Compact SUVs were one of the highlights of the 2012 Auto Expo. While Ford unveiled its compact global SUV, the EcoSport, Maruti showcased its XA Alpha concept, and then there were the compact MPVs. This is a new niche in which manufacturers are now sensing serious potential, but guess which manufacturer was the first to tap into it? Premier Auto! Maker of the venerable Padmini but now almost out of business, the Rio was Premier's attempt at making a comeback into the Indian market, but the chink in its armour was its BS III compliant diesel engine due to which it could not be sold in bigger cities. The Auto Expo had Premier launch the Rio Plus, which boasts of a BS IV compliant 1.2-litre petrol engine to solve the problem.
Apart from the engine change the Rio has also been given a styling update, giving it a more contemporary look. Major changes have been made to the front, and the headlamps are now modern looking curvy units, along with a new bumper with integrated fog lamps and a larger, purposeful grille. Add to this body-coloured bumpers, and side-claddings, mirror-mounted indicators, chunky 15-inch tyres and a rear wheel cover and the Rio looks a lot more youthful. Ground clearance is up by 5mm, and now stands at 200mm. Step inside and you notice the refreshed interiors, but the truth be told it is extremely dated and built very cheaply with poor quality. This might have been acceptable in the 80's, not any more. However, the beige upholstery has given a sense of roominess to the cabin.
Ergonomics remain unchanged though, and the Rio is pretty cramped due to its narrow track and wheelbase. The driver's elbow tends to hit the door pads on the right while the front passenger too needs to deal with the same problem. The driver and passenger will constantly be hitting elbows and it is no better at the back where leg, knee, head and shoulder room are all at a premium. Hatchbacks today are considerably more spacious and comfortable.
Sitting under the hood is a 1.2-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine developed by AVL, Austria, but manufactured in China and assembled at Premier's Pune plant. Engine refinement could be better. The power and torque figures stand at 76.6PS at 5800rpm and 103.9Nm produced between 3500 and 4250rpm. The engine lacks punch though, and the Rio feels slow. It isn't torquey either, so I had to downshift quite often when negotiating uphill sections. The gearbox is not impressive either, and shift quality and feel leave something to be desired. The Rio accelerated to 100kmph in 18.9 seconds making it three seconds quicker than the Rio diesel. The oil burner is much torquier and doesn't feel as sluggish. Top speed recorded was 143.2kmph but the Rio is slow accelerating through gears. But stability under braking is impressive with ABS and the Rio comes to a full stop from 100kmph in 3.42 seconds, covering 48.66 metres. Ride quality is decent, but rear end tends to get bumpy over bad roads and undulations.
The Rio turns out to be a good alternative to a hatchback for city driving with its taller seating and compact dimensions despite being an SUV. But in comparison, lack of features and performance are its stumbling blocks.
The Rio tries to make up with its pricing though, and the Rio Plus petrol retails at Rs5.96 lakh, ex-showroom Pune for the base GX version (grey interiors) and Rs6.23 lakh for GLX version with alloy wheels, stereo and beige interiors. Premier is also expected to launch the Rio Plus with the 1.3-litre Fiat-sourced Multijet engine soon, this move should help sell more
Rios especially in bigger cities.