Another car chasing class honours in a category where little quarter is given.
For: Handsome styling, roomy, good ride-handling balance.
Against: Engine lacks pizzazz, flat seats, gaps in spec level.
IMAGINE a lucky dip in which the names of all the cars in the mainstream compact market were penned onto tiny pieces of paper for a blind draw.
When you put your hand in to the bucket, what’s the statistical probability of picking out the car on test this week?
Yeah, I’m not sure, either. I think the odds would doubtless be better than those that have to be beaten to enjoy a first division Lotto win, but only because the base equation isn’t so infinitesimal.
Basically, though, there’s only one name that stands a statistically decent chance of being picked time after time.
That’s a reminder of how strongly entrenched the Corolla is in this sector. Those excellent fleet/rental connections ensure Toyota’s staple seller is the primary pick. It has always been that way and, for as long as the market giant continues to play the game this way, nothing will change.
Of course, first spot on the chart doesn’t necessarily equate to being first in class. That the lowest price doesn’t always buy the best drive is a point Kia would like to prove with its Cerato, which has recently undergone a comprehensive refresh, one that goes well beyond the usual quickfire styling change.
It reflects the intensity of Kia's desire to make a mark in this class that it offers six versions of Cerato - three sedans and three hatchbacks – starting with an entry LX for $31,990 and culminating with the Limited on test, $39,990 proposition.
The same 2.0-litre engine powers every version so the difference comes down to specification – which differs enormously from the bottom to the top – and the styling, where distinctions between models are a touch more subtle.
Design-wise, Cerato doesn’t seek to change the world – going off-the-planet stopped (thankfully) being Kia’s style once it got serious about being a global player – but employment of some world-class stylists out of Europe, headed by a German who did fine work for Audi, pays dividends.
Although the Peter Schreyer styling influences now also spread to Hyundai product – he now has control of design for the whole group - this is among current Kias that certainly benefit from his special touch.
There’s not enough boldness to shock but certainly more than enough to attract interest. Whereas the previous generation car was a follower – inoffensive to look at, competitively priced and well-equipped – this shape always had the goods to be a leader: the facelift only enhances that view. The changes are generally rather minor, though, so you’ll need to be a true Kia spotter to pick every one beyond the most obvious (that being the addition of LCD daytime running lamps). Here’s another free one to start you off: The tail-light shape has also changed.
The interior revisions are actually more obvious. This generation of Cerato wins points for being spacious and airy, with more room than average for the category, but the detailing of the pre-facelift model was bitsy, dull and – despite an obvious attention to build quality – it also felt cheap, due to the over-use of budget plastics. Which was a shame, because Kia was actually very generous with the specification.
This time around some improvement has been wrought. But not enough: It’s not unattractively designed but the dash covering is dreary, the front passenger airbag cover is unsightly, the seats are not well-shaped – the cushions being too flat – and it has the kind of leather that makes you wonder if Korean cows are of a totally different species to those we know here, because it looks and feels like vinyl.
So, once again, it relies heavily on offering a swag of kit for a still budget-conscious price.
All the models boast a smart proximity key with push-button start, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors with a visual in-dash display, a premium steering wheel, a touch-screen audio system, a full set of auto-down power windows.
At Limited level there’s also climate control air con and a power sunroof. With the former being so good, why would you want the latter?
The EX and Limited add in more safety specification that previously, introducing blind spot detection, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert for both. Only the Limited has a lane departure warning system and a forward collision warning – what it still needs, though, to come up to current European standard is an autonomous emergency braking setup that primes and/or begins the braking action on sensing the driver isn’t doing enough to avoid rear-ending someone.
Limited drivers are also treated to a chair that is both heated and cooled; whereas the front passenger seat is just heated. Both pews are power-adjustable eight ways, including for lumbar support. Other fancy touches are a digital speedo and a touch-operated multimedia screen.
Let’s dwell on the latter. You’ll be wondering why a $40k car lacks in-built sat nav. That’s because Kia is among those brands that have decided its more useful to now access this function through a tethered device. Actually, for now just an Android Auto-enabled phone.
