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The new Kia Rio, front, and Picanto are shown during the press day at the 81st Geneva International Motor Show . (SANDRO CAMPARDO/Sandro Campardo/The Associated Press)
The new Kia Rio, front, and Picanto are shown during the press day at the 81st Geneva International Motor Show . (SANDRO CAMPARDO/Sandro Campardo/The Associated Press)

Preview: Kia Rio

Kia Rio coming on strong Add to ...

Kia is one of the fastest-growing auto makers and 2011 should be another big year for the South Korean company - in Canada, it will be introducing four new vehicles and all-new powertrains.

Despite the economic downturn, global sales at Kia Motors jumped 26.5 per cent in 2010 over the previous year. For the first time, it sold more than two million vehicles thanks to increased volume in North America, China, Europe and Korea.

"We have to admire the Koreans - how they managed to develop a complete automotive industry from nothing to a serious world competitor," says Peter Schreyer, chief design officer at Kia.

Kia chief design officer Peter Schreyer with the new fourth-generation Kia Rio.

Schreyer knows a thing or two about good design. He was the mastermind behind the iconic Audi TT roadster when he worked at Audi from 1994 to 2002. In 2002, he moved to Volkswagen and created the stunning Concept R roadster and then left in 2006 to spearhead global design at Kia. His objective is to inject new life and some European flare into Kia's product portfolio. And he's succeeding, especially when it comes to the all-new Kia Rio.

At March's Geneva Motor Show, Kia debuted its latest creations - an updated Kia Rio hatchback and an all-new sporty, small car dubbed the Picanto.

"We want to develop Kia in a young, sporty direction - this way it gets good and adds desirability," says Schreyer.

The Rio is one of Kia's most important vehicles; since its launch in 2005, global sales of the third-generation Rio exceeded 860,000 units. It was the company's third best-selling vehicle in overseas markets in 2010. But there was still room for improvement, according to Schreyer.

"The old one was a very successful car. There was nothing wrong with it. But also it was a neutral product and the new one to me is sporty and sleek."

He's right. Kia's fourth-generation Rio is a radical departure from its boring, run-of-the-mill predecessor. It's bold and striking in design, sleek and rakish, with clear European influences.

The new Rio has grown in every dimension. It has a wide stance and low height so it's easier to step inside the cabin. It is 20 mm longer, 25 mm wider and 15 mm lower than its predecessor. Its wheelbase is also extended by 70 mm, which translates into more space for passengers and cargo. From the front end, it has the evolving face of Kia's signature grille integrated with the front lamps. Kia's logo sits above the grille. From the profile, it has a distinct-wedged shape and a high shoulder line.

Inside the Kia Rio.

The interior is smart and sophisticated; it's well laid out and doesn't look cheap - it actually resembles the interior of a Toyota. There's new centrally-located toggle switches and innovative technology such as a smart key with engine start/stop button and a rear-view camera.

The cabin feels spacious and airy; the front seats are comfortable and well padded as are the rear seats. Front legroom has increased by 45 mm and front headroom by 8 mm. In the rear, there's a surprising amount of space. There's ample head, leg and shoulder room for even six-footers. The 60/40 rear seats also fold down for extra versatility. The trunk space is also 100 mm wider; the capacity has increased seven per cent over its predecessor to 288 litres of cargo space.

Ten new body colours are also available, including Wendy Brown and Graphite Grey. "At the moment you see a lot of earth, brown, and gold colours. White, silver, and black are still in favour," says Schreyer.

Details on the gas-powered engines aren't available yet; that'll come closer to the launch date. The five-door version of the new Rio goes on sale later this year; an all-new, three-door model joins the lineup next year. Both models will be manufactured at Kia's Sohari plant in South Korea.

The Kia Picanto.

Schreyer also showed off the Picanto - a small sporty subcompact car, which unfortunately isn't coming to Canada. It's chic and modern with distinct European touches and a face that resembles its big brother, the Sportage. Despite its small size inside, it feels bigger than it is. It has an attractive interior with a thick-rimmed two-spoke steering wheel and Kia's signature three cylinder instrument cluster.

In Geneva, Kia also showed its Kia Optima hybrid to the European audience for the firsts time; we already saw it at the Los Angeles auto show a few months ago. Kia may be late to the party when it comes to hybrids, but at least it has jumped on the bandwagon.

The Optima hybrid shares the same drivetrain as its cousin, the Hyundai Sonata hybrid - it has a 2.4-litre gas engine paired to a small electric motor and drives the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.

Clearly, Kia is gaining ground when it comes to its sales and product revitalization plan. So don't discount the Koreans any more; they're bridging the gap with other auto makers.


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