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Car reviews - Kia - Cerato - Si 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Stylish, long warranty, neat interior, smooth and punchy performance, light steering, lots of standard features
Room for improvement
Loud and busy ride, feel free steering, engine raucous up top, squidgy sequential shift action

21 Oct 2010

KIA IS FINALLY making some cracking cars.

Sportage – a compact SUV that deserves to be on your short list. Soul (but the diesel only) – a fun urban-sized box with real verve and charm. And Optima – it oozes head turning, perception-bending excitement.

But the new Cerato hatch isn’t amongst these and it never will be.

Stylish? Certainly. Clean and uncluttered, it stands as one of the easier-on-the-eye small cars available today. The same applies to the Cerato sedan too.

It’s cheap. Priced from $22,290 for the Si auto (as tested), buyers can boast a self-shifting transmission, six airbags, electronic stability control, cruise control, and Bluetooth, above and beyond your usual standard-issue conveniences like power windows, remote central locking, power steering and air-conditioning.

It gets cheaper too. If you can change gears yourself you save $2K. Essentially, then, you get an auto for manual Mazda3 money. Don’t forget, there’s a best-in-the-business (and shared with Hyundai) five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty included in that price.

Plus there’s power aplenty, courtesy of a 115kW 2.0-litre engine that pretty much trumps every other small-car rival – and comes complete with six speeds as well. Only the Volkswagen Golf 118TSI DSG offers more (118kW, two clutches and seven speeds) but you’ll need another $10K.

Armed with so much muscle, the Kia scrambles instantly off the mark, with no real hesitation. Indeed, at any point within the legal road speed limits of Australia, it never feels anything less than lively and willing, lunging forward with fervour and intent. The reactive and smooth-changing trannie must take a lot of credit here too.

The Cerato steers just as eagerly to boot, going directly where you point it, and pulls up immediately with no fuss.

And then there’s the sensible-shoes interior. Friendly, functional and a cinch to figure out, it pretty much works almost flawlessly, and without as much as a squeak from anywhere. The six-light side window treatment and deep rear window even makes reverse parking a little easier than normal.

So, does the Cerato hatch actually do anything wrong, or are we being overly picky?

To find out, let’s dive in a little deeper – and turn up the wick a tad.

The Cerato SLi hatch – $4000 pricier with its bigger wheels – looks good, but the base-spec Si seems under-wheeled and a tad generic in comparison. The cheesy hubcaps are a throwback to 1970s Japanese dross.

More worryingly, though, we reckon the Kia feels a mite over-engined.

Perhaps it’s the Hankook 195/65R16 tyres, for the 194Nm of torque provides a tad too much twisting action for the front wheels to deal with smoothly on anything other than hot dry roads.

Furthermore, there’s noticeable engine noise, harshness and resonance above 4000rpm, discouraging visits to anywhere near the 6000rpm red line. Sweet the Theta II powerplant is not.

By the way, while the six-speed auto is welcome, its Tiptronic-style shift action is the most vague and imprecise we have ever experienced. It’s like they coated the mechanism with Skippy peanut butter – of the crunchy, not smooth variety.

Now we know this is not meant to be a performance car, but even a bit of spirited cornering on less than smooth roads upsets the Kia’s chosen line a little, making the tyres squeal and the car feel less planted that usual. Pushing it even harder results in scrubby, messy, and increasingly wider turns.

Keener drivers – if you’re still with us – please note: the steering is a feel-free zone as far as feedback and road info is concerned.

And that’s not the worst part either: the rear suspension chats and shifts and bumps and thumps over anything other than the slickest surface, obliterating any form of finesse you might have hoped for from a Kia that has received a small amount of specialised attention for Australian conditions. Try before you buy. Two occupants complained about motion sickness – on straight roads in moderately heavy inner-city traffic!

Despite the pleasant cabin presentation - with particular praise going to the Mazda3-esque three-dial instrumentation, big buttoned audio controls and simplicity-itself air-con/heating operation – the plastic looks low-fi and smells cheap nauseatingly so for one of our green-around-the-gills passengers.

The fidgety ride, raggedy dynamics and Aldi ambience overshadow what otherwise is a sound small car proposition. And that’s a shame because the Cerato hatch does have a couple of segment USPs worth shouting about.

The seemingly flat front seats are in fact quite supportive while the soft and squidgy rear outboard cushions are also welcome. There’s a surprising amount of leg and headroom no matter where you sit in the Kia, making it feel almost medium-car sized inside.

The velour-esque material is a happy change to the coarse fabric that makes up most entry level models in this price bracket these days.

One map pocket, two cupholders (in the comfy centre rear armrest) and (non damped) overhead grab handles further serve the back-seat passengers (and raise the Cerato’s standing).

The boot is deep, wide and long, and ample for most buyers’ requirements, with a trio of child seat harness hooks located immediately behind the backrest rather than fouling the luggage area.

But the rear-vision obstructing headrests (in an era of flush-fitting items) seem strangely old fashioned. They’re also a chore to remove each time you want to fold the rear backrest forward for it to meet the tipped-up cushion.

Old fashioned, actually, amply sums up what the Cerato hatch feels like.

Despite this shape’s relative newness on the Oz small-car scene, the underpinnings feel crude and the design and materials inside are from another era of Kia.

So, without being old-Kia cruddy or brave new world exciting like the latest Optima and Sportage, the existing Cerato hatch is a transition model that leaves it neither here nor there in the red-hot small car class.

Unless you are utterly undemanding of your vehicle, our advice is to spend a little more on an auto Lancer/Mazda3/Focus/Golf/Impreza, save up for the Cerato’s likeable larger siblings, or wait for the next one.

On current Kia form, no doubt it will be a cracker!

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