Welcome to the third feature in our newest reporting series. Our Hands-On Tech, or HOT, Reports take you through the top-spec connectivity features offered by manufacturers in detail and look to benchmark the connectivity functionality based on various test criteria. This month we take a closer look at the Kia Rio, with a grade 3 trim spec. It's the first car in our series to feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so we've also included an in-depth review of these applications.

Display

Kia's 7" centre console HMI is the ordinary, familiar screen that adorns several manufacturers' cabins, due to shared suppliers. Ordinary is no bad thing, since when it comes to safety, it's important the driver minimises their cognitive load.

The touchscreen has a default split display as the home screen, which conveniently allows the navigation to sit left of the audio choice and other key applications the driver may wish to use. All functions expand to full screen when tapped. The menus have swipe capability and work with gloved fingers too, although it can be a little hit and miss on fingers bedecked in wool. The proprietary system's features are accessed with physical buttons found to the left and right of the screen, as well as from other menus on the touchscreen display. The integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto means as soon as a handset from either OS is connected via USB, an app on the home page becomes enabled to allow access into these ecosystems.

Voice Control

Voice control is only available with a connected handset. Based around telephony features, there is no way to voice control radio stations, navigation on Kia's proprietary platform, temperature or audio options by voice. When the handset is connected, the voice control button on the steering wheel is enabled and uses either Siri or Google Assistant—more on each programme to follow.

Switchgear

There is still a fair bit of physical switchgear in the Kia models. Volume, climate control and ADAS features are all neatly designed in a compact area around the gearstick and below the screen. The materials used are of good quality and feel appropriate to the £17,000+ price tag of the Rio—particularly since that figure includes seat and wheel warmers, usually found in more premium marques.

The physical buttons that surround the display are identified clearly and there is a starred button that can be customised to be a shortcut to whatever the driver prefers. We configured this to shortcut to Auto and CarPlay, which helped manage switching between ecosystems. More on that below.

Audio

The DAB radio in the Kia system is easy to navigate, allowing up to 12 Favourites to be pre-programmed. There's also AM radio, Aux port and BT functionality to maximise options. During our test, we felt the audio output preferences could be simplified. At the moment, the driver can use a visual, bird's eye view of the cabin to select where the optimal audio experience should be directed to. Harman's outstanding audio technology adjusts to this, but the Volvo's preconfigured sounds, such as  'Concert Hall', 'Individual Stage', etc., would offer a greater sense of simplicity.

It's worth noting that although Kia offers seven-year warranty on the mechanical components of the vehicle, the audio and navigation provisions are only covered for 36 months. Once the warranty period ends, the owner is liable for costs for updating.

Networking

Kia's system has a modem which connects only to private or public WiFi. The user can turn their smartphone into a WiFi hotspot and the car can be tethered to that connection. It utilises the data connection from your tethered handset, whether you use bluetooth or via the USB cable, to enable TomTom Live Traffic updates, speed camera alerts, weather and local search functionality.

Navigation

Navigation only comes with the '3' and 'First Edition' tiers of Kia's connected and safety package. The offering is European and as previously mentioned are only covered for 36 months free-of-charge. This is not uncommon for technology packages in this segment. Proprietary navigation on the small 7" screen isn't the easiest to follow and dragging the screen to see a zoomed out view of your route is just horrible.

The North icon only toggles between two 2D options and there is no street level option to follow. There is no pinch and zoom and no voice control to set the destination.

There is a range of location search, grouped by type of venue 'Shopping Mall', 'Restaurants'—under the themes of entertainment, tourist attractions, business, sport, it is similarly comprehensive to Volvo. However, public toilets doesn't make the list, even though wineries and ski centres do.

The postcode finder is accurate and responsive, conveniently auto splitting the postcode and offering a very efficient drop down menu for previous destinations. What's more, for addresses it doesn't know, it will offer predictions, reducing the need to type the whole street/town. However, the menu nesting is not as compact as we'd like. Setting a destination is input via Qwerty keypad, but takes some six steps. The need to Select "Confirm" then another to "Set as Destination" then yet another to "Start Guidance" is excessive. There is a summary box that appears with 'Start Guidance'. It would be helpful if this offered 'short, fast, toll-free' variants, calculating the time and mileage with each so the driver could compare and select. In our test, the design of the navigation scored 3 out of 5, where there is good presentation, ok nesting and a mix of natural and unnatural user experience (UX). The route accuracy scored 2 out of 3, where the system found the destination, but not without problems—in this case, the ETA is inaccurate and the routing choice was incomprehensible—we suspected this was largely down to the lack of traffic information, but having given the system a data connection, we were at a loss as to how to improve this.

Though the multi-view toggling is helpful to give drivers a choice, there's no corresponding heads up information displayed on the 3.5" cluster screen. We suspect that for cost efficiency, Kia has focussed on making the Android Auto and CarPlay integrations seamless and so has worried less about the proprietary functionality. One other niggle was that once the system was connected to WiFi via a smartphone hotspot, there was still no traffic information available.

ADAS

For an £17,000+ OTR vehicle, the safety features on offer are acceptable. Autonomous emergency braking can be set at early, normal or late, where the car will brake if a warning hasn't triggered the driver to take action. The package also includes lane departure warning and cruise control, although this is the basic, non-adaptive version.

Companion App and Telematics

Currently Kia does not offer a companion app with its vehicle. There is a Kia "app" button built into the Apple CarPlay display screen, which allows the driver to toggle back to the Kia system (change the radio station or make a system adjustment).

