Kia is afraid – for the first time it has an engine with a hint of sportiness, but is only offering it in the less-popular booted version of its new Ford Focus rival.
The five-door Cerato will outsell the saloon by a comfortable margin in the UK, but Kia clearly feels that it should learn to crawl before it walks in this new sector of the market.
The 2.0 SE is the quickest and most luxurious version, including air conditioning, a CD/MP3 player, alloys, leather and electric everything, plus variable valve-timing for its 1975cc four-cylinder engine. Don’t expect a Honda VTEC kick, though: this is a sedate unit, with 141bhp and 136lb ft of torque.
A 9.0sec sprint to 60mph puts the Cerato on par with a 2.0-litre Focus on the straights. But through the bends, the Kia’s uncommunicative steering and inferior body control mean the Cerato would only ever see the Ford’s rump. The brakes feel overservoed, which robs them of feel and leads them to snatch violently at times. The gearshift is positive and direct but marred by a long throw, while the steering wheel, adjustable for rake only, is encased in a strain of leather so slippery that it self-centred through my grip and almost sent me into the scenery.
Kia’s efforts at improving build quality, so evident in the Picanto supermini, are also tangible in the Cerato. You won’t mistake the cabin for a VW Golf’s, but the layout and simplicity of the fascia, especially the automatic climate control, are a welcome lesson in how not to overdo interior design. Some of the lower dash and console plastics are poor alongside those of European rivals, but Kia is clearly working hard to transcend the modest levels of craftsmanship usually associated with budget cars.
Think back a couple of years and Kia was just another forgettable Korean brand. Its cars were anonymous, mundane, dated and could only be recommended on price. At a shade under £12,000 the Cerato SE doesn’t inspire superlatives, but for over two-grand less the entry-level 1.6 GS provides more than a glimmer of hope for the future of the company’s mid-size cars.