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

Launch Story

21 Oct 2010

KIA must have a bunch of engineers clacking their slide rules through the night to ensure the company always has fresh products packed on the shelves, judging by the amount of change going on in Kia showrooms of late.

These engineers have been burning the midnight oil on the new Cerato derivative, the five-door Hatchback, released at the 2010 Australian International Motor Show.

Normally, such a model so mechanically similar to its stablemate might have been buried in the back of a press release before quietly appearing on dealer forecourts.

But this model not only gives Kia greater firepower in the small-car market, but also brings a bunch of improvements that draws the attention.

The biggest transition involves the auto transmission. Gone is the four-speeder, replace by a six-speed unit that’s also used in Sportage and Sorento, and from early next year, the Cerato sedan and Koup too.

A new six-speed manual that also makes its debut, is likewise destined for the rest of the range next year, providing positive gearshifts but a numb-feeling clutch and fluffy engine management off idle.

It takes a bit more getting used to than most manual cars, and for those who like to remember their youth, the manual will at first acquaintance remind you of the first time you drove a manual car. Bunny-hop, anyone?

The six-speed auto is smooth and does a great job of extracting the best out of the Theta II 2.0-litre engine. At full throttle upshifts it’s nice to see the tacho needle flick from 6500rpm to around 5000rpm, instead of heading for the bowels of the rev range like the four-speeder did.

The six-speed auto has a manual mode – nothing unusual there – but it also has paddle-shifters on the steering wheel. We know it’s a stand-out feature, but we am not sure why Kia did it on a small hatch. Maybe a huge rear wing would have been a more obvious, straight-forward sporty point of difference.

The truth is the six-speed is best left to do its own thing. Get enthused while devouring a squiggly line of road heading for the horizon and two things are noticeable: the paddle shifts need a good solid press to engage the gear you want, and flicking either paddles or gear lever won’t necessarily grab the gear you want.

The electronic nanny supervising gear change points is presumably holding its charge tight to its breast, as the downshifts are not allowed until it’s all a bit late, and upshifts occur at 6400rpm or so – just before redline – whether you want it or not.

The 17-inch wheels with Hankook tyres fitted to the SLi grip the road well, and that the electronic steering has a nice, positive turn-in that’s neither too fidgety or slow.

The Aussie-tuned suspension soaks up the worst of the ripples and ruts, recovering nicely from the upset of such disturbances.

The Cerato chassis is no silk purse though, favouring the outside front wheel – hidden to a degree by pure mechanical grip of the tyres.

Adjusting the line in the corner requires reining in the throttle. It’s not a lively chassis, and in truth for this sort of car – despite the F1 paddle shifts – it’s a good thing that its responses are safe and understeery.

The torsion beam rear axle is also perhaps not the most ideal thing for chassis balance, and this becomes obvious when negotiating undulating, high speed B-road corners. Just a quiver of yawing occurs, as the rear axle seems to be in negotiations with the front suspension about how to best sort it all out.

Perhaps that’s examining the Cerato’s suspension too minutely – carving up a twisty section of road is a relatively easy, relaxing and safe operation in the Cerato. Just don’t let the paddle shifters fool you.

In fact, the paddle shifters will fool no one into thinking the Cerato is a sportscar, because the 2.0-litre Theta II engine will provide all the evidence you need to prove it isn’t.

The Theta II’s sluggish low-rpm response and howling and shamefully coarse behaviour at high revs makes it feel as if it has a certain vintage quality. It would have been considered revolutionary for, say, the MG TC.

The Theta II likes a drink, too. On the 300km launch drive, the fuel consumption average was 9.9L/100km on the SLi auto’s trip computer. This is not the first time we’ve drive a Theta II-powered Kia that likes to quickly down the contents of the fuel tank.

Maybe the Korean car’s position could be justified in fit and finish, because by any measure, the Koreans have learned quickly on both counts. The days of communist-era dash plastics so shiny you could use them to part your hair are long gone.

It looks as good as any competitor, with seat comfort, cabin space and controls all competitive. The only clanger on the launch vehicle was the sunvisor mirror cover that rattled when driving on patchy back roads.

Australia has no shortage of small hatchbacks on the Australian market, and while we as consumers appear to be more interested in brand perception and luxury features than ever, a relatively unestablished, cheap and cheerful brand like Kia has work to do.

Luckily, the transformation of its products such as the Cerato Hatchback into something rather good – if not, perhaps, best-in-class – will do much to make-over the brand.

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