I’d have to think national pride compelled this course – guess which big Korean phone brand uses Android? – but it’s only a job half done. Those of us wed to iPhones – and, according to the provider I spoke to, that’s more than half the market – are left in limbo, because Kia (actually, it’s parent, Hyundai, as well) are still negotiating access to CarPlay. That’s been a massively protracted process, taking much of this year and there’s still no absolute on potential introduction. Earlier this year we were told September-ish, now the message is along the lines of ‘hopefully by Christmas’. The patch, when it comes, is retrospective yet really, this isn’t brilliant. At the moment a screen that already looks old-hat in its design is basically not doing very much at all.
Further back, a 421-litre boot brings length and girth but not a tonne of depth, though the low loading height and large aperture do allow easy access, aided by a 60/40 backrests.
Prior to the facelift there were two choices of engine, both petrol: A 1.8-litre that made 110 kilowatts and 178 Newton metres for the entry cars and a 2.0-litre, packing 129kW and 209Nm, for those with more to spend.
Neither features bow. Instead, they’ve been dropped for a new 2.0-litre engine. Actually, it’s a ‘Nu’ engine, this being the series name meted this electronic multi-point fuel injected and dual continuously variable valve timed four-cylinder.
What's significant about the new engine is that it makes 112kW of power and 192Nm of torque, is only slightly more than the old entry mill and somewhat less than the old flagship motor.
Feeling ripped? Well, the primary reason for doing this is to meet emissions standards and achieve superior fule consumption. Kia claims, also, that less is more on the road, with superior performance, because both the power and torque occur lower in the rev range. Okay, just 700rpm down the range, but still.
This is the same engine that goes into the base version of the latest Sportage. As in the crossover, it marries to a six-speed automatic transmission, which now features a Drive Mode Select system that lets the driver choose between Eco, Normal and Sport modes.
Developed with significant Australian input – Kia here tries to soften that blow by calling the suspension finetuning an ‘Anzac’ effort, but the truth cannot be denied - the Cerato’s dynamic story is one of above average competence.
Ok, so you’ll struggle to argue its merit as an outright driver’s car, there’s nothing particularly addictive or compelling about how it operates.
But the handling is safe and balanced and the steering serves consistent weighting and precision, albeit without much feel. To some extent, the limit of the car’s talents comes down to the grip of its tyres, and that’s quite high for a car of this kind, because with this model Kia has gone for some pretty good performance footwear. Which in itself is interesting, given the likely buyer profile.
I don’t want to fall into sterotyping, but given so much about this car seems to have been tailored for the older purchaser who, one would assume, is generally going to settle for safe and sensible over sensational, it does seem interesting that the Cerato at this level has something of a sportier ambience than is perhaps required to win that crowd.
The good news is that the usual trade-off with the ride is actually quite well controlled. It seems faintly remarkable that this car is as composed and compliant as it is, but those Aussies really have cracked a good compromise set up. What you do get is some degree of road noise, most obviously over coarse chip; but that’s a burden many other cars have to shoulder, too.
As for that engine? Well, you’re never hear it being called a firebrand, and the transmission certainly demands to be flicked into Sport if it’s sharp reactions you are after. Manual mode – with either the stick to shift or paddles – is desirous for those out to uncover the engine’s zest; stick to Drive and the responses are far less enlivening, though the shifts are generally jolt-free. There’s not much in the way of a satisfying soundtrack; your ears will pick up some mechanical harshness when the revs climb, but you’ll strain in vain to pick up anything fruity from this exhaust.
As for that thrust for better thrift? A claimed 7.1 litres per 100km leaves it short of being the most economical in its class on paper and, on the road, it came across as even less of a potential gold medalist, with an average from the week of 8.6L/100km.
Even though it has lose ground to same-sized sports utilities and crossovers, this category contains a formidable range of choices. The Kia’s immediate foes, as I see them, are its sister car from Hyundai, the i30 (which is replaced next year), that Corolla and the newly-refreshed Mazda3.
The Cerato appeals for its size, spaciousness and, to some extent, the specification: Though, personally, I’d be a lot happier buying in once the connected car applications were sorted. The driving dynamics are relatively solid, if not wholly inspiring: It doesn’t quite tick that ‘driver’s car’ box. The engine swap makes sense on a technical level – it doesn’t burn as much fuel and the optimums occur within the rev ban in which most drivers probably operate - but it’ll be difficult to convince buyers that this is a big step forward, given the power and torque deficits.