for $24,990 plus on-road costs.

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