Her name was Rio and she wasn't all that

90s cars General Bunk 00s cars
Tom Ellis goes racing in a Mk1 Kia Rio and promises never to make the same mistake again. Meanwhile, PetrolBlog uses a Duran Duran-inspired headline.

Tom Ellis guest blogs to tell us about his Mk1 Kia Rio hillclimb and sprint car. It's a jolly good read.

In the many tributaries that make up the river system of petrolheads there is something for everyone, particularly here at PetrolBlog (I still thank you for giving us the term Shatchback!). But there are some cars that don't deserve any love.

Take the Mk1 Kia Rio.

A curious hybrid of estate and hatchback (we Brits didn't get the fairly handsome saloon version), the Mk1 Rio was noted as being one of the cheapest new cars you could buy at the turn of the millennium.

For two years I've been dabbling in the world of sprinting and hillclimbing in my trusty, if somewhat slow 1989 Vauxhall Nova, but I’ve always fancied doing it in something totally off-the-wall and inappropriate.

So why not buy a Korean white good, I pondered. On paper, the Mk1 Rio's vital stats trumped the Nova – a reasonably willing Mazda-sourced 1.3-litre engine and a top speed of 102mph.

My initial excitement disappeared when I posted my plans on the Retro Rides website to be greeted with predictable responses. I'll show them, I thought to myself. The Rio could be a decent competition car, just you wait and see.

The Beast (optimistic nickname) – in its Chevette HSR-striped, dinged and dented glory, along with Pirelli Cinturato tyres – was lining up at the start line at Snetterton in May for its motorsport debut.

A first for Kia in hillclimbs and sprints, and a motorsport first for the Mk1 Rio. There was a lot riding on this.

Event 1: Borough 19 Motor Club Sprint, Snetterton, 20 May 2016

Kia Rio at Snetterton

Traditionally my season-opener, I was itching to take the Rio far out of its comfort zone. Like most events, you get two practice runs and two official timed runs throughout the day.

Almost immediately, the Rio's complete absence of performance credentials rose to the fore – and I’d barely completed my first practice lap.

The stodgy handling was to be expected, but nothing could prepare me for the useless power delivery and the nastiest manual gearchange I have ever experienced. For the first two laps of the Snetterton 100 circuit I banged the limiter countless times and missed a number of gears as I tried to maintain some kind of momentum.

My first practice run of 146.45 was slower by a few hundredths of a second than the 1.0-litre Nova, although the subsequent times fell, and on the final run I achieved a personal best of 140.27. A six-second improvement but still a good 15 seconds behind the other road-going production cars and the overall slowest – an accolade I've grown accustomed to in my 45bhp Nova.

Despite feeling like a prat, it was fun in a masochistic way and I couldn't wait to see how it would perform at the historic Shelsley Walsh.

Event 2: Reg Phillips Trophy Meeting, Shelsley Walsh, 2 July 2016

Kia Rio at Shelsley Walsh

Brilliant, I thought. Shelsley is a power hill. The Rio has more power than my Nova, so faster times might be on the cards. Oh I can be so naive…

Feeling mildly undeserving of a spot under one of the signature wooden huts, I eagerly picked my practice slots and waited for my cue. Weather was good; visibility clear. All set.

Oh. Dear.

The Rio just wouldn't play ball. The engine demanded second gear before Kennel Bend, and by the time I approached Crossing it begged for third and then the revs just dropped, despite my foot being buried in floor.

The power, which comes in at 5,500rpm (6,000 redline) was notable by its absence, so I was forced to change down before Bottom S. Braking wasn't required so I used what little momentum it had mustered to ease through to Top S and out onto the final straight.

The Rio barely made it to 50mph before the finish line loomed into view. At least twice I had to brake hard when approaching the hilltop paddock because I was so intent on coaxing some speed out of this useless car.

Mk1 Kia Rio race car

And yet, barely 24 hours earlier, it had cruised along in the overtaking lane on the M6, M5 and M42. Insert sentence about comfort zone and the Rio being well out of it.

