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Future Classic Friday: Kia Rio

Published 22 February 2019

Kia has come a very long way since the first generation Rio arrived on our shores back in 2001, but without it, the company wouldn’t be anywhere near the success story it is now. 

As such, it’s a hugely important car, and one that may not be in the slightest bit desirable - ever - but one that deserves to be of historical note, and no, we’ve not gone utterly loopy. 

As a classic, then, the Kia Rio has very little going for it, but as a car that changed the car industry, it has a fair amount of gravitas. Look at today’s Kias, and it’s easy to forget where the brand was at the start of the 21stcentury. Back then, it was a budget brand, and one that occupied a position in the market that had been departed by Lada and Skoda a few years prior. 

When the Rio arrived in 2001, expectations weren’t high - but when Kia announced the price tag, it raised a few eyebrows. For the entry-level 1.3L, a nice traditional name for a nice traditional trim level if ever there was one, the asking price was just £5995. It was, at the time, the cheapest new car in Britain, just a few quid dearer than the recently departed Perodua Nippa.

Kia Rio (2) (1)

Yet this wasn’t a tinny and tiny supermini. No, it was a full-sized family car, and an estate as well. Kia (perhaps wisely) elected not to bring the ungainly four-door Rio over here, although it’s a car that has gone on to achieve cult status in college campuses across the USA in part for its crudeness, but more for its ugliness. 

The five-door Rio was never handsome - far from it - but it was certainly a more harmonious design than the saloon, and also an immensely practical car. The next cheapest car on sale in the UK at the time was the Perodua Kenari, and that was a boxy supermini with a luggage space no bigger than a picnic hamper. Admittedly, you needed to upgrade to the equally traditionally named Rio LX to get such luxuries as a radio and electric front windows, but if you didn’t care about such trivialities, this was the first car since the old three-box Lada Riva that could genuinely claim to be a proper family-sized package.

Then came Kia’s killer stroke. From 2003 onwards, the Rio was offered, along with the rest of the Kia range, with a seven-year warranty. It was the beginning of Kia’s stratospheric rise to being one of the UK’s best-selling car brands, which today is as much a leader in technology and safety as it is in value for money.

Kia is now a mainstream car maker and not a budget brand - the space it left now occupied by the equally ambitious Dacia - but without the Rio enticing thousands of drivers into the brand who, quite frankly, didn’t care one jot about what they drove, Kia could still be languishing in the territory of the relatively unknown, or be as dead as Lada. It isn’t. It’s thriving, and for that it has the humble, ugly and frankly quite terrible Rio to thank.

Kia Rio (3)

Think about that when you next see a down-at-heel Kia Rio Mk1, for that’s how most of them are these days. And like all the budget cars before them, the overwhelming majority will no doubt be cubed and baled before anyone sheds a tear. At which point, they’ll become extremely rare cars indeed. Classic, maybe not, but collectable? Have you seen the prices of original Ladas lately?

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