2023 Kia Ray Review


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Kia’s pint-sized Ray might not ever be leaving its home country, but it shows that quirky, fun small petrol cars should still exist.

Easy to forget, perhaps, that there was a time – not so long ago – that Kia was a name intrinsically associated with no-frills affordable mobility, and not long before that it was a name almost entirely unheard of outside of its home market.

That’s an image that’s been well and truly erased by a slew of competitively specified and handsomely styled mass-market models like the latest Kia Sorento and the electric Kia EV6, but back in its homeland, Kia is still well represented in the affordable car sphere by the hordes of Ray mini-MPVs that buzz nimbly around the wheels of buses and behemoth SUVs as they navigate the streets of Seoul – one of the world’s most congested cities.

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There’s an electric version (Kia’s first EV, don’cha know?) with a just-about-useful 138km of range and decent charging stats on offer, but it’s roundly outnumbered on the streets of Korea’s capital by the much more conventional petrol car, which caters – to great effect – to the portion of city drivers who haven’t yet switched to a BMW M5 Competition, Genesis GV80 or Hyundai Grandeur. Seriously, this is a wondrously diverse car parc.

Priced from the equivalent of $15,700, it measures 3595mm long by 1595mm wide and 1700mm tall, so it has a similar footprint to the closely related Kia Picanto but is taller than a Range Rover Evoque, which – together with a flat cabin floor and tightly packaged drivetrain – means it is tangibly more capacious inside. We’ll refrain from using the T-word, but a car of this size has no right to feel so roomy and open. Fair enough, the boot is pretty tight, but all four passengers get plenty of head and knee room, and there’s enough adjustability in the driver’s seat and steering wheel to suggest a longer journey wouldn’t be out of bounds. Plus, its boxy stature and upright seating position mean visibility is about as good as it gets, and parking is a cinch.

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So too is the Ray’s equipment list generous for a budget car: electric windows all round, a touchscreen (albeit a fairly rudimentary one), climate control and about as much ADAS as you’d want – a city motorist could ask for little more. The phone holder in place of smartphone mirroring functionality or a sat-nav is a giveaway to its bargain-basement billing, but hey, it worked for the Volkswagen Up. Most phones are as big as dashboard screens now, anyway.

What the Ray markedly isn’t is ‘nippy’, ‘fizzy’, ‘grunty’ or any of those other adjectives we tend to reserve for low-powered econoboxes such as this. Not by any stretch of the imagination. The naturally aspirated 1.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit deployed here is from the entry-level Picanto in Europe (albeit in a different state of tune), and even that car – smaller and lighter as it is – is among the slowest on sale today. Experienced here, with roughly 70kg of added bulk to shift along and running through a faintly agricultural automatic transmission, this is an engine clearly at its best in an environment where it will rarely be called on to exceed 50km/h.

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Not that it’s an unrefined unit: quiet on start-up and commendably eager to pull away, the Ray happily keeps pace with the army of enthusiastically driven saloons and sports cars that dominate Seoul’s centre (difficult not to, when every main road is a car park), and – though the under-ratioed gearbox rarely has another cog to offer up on kickdown – stops some way short of deafening when under high load. It’s not particularly frugal, mind – Kia quotes a downtown consumption figure of 9.84L/100km, which makes the Ray a good deal more thirsty than anything this small with a blown triple.

Kia doesn’t list an official 0-100km/h time for the Ray – though we’re assured it will get there eventually – which probably is the clearest reflection of its positioning.

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Efficiency and performance gripes aside, the biggest frustration is that the Ray shows just how much is possible in such a small footprint; just as Japan’s kei cars have long sought to offer big-car practicality in bubble-car footprints, so too has the Ray been carefully conceived to make the most of every last available square inch of floorpan and glasshouse. For a car that occupies not much more road than the lovable-but-impractical Citroen Ami, it’s remarkable that it can convey four adults – and their associated gubbins – calmly and comfortably through one of the world’s most congested cities.

The ride is agreeably composed, the steering is tight and predictable (if almost completely numb), the seats are comfortable and the in-car tech and build quality are more than adequate for the price. Plus, because it looks so harmless and jovial, you’d struggle to incite road rage from fellow road users even with the most blinding of metropolitan motoring gaffes. (I should know, having had to ease myself into the front of an obscenely long queue at a junction, having chosen the wrong lane, and received a cheery wave from the taxi driver behind.) And the right-hand-side rear door slides, which makes entry and egress easier while also allowing drivers to park closer to other cars, walls, lamp-posts and the like.

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The chances of Kia exporting the petrol Ray are at about the one-legged ballerina level, and converting the EV variant to right-hand drive – then shipping it – would be a loss-making exploit for the Korean giant, which would understandably much rather keep launching more profitable, full-sized EVs and selling them in astronomical numbers worldwide.

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