CarPlay and Auto

This was our first real look at the CarPlay and Auto smartphone-mirroring programmes. Both had pros and cons for the user, and there's still a lot of uncertainty about the way in which these huge tech companies get to dominate a large part of the cabin real estate—in turn, potentially compromising the car maker's brand experience.

Apple CarPlay

CarPlay connects incredibly easily, using the USB port and Apple Lightning cable. The homepage bears the familiar rounded square buttons of the iPhone on a much steroid-imbibed scale—much easier to miss when trying to make a selection while driving.

The home button resides at the bottom left and allows the driver to navigate between screens. Much of the functionality is driven by Siri, thus voice commands are key. While for telephony, Siri was accurate at calling our regular test participants, even more difficult names, it really struggled with navigation.

Apple Maps is the navigation provision here and doesn't really like to find postcodes. Instead, we were left chasing a locality, rather than an actual address and a few times, Siri misheard the location being asked for— "Oxford' resulting in a request for 'Tel Aviv' and Siri, rather sheepishly, admitting he couldn't find a route for that. That said, due to the voice-driven nature of CarPlay nesting was minimal.

For Location Search, it displays a list of required venues and you can select from here. Toggling away from the navigation, once set, to change a song, or audio input, means returning to the home screen, like the user would on the iPhone—this seems a little arduous behind the wheel. Navigation is the only feature with its own shortcut, which appears top right.

Making a telephone call was straight forward, as was dictating a message or listening to a text received. However, the lag in connecting a call, particularly when someone called into the vehicle, was surprisingly long. We'd estimate up to five seconds in one case.

The familiarity is a definite winner for the general consumer, though tech-savvy individuals will find some elements of CarPlay nonsensical. The biggest frustration we found was the need to re-input the passcode while on the road. There was some kind of glitch when toggling between screens and the only way to restart was to pull the cable out and put it back in.

We scored the following functions of CarPlay:

  • Navigation design: 4/5 - where there is great presentation, minimal nesting and the UX is fairly natural
  • Navigation accuracy: 1/3 - where the system failed to find the destination accurately, impinging on the ETA and rerouting accuracy
  • Telephony useability: 4/5 - where the call worked on first attempt, but experienced issues

Android Auto

Users need to download the Android Auto app onto their handsets, in order to get the smartphone to launch Auto when the driver connects to the USB port in the front of the cabin. Once the user launches Auto from the Kia console—a small button that is greyed out and gains full colour when enabled—, the homepage features a summary of your recent activity, with navigation at the top, messages or missed calls following on, the weather and recent search results. The page can be scrolled, just like the smartphone menu dropdown.

Drivers planning their routes on Google Maps outside the vehicle, will step in and find the route on that summary screen. This user experience is as seamless as it comes. Setting a destination with voice was much more accurate so we found no need to use the keyboard input. The map was, like with the handset app of Google Maps, pinch and zoom, with additional information such as store opening times also provided. Though Google Maps is, with the exception of Waze, the most accurate navigation out there, the routing choices are often a little strange. Sitting on the A40 for 20 minutes, versus cutting into the Congestion Charge Zone (on a Sunday) and navigating through much quieter back streets cut around nine minutes from the ETA, once Google recalibrated the route. It is this inaccuracy that inhibits complete trust of such a system.

Toggling between functions in Auto is incredibly simple, since the navigation bar running along the bottom of the screen enables the users a one-touch switch. This was significantly more intuitive than CarPlay.

The Audio menu enables the media apps you have on your phone suitable for use in the vehicle and so Audible, Amazon Music and Google Play all appeared until this screen. There were problems accessing particular tracks and albums, which was frustrating—particularly as Alexa on Echo Dot doesn't seem to have the same issues.

The telephony feature is as it would be on the handset. The calls connect significantly faster than CarPlay and are clear. The ring tone was unfamiliar, suggesting that preset handset ring tones do not carry across to Auto. The notification alert when an incoming message or call is received drops down from the top of the  screen. It's easier to use the steering wheel controls to manage these. Annoyingly, messages were read at such a pace, they often needed a second or third listen, which in repeatedly selecting messages to play, negated the whole point of reducing distraction.

Though usual social media apps and email clients aren't available behind the wheel—understandably—the beauty of Android Auto is the ability to still connect with Google Search, despite the fact that the results don't appear visually, provideng the answer aurally. This, plus the more intuitive user experience, means it pegs a few notches above CarPlay.

We scored the following functions of Auto:

  • Navigation design: 5/5 - where there is excellent presentation, minimal nesting and a wholly natural UX
  • Navigation accuracy: 2/3 - where the system found the destination but not without problems
  • Telephony useability: 5/5 - where the call worked on first attempt, there were no issues and the call was clear

Conclusion

The introduction of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto means Kia has been able to incorporate more premium safety and comfort features, helping the Rio to be competitive in a segment featuring the best-selling Ford Fiesta and Nissan Micra. Though these mirroring programmes offer drivers a more flexible and familiar environment for their infotainment and connectivity needs in the car, CarPlay and Auto are available to all other manufacturers. Standardisation welcomed by drivers means product differentiation for car makers is significantly more difficult. In addition, Kia—like other manufacturers—could end up losing out, relinquishing prime real estate to tech companies that will dominate the attention of the user, and demoting the car manufacturer to nothing more than a hardware supplier in coming years.

*This article is an extract from a report that first appeared in our QUBE service. The QUBE article is accompanied by a comprehensive data sheet with our full evaluation of Kia's connectivity and HMI.