I haven't given up on the Kia Rio. It's a promising little car: arguably the sexiest mainstream supermini around, well-built, well-priced and with enough chassis smarts to be called 'fun to drive'.
And yet. I've driven more Rio variants than I care to remember and every time I come away impressed by the above and deeply disappointed by the powertrain. The petrol 1.4-litre is an adequate engine but in manual form the gearbox is mid-1990s-Korean graunchy and in automatic specification it only has four speeds, which destroys any potential for performance zest and responsiveness.
What hurts even more is that New Zealand's Rio range is incomplete compared with Australia. Across the Tasman, the 1.4-litre is considered entry-level. They also have the option of a 1.6-litre model with (wait for it) a six-speed automatic. That's got to be a great little car.
But that one's not here, so maybe we'll have better luck with this week's test vehicle: a Rio diesel. A powerhouse it is not, but on paper it looks like being well worth the $2000 asked over the petrol equivalent: it has less power (66kW versus 80kW) but that crucial torque figure is 220Nm compared with a puny 137Nm for the petrol. The gearbox is a six-speed manual. Heavens, it's even sounding a little sporty at this stage.
Well, it's not. But the engine is very impressive. It's surprisingly quiet, for a start. Passengers might even be hard pressed to pick it as a diesel. It doesn't provide a massive kick under acceleration, but the flow of torque from as little as 1000rpm makes it a very driveable little car around town.
The gearbox is still not exactly slick, but at least with a decent engine at work you don't have to stir the lever as much as in the petrol car.
As with the petrol-manual, the Rio diesel boasts Idle Stop Go (ISG). Which is an ungainly way of saying stop-start, meaning the engine cuts out when you're stationary and fires up automatically when you want to go again. Because we're talking about a manual gearbox here, the process is a little bit awkward: you have to come to a halt, select neutral and take your foot off the clutch. Then, and only then, will the engine stop. And only sometimes, because Kia's ISG (which I've tested in other Rios and the baby Picanto) is quite temperamental.
Still, it seems to get results. The Combined economy figure is 4.3 litres per 100km, which is a good litre ahead of the petrol-manual. The downside is that you'll have to be content with being kind to the planet rather than reaping financial rewards, because with the price premium for the diesel, New Zealand's discriminatory (towards small, economical cars) Road User Charge tax and the type of driving a Rio is likely to do, it doesn't make a lot of financial sense.
Shame, but this is still the best Rio I've driven. Because I don't live in Australia.