Each and every run was the same humiliating struggle. The novelty of competing in something 'off the wall' was long since forgotten. I shuddered to think what the commentators said about me, not to mention how the spectators must have been howling with laughter.

My best time of the day was actually my second practice run at 54.12; Ess Approach: 39mph. To compare: my wee Nova's best time at Shelsley, set in September 2015, was 53.24; Ess Approach: 48mph. So the Kia was slower than the older, less powerful car in every turn and matched it on the finish line speed. So much for progress.

Of course the Nova is lighter (750kg plays 1,100kg), not to mention nimbler and you can’t exactly strip the Rio for lightness, as it has to be in a road legal condition.

Even before my final run of the day was complete my mind was made up: do Blyton Park the following weekend and then that will be it. The Rio was essentially a pointless purchase. I am now bashing my head against the wall for ever thinking I knew better than motoring journalists from the early 2000s. The Rio is a woeful car. It is a car built for those who don't enjoy driving.

My inner sadist was fighting to come out and give it one final brutal kicking around the demanding Lincolnshire circuit of Blyton Park and then get it out my hair for good.

Event 3: WSCC Sprint, Blyton Park, 9 July 2016

It was with some resignation that I arrived at a Lincolnshire airfield on a cloudy July morning. The threat of rain loomed. Whatever happened today, it wouldn't matter as the Rio was going to We Buy Any Car (Even a Kia Rio).

The first practice run came in at 109.38 – as slow as I had predicted. And then the heavens opened and proceedings were halted for 45 minutes.

Second practice was terrifying – lots of surface water which meant even this heavy, body-rolling, understeering mess kicked its dumpy back end out into a couple of bends. I took it easy and was relieved to make it to the finish without coming off.

The track dried up for some timed runs in the afternoon, though sadly we only managed two goes instead of the planned three. But that was fine, as my first came out at 107.45 – the fastest of the day. I decided the final timed run would be about keeping it smooth, not overdoing the first bend and pushing it harder through the final bends. In other words, the opposite of the first run.

It worked, knocking off another two seconds and achieving a new best time of 105.36. And not only that, I wasn't the slowest of the day, as a beautiful late-model Mk1 Ford Escort scored a best time of 113.30. Excellent: the Rio had clawed back at little dignity.

But was it faster than the Nova? Two days later, I checked the Time Team Timing website: the Nova's best time was 108.64, achieved in dry and sunny conditions. So the woeful Kia had managed to give me two personal bests, one scored in less-than-ideal conditions. Not bad for a terrible white good on wheels, eh?

But its woeful performance at Shelsley Walsh was still fresh in my mind. What's the use of a car that's reasonable on sprints but useless at hillclimbs? Something competent at both would be ideal.

Kia Rio at Snetterton circuit

I appreciate three events is hardly a thorough exploration, but taking into account my working hours and available budget, I couldn't manage a whole plethora of different events all across the country. The sheer lack of performance parts available, save for the odd 'universal' eBay fitting and alloy wheels/tyre combos means that further development isn't really an option.

DIY tinkering is out the window (there's no Haynes manual available), but the nail in the coffin is that truly awful gearchange. In fact, the only way to extract more talent from this car would be to ask Quaife for a bespoke gearbox build which is way out my price range.

How can I summarise the Mk1 Kia Rio? Think of it as a noughties Lada or Polski-Fiat: a cheap and not so cheerful hack for those who really had to slap a new-reg car on the drive, despite having a limited budget. If you’re after a no-nonsense used car with a big boot and couldn’t give a damn about dynamics and driving fun, it’s probably worth a look. But if you’re a keen driver, avoid.

Seriously, there are no redeeming features just waiting to be discovered – what you see is what you get. And you don't get a lot. There are many better ways of spending £500 on a hillclimb and sprint contender, and I'm already exploring options for the 2017 season.

It won’t be a Mk1 Kia Rio.

Photos by Tom Ellis, Derek Hibbert and Andy Leivers. More photos on Tom's Flickr account.