There's an old motoring and motorsport adage that if a car looks right it almost certainly will be right.
Like all adages, it has more than an element of truth to it, though there are always exceptions.
The pretty, New Zealand-designed and developed Dart Formula Atlantic racing car, is a case in point.
Nothing could have looked more right. It looked like a Formula 1 car in miniature, it was loaded with innovative technology and made extensive use of carbon fibre. It was raced by Dave McMillan, Brett Riley and John Crawford.
Initially it showed promise, and looked particularly attractive in McMillan's colour scheme. But it was the early days of carbon fibre construction and McMillan's car suffered some delamination problems.
Riley was frustrated as hell by his car. It looked appropriately sleek, but there was an aerodynamic flaw in the design. On Pukekohe's back straight the car would hit an aerodynamic 'wall' and stop accelerating. The contemporary Ralts and Swifts would simply blow on by.
Anyone who's ever driven a Mini Clubman flat-out will understand the sensation: the Clubman got to a speed and simply wouldn't go any faster. A regular Mini, on the other hand, would gain speed incrementally while the Clubman was up against its aerodynamic “wall.”
But we digress, though this digression does illustrate the point we want to make about Kia's Rio Sport.
For here is an undeniably attractive medium-small hatchback that really does look right, especially with the tall 17-inch spoked allow wheels and ultra-low-profile tyres.
And the good news is that, unlike the ill-fated Dart Formula Atlantic, the Kia is largely as good as it looks. And the Rio Sport, with 17-inch alloy wheels that absolutely fill the wheelarches looks very good indeed.
When they unveiled it at the media launch last year, the Rio Sport drew plenty of positive comments. The lines are neat, contemporary and have a distinctly European car look.
The C-pillar treatment is particularly individual, and the way the taillights blend with and continue the styling line along the side of the car is particularly effective.
I didn't get to drive the Sport on the launch programme, instead sampling the rather lack-lustre standard model with 14-inch wheels and 185 tyres.
Its handling was rather soggy, understeer-dominated and came complete with a fair amount of body roll.
I approached the test Rio Sport expecting, well, not very much. After about two weeks' driving over the Christmas/New Year period I found myself agreeably surprised.
In fact, I consider it possibly the best Korean car I've yet driven. It's certainly a long way ahead of anything Kia has launched previously. It's part of Kia's coming of age, building on the strong reputation being forged by the Sportage diesel compact SUV.
Like the Sportage, which shares it chassis and running gear with a Hyundai model (the attractive Tucson), the Rio is a rebodied version of Hyundai's next generation Accent.
The Rio Sport shows plenty of signs of careful and thoughtful design.
The steering wheel is a case in point. Often in smaller cars, designers get the steering wheel diameter slightly too large. This one is absolutely right. It may not seem that important, but having the right diameter on the steering wheel makes a big difference to the driving enjoyment of a car.
The interior is nicely finished and I liked the dual tone trim and contrasting colour upholstery stitching.
Frequently cars in this price bracket – the low $20,000s – have trim and interior fittings that have a cheap, plasticky feel (Holden's Daewoo-derived Viva is an example). I have no such complaints about the Rio Sport's interior.
The seats are something of a mixed bag. They look sporty but could do with more lateral support, and the cushion and backrest are a little on the flat and firm side.
Switches are logically laid-out and easy to use, and the good quality sound system is easy to operate, with no of the fussy controls. As well as the usual bass, treble, balance and fad adjustments the six-stacker Compact Disc stereo also has a graphic equaliser. A welcome touch is the standard cassette player.
Other thoughtful touches include the roof-mounted sunglasses holder and the cargo-restraining net in the boot.
The CVVT 1.6-litre four-cylinder motor is a willing, free-revving unit which gives the Rio Sport lively performance (0-100km/h in around 10 seconds). Maximum power is 82kW at 6000rpm, and peak torque of 145Nm is delivered at 4500rpm.
The torque spread is good, and the car requires a minimum of downshifting in moderately tight going, third gear often sufficing where you might normally go for second.
Though this edition of the Rio is called Sport, its power and torque outputs are identical with the other models.
But the engine does have one sporty attribute. At very high revs it delivers a nice cammy shriek.
The manual gearbox is less sporting. Shifts are relatively long-throw and there's a degree of rubberiness about the shift feel. It shifts quickly, though, and the ratios seem well-matched to the engine.
Our only other complaint about the gearshift was its occasional reluctance to slot into reverse immediately.
The clutch (the pedal must be depressed before the engine will start) is light to operate and takes up smoothly and easily.
Handling is quite good. The wide, very low profile (205/40) 17-inch Dunlop tyres provide excellent grip in most conditions. Their only shortcoming was a tendency to scrabble in bumpy tight corners taken at speed. The minimal tyre sidewalls with their minimal lateral give are contributing factors here.
Unlike the standard Rio, the Sport's body roll is well-contained.
The car as at its best on State Highway 1-style corners where it will corner flatly and precisely.
In tighter going where there are continual changes of direction it copes well, but lacks a little in precision. That said, it never struggles, never feels clumsy.
