Korea's Kia Motors has come out with the Kia Rio, which will be launched here on Aug 18. It is expected to be a money-spinner for the company
Kia's Rio is cause for a samba party New subcompact Kia Rio stresses passenger comfort rather than driver pleasure, but the build quality helps make up for it

YOU should be impressed. Koreans are a determined and hardworking people. Well, maybe not all of them, but at least those at Kia Motors are.

Only three years ago Kia Motors got knocked flat by Korea's economic crisis, and teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

Production ceased, workers at every level were faced with uncertainty, worldwide distributors lost faith, shareholders pulled out and their pride at being the first Korean car manufacturer suddenly seemed worthless.

It was one of their gloomiest moments in 56 years of existence.

The story did not end there, however.

Korea's giant Hyundai Group took a gamble on Kia, pumping in money to lift it from its tomb, and fortunately the move was not a grave mistake.

Its management and marketing strategy was restructured significantly, but within a short period of time, Kia has turned around remarkably.

In its 1999 fiscal year, Kia enjoyed record-breaking turnover and profits, the highest since its founding.

The company experienced a 360-per cent increase in recreational vehicle sales domestically over the previous year, and a 51-per cent increase in compact car sales.

Based on the increase in Korea's demand for passenger cars that has been forecast, Kia is aiming to sell 450,000 of them this year, 100,000 more than last year. And that, folks, is where the new subcompact, Kia Rio, comes into play.

Not all of Kia's fortunes depend on it, of course, but Kia hopes the Rio is just the model to give the brand a big boost.

With a projected 30-per cent increase in world demand for Kia passenger cars this year, the Rio is expected to be an important money-spinner for the company.

It is a tricky business because it has to be low-priced, yet of decent quality to compete.

And it pretty much is, at least where build quality is concerned.

There are no long uneven shutlines that the naked eye can easily detect, while its interior is well-put together, compared to pre-Hyundai era Kia.

The upholstery stitching is as impressive as on a pair of Levi's jeans, and the switches are nice to use, too.

You get a choice of four or five-door bodies, 1.3-litre 8-valve or 1.5-litre 16-valve engines, and five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmissions.

I tried every possible combination and personally prefer the Rio equipped with the bigger powerplant.

While the eight-valver tends to be raucous and rough in power delivery, the muted 1.5-litre is a smooth operator, although things start to get audible above 5,000 rpm.

Also, it is noticeably more flexible from third gear onwards.

The manual transmission lacks accuracy and feels rubbery between the gates, while the automatic could be slicker during gear changes. Handling-wise, the Rio feels wobbly around tight corners and tends to nose-dive under braking, making it pretty obvious that its suspension is softly-sprung.

Like many Korean family cars, the Rio is biased towards passenger comfort rather than driver pleasure, which is what is usually required in its market segment.

More important, though, is its improved quality, which should make it competitive in its market sector.

The equipment list and prices are yet to be confirmed, as the car will only be launched in Singapore on Aug 18, when Cycle & Carriage intends to take the wraps off the Rio at its Leng Kee showroom.

Those looking for a value-driven subcompact should try and stick it out until the Rio's unveiling. I think it is worth considering.

SPECS

Kia Rio 1.3

Price: To be announced

Engine: 1,493 cc four-cylinder 16V DOHC

Power: 95 bhp at 5,800 rpm

Torque: 134 Nm at 3,000 rpm

Gearbox: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic

Top speed: 185 kmh

For enquiries: Call Cycle & Carriage Kia on 471-0002 or 745-0002