A Compact SUV for hatchback money it may be, but there’s a reason you still don’t see too many Premier Rios on the road, especially in our cities. The idea of a petrol-engined SUV hasn’t caught on with many buyers, while the BSIII-compliant diesel engine simply doesn’t qualify for sale in the metros. Even those who did buy the diesel model had little to rave about, thanks to the rather underwhelming engine. In a move that is sure to broaden the Rio’s appeal and boost sales, Premier has just equipped its mini-SUV with the modern (and BSIV-ready) 1.3-litre Multijet engine from Fiat. Sounds, interesting, right?
As you may know, the Fiat Multijet engine powers a whole host of cars, including Fiat’s own Punto and Linea, the Tata Vista and the Swift, Ritz, Ertiga and SX4 from Maurti. Ritz, Ertiga and SX4 from Maruti. All the cars mentioned here place their engine transversely with power channeled to the front wheels and, thanks to this common layout, plonking the Multijet motor in their respective engine bays was not a major engineering job. But things weren’t that simple for Premier. That’s because the rear-wheel-drive Rio positions its engine longitudinally rather than employing the front-wheel-drive transverse arrangement the Multijet is built for. Premier wanted to preserve this characteristic of the Rio and hence had the tough task of adapting the Multijet for its mini-SUV. The absence of benchmark data for this unique arrangement for the Multijet added to the challenge. Premier’s in-house R&D team had to draw on its erstwhile experience with older cars, including the rear-wheel-drive 118NE!
Achieving proper refinement was a priority with the modification and required changes to the engine mounting points to keep noise, vibrations and harshness in check.
The other challenge for Premier’s engineers was to mate the five-speed gearbox used on the older TUD5 diesel engine to the multijet. This required lots of work on the rear portion of the engine to which the transmission is attached.
So has the heart transplant helped? In a word, yes. Refinement sees an improvement, though it’s still not quite as good as any other Fiat Multijet-equipment car. This means there is some clatter at idle and the engine does get noisy at higher revs. In the Rio, the Multijet engine uses a fixed-geometry turbocharger and intercooler to produce 71bhp at 4000rpm. The power increment over the older TUD5 engine may be only 7bhp, but it has transformed the way the Rio drives. It doesn’t feel labboured like the TUD5 did and performance is much improved too. To put this in perspective, it’s a full six seconds quicker in the 0-100kph dash! That’s not to say it’s fast by any standard; it still takes a yawning 20.26 seconds to get to 100kph from a standstill. It does feel peppy enough for city driving, though, which is something you can’t say about the old diesel.
The new engine generates its max torque of 18.7kgm between 1800 and 2400rpm and, correspondingly, the small-capacity motor does feel best past the 2000rpm mark. But, thanks to the short gearing, it’s easy to keep the Rio in the meat of its powerband. Interestingly, the gearing is identical to that on the older motor and there’s a reason for this. The Rio is not available with a low-range transfer case, so despite the added power, Premier chose to retain the old car’s gearing so that its baby SUV would have sufficient low-down torque to comfortably tackle mild off-road course. As a corollary, the engine also spins at a relatively high 3000rpm at 100kph in fifth gear.
Speaking of gearing, a big letdown is the gearshift quality. Premier has worked on the mainshaft to help remedy the gearbox’s biggest bugbear – its imprecise shift action, but even then the engine and transmission don’t feel perfectly in sync. The gearlever also has a tendency to jump out of the gear it’s slotted into, and even the short travel clutch feels a tad too heavy over a long day of driving. The Rio manages a highway fuel economy figure of 17kpl, which is quite good for this class of car. Its in-city fuel economy is also impressive at 13.8kpl.
With both old and new diesel engines weighing about the same, there have been no changes to the suspension for this Multijet model. However, Premier has tweaked the springs to soften the low-speed ride across the range (petrol model included) and the result is very impressive. The Rio simply coasts over potholes and sharp edges with aplomb. A lot of the credit must be given to the meaty 205/70 R15 tyres, which shield you from most surface imperfections.
Pick up the pace, though, and the Rio’s dynamics take a turn for the worse, sometime literally. The ride get choppy (especially for rear-seat passengers) and there’s also lots of body roll when you need a quick change of direction. It also gets easily ruffled by strong crosswinds, and the light (and imprecise) steering further blunts confidence. The Rio also has a tendency to veer to one side under emergency braking, which is really unnerving. At least you get ABS as a safety net, as boldly announced by the sticker on the tailgate.
New badging apart, there is nothing to differentiate the multijet Rio from the existing diesel and petrol variants. The Rio received a new grille, front bumper and headlight only earlier this year and the makeover has worked fairly well to hide its 15-year vintage. In case you are wondering, the Rio is basically a 1997 Daihatsu Terios built from kits that are imported from Chinese manufacturer Zotye, which itself sells the SUV as the ‘Noramal’. It may have a tiny footprint, but the 200mm of ground clearance, flared wheel arches and tail-mounted spare tyre make it look a proper compact SUV rather than a hopped-up hatch.
However, there’s nothing special about the Rio’s cabin. The dashboard looks basic, there’s little space to stow odds and ends, and all of the plastics feel crude. Overall levels of fit and finish are far below modern standards, with gaping panel gaps at places. The AC controls look and feel tacky, and the horizontally placed power window switches on the front doors look straight out of a 1980s taxi. It’s only the audio system (which seems to have been borrowed from the Mahindra Xylo) that brings some element of modernity to the cabin.
You get a good view out of the large windows and the front seats are reasonably comfy, but given the Rio’s narrow width, you are likely to rub shoulders with the front passenger while changing gears. Drivers are also sure to find the cramped footwell an irritant on long drives. Rear-seat passengers don’t have it all that good either; the high floor means ingress isn’t too easy and you also get a very knees-up seating position. Knee room is in short supply too, but the front passenger’s seat slides quite a way forward, so you can free up ample space in the back.
Boot space is decent so long as you don’t plan to lug around oversized suitcases, and the seats do fold forward to increase luggage capacity.
Premier Rio CRDi4
The best Rio yet, but there’s still a long way to go
The Multijet engine has definitely made the Rio more competent as a package. While it still doesn’t shine in the areas of refinement or performance, it’s far better to drive than before. Its compact dimensions and light steering make it as easy to manoeuvre as your average hatchback and the low-speed ride is really good too. Then there is the generous ground clearance and interesting looks, which will appeal to many. But look at the bigger picture and you can’t escape the fact that the Rio is a mediocre product at best. And, priced at Rs 7.30 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) it isn’t really cheap either. For the money, the Rio CRDi4 simply can’t match similarly priced hatchbacks for quality, comfort or even space. But if you must have yourself a compact SUV, this is the only option unitl the Ford EcoSport arrives next year.
Front seats are quite comfy but the cabin is really cramped
Not fast by any stretch, but not bad in average city traffic
Engine gets quite noisy and there’s lots of road and wind noise
It sn’t as affordable as perceived and comes with few features too.
There are no airbags and the body doesn’t feel tough either
Ride is good at low speeds but gets choppy as you go faster
Easy to live with in the city but borders on scary at high speed
Build & Quality 4/10
Build quality is flimsy and cabin plastics look and feel crude.