The steering has a nicely direct feel and is quick and precise.
The Rio is right at home in the city where its tight turning circle and light handling and clutch combine to make it very user friendly. Ride is ultimately decided by the big wheels and low profile tyres. It's least happy on uneven surfaces but is pleasantly smooth on motorways. There's a fair amount of patter on bumpy roads.
Noise levels are reasonable, though the wide Dunlops produce a fair amount of tyre roar on chip-sealed roads.
Accommodation is good, with good leg and headroom, and there's adequate luggage space.
We enjoyed out fortnight with the Rio Sport which far exceeded out expectations. It's not perfect, and there's still a way to go, but the car's good qualities are a sign that Kia is turning the corner.
The brand's current marketing catch-cry is “The power to surprise.” And that's an apt phrase for the Rio Sports: it surprised us – pleasantly.
– story and photographs by Mike Stock
What you get
You certainly get a lot for your money with the Kia Rio Sports.
The wheel and tyre package is worth its weight in gold. The 17-inch alloys and 205/40 tyres transform a somewhat ordinary car into one worthy of consideration.
The sports come with what Kia calls a Sporty Pack – effectively dual tone upholstery and cabin trim with prominent stitching on the seats.
The internal door handles are chromed. The steering wheel and gear lever knob are leather-wrapped.
The glass is tinted, there are front foglights, power windows and exterior mirrors (the mirrors are also heated), rear foglights and a rear spoiler.
Fully-automatic air-conditioning is standard, as is a good quality Compact Disc sound system with graphic equaliser, external amplifier, and six-disc stacker. It also has a cassette player – a nice touch.
There's a trip computer, an odd inclusion in the form of a left-side armrest for the driver's seat, a roof-mounted sunglasses holder, storage pockets on the backs of the front seats, and the rear seatbacks fold forward in a 60/40 split to accommodate long loads.
Nice touches in the fairly roomy boot include a cargo restraining net and hooks to hold items like supermarket bags.
Theft-deterrent gear includes an engine immobiliser, and a burglar alarm linked to the keyless entry remote-control central door-locking system.
There are comprehensive active and passive safety packages. Among the former and the grippy Dunlop tyres and the all-disc braking system with ABS anti-lock. There's also an electronic stability programme that is exclusive to the Sports.
Passive safety gear includes five lap/sash seatbelts, dual front, side and curtain airbags, front cabin seatbelt pretensioners, and a child seat anchoring system.
The front seats have active headrests that deploy in an accident to help prevent whiplash injury.
Could I live with then Kia Rio Sports?
The answer is a clear yes, though with some qualifications. I can't honestly say I was filled with excitement at the prospect of driving a Kia Rio over the summer holiday break.
Sure it was likely to be better than the old Toyota Corona – a new car, anyway, rather than one with an alleged 140,000 (though in reality probably 200,000) kilometres on the clock.
But motoring writer colleagues were fizzing at the prospect of driving some moderately exotic iron over the summer.
Clear in my mind was the image I had gained of the Rio on the model's media launch last year: a car given to strong understeer, lots of body roll, and some anxious moments as it squirreled under very hard braking.
But that was the standard Rio, with narrow 185/65 R14 tyres mounted on 14-inch steel wheels. The summer Rio was the Sports with 17-inch alloys and wide 205/40 R17 low profile Dunlop tyres.
The two cars were chalk and cheese. I began to warm to the Kia after a few days, and was genuinely reluctant to return it on January 4.
Sure there were little annoyances, like the pattery ride at low speed on poorly-surfaced roads, the hardish seats which lacked serious lateral support, and the somewhat imprecise feel of the manual gearshift.
But performance was good, handling tidy until the car was really being pressed hard, body roll was well controlled and there was plenty if standard equipment. And, of course, the very attractive styling.
In all, a rather appealing package, thought it can't hold a candle to a masterpiece like Suzuki's Swift.
My only real question about the Rio is the one that applies to most Korean cars: depreciation and residual value.
- Mike Stock
Kia Rio Sports specifications
Type Five-door, five seat hatchback.
Engine 1.6-litre four-cylinder with Continuously Variable Valve Timing. Maximum power, 82kW at 6000rpm. Peak torque, 145Nm at 4500rpm.
Transmission Front-wheel drive. Five-speed manual gearbox.
Suspension Front, MacPherson struts. Rear, Coupled torsion bar beam axle. Gas-filled shock absorbers.
Brakes Front, ventilated disc. Rear, solid disc. ABS anti-lock system.
Wheels 17-inch alloy.
Tyres 205/40 R17.
Performance 0-100km/h, 10.2 seconds. Turning circle, 9.84 metres. Towing capacity, 1100kg (braked trailer); 435kg (unbraked).
Dimensions Length, 3990mm. Width, 1695mm. Height, 1470mm. Wheelbase, 2500mm. Front track, 1470mm. Rear track, 1460mm. Ground clearance, 155mm. Kerb weight, 1232kg. Fuel tank capacity, 45 litres. Luggage capacity, 270 litres (rear seatbacks upright); 1145 litres (rear seatbacks folded).
Price $23,145 drive away.