In case one were needed, the new Kia Cee’d makes a neat barometer for the current buoyancy of the Kia brand. Unlike its predecessors, which were all specifically aimed at undercutting the opposition, the latest model wears a sufficiently large sticker price to be considered towards the top of an incredibly competitive class - and yet the manufacturer expects to sell more of them than ever before.
Looking at the car it’s not hard to share this optimism. Like many of its recently launched siblings, the Cee’d is remarkably stylish; more so than the Hyundai i30, even after its recent facelift, that it shares a platform with and arguably more than most of the models against which it competes.
It’s a similar story inside. There’s not a sliver of fake wood to be found in the top-of-the-range models, just a respectable selection of soft leathers, chrome fillets, soft textures and classy TFT dials. Lesser trim levels - the range is numbered 1 to 4 in ascending price order - don’t have quite as much pizzaz, but there’s no question that the Cee'd has the quality, and, thanks to a unusually long wheelbase, the spaciousness, required to contest a segment dominated by household names.
As for models to choose from - there are nine trims to choose from. The entry-level '1' models come with 15in steel wheels, rear spoiler, heated door mirrors, front electric windows and hill start assist as standard on the outside, while inside you'll find air conditioning, a cooled glovebox, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, and DAB radio as standard. Upgrade to a SR7 Cee'd and it includes 16in alloys, rear parking sensors, privacy glass and adaptive headlights, while paying a bit more for the '2' may lose a couple of features but adds folding door mirrors, cruise control, vanity mirrors, front foglights and LED day-running-lights.
Buying a '3' trimmed Kia Cee'd adds luxuries such as 16in alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, electrically adjustable lumbar support, automatic wipers and Kia's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with TomTom-powered sat nav and a reversing camera, while the '4' gains 17in alloy wheels, leather seats, heated front seats and steering wheel, keyless start and entry and an electronic parking brake. The '4 Tech' trim includes a panoramic sunroof, adaptive xenon headlights, an electrically adjustable driver's seats, front parking sensors and numerous Kia safety technology.
The C'eed GT-Line chiefly comes with an sporty bodykit, twin exhaust system, and numerous GT-Line specced interior details, while the GT models come with 18in alloys, Recaro front seats, 17in brake discs and LED front foglights.
This desirable space and style combination transfers to the estate, which is called the Kia Cee'd SW. As with the hatch, it is based on the Hyundai twin and is available in the 1 to GT-Line trim levels. The SW boasts 528 litres of boot capacity with the seats up, and 1642 with them down, which betters all of its rivals.
Were it confined to the showroom, the car might even stand a fair chance of knocking a few well-feathered birds off their perch, but Kia’s hatchback is not quite as accomplished out on the road. With five petrol engines and two diesels on offer - divided into a 1.4 and 1.6-litre units on both sides of the fuel divide, and ranging from 89bhp to 133bhp - the Cee’d would appear to have the bases covered, but all save the range-topping oil burner are hindered by meagre performance. The remaining three petrol units are all turbocharged starting with a 98bhp 1.0-litre unit, followed by an 118bhp verson of the same engine and topped by an 201bhp 1.6-litre T-GDi.
Even the 134bhp 1.6-litre CRDi only delivers a modest impression of flexibility - thanks to 191lb ft of low end torque - but it’s the unit to opt for thanks to its impressive economy and CO2 cleanliness, which deliver official figures as high as 68.9mpg and as low as 109g/km (or 76.3mpg and 97g/km in EcoDynamics form). In the SW estate, these figures drop slightly to 64.2mpg and 116g/km.
Engine selection aside, the Cee’d suffers from other dynamic issues. Its chassis, while featuring desirable components such as a multi-link rear suspension, has not been tuned to function with the finesse of some of its European rivals. With the 17-inch wheels (standard in higher spec models) the ride quality is sadly mediocre. The cheaper 16-inch alternatives help to bolster basic compliance, but the weight-ladened, linear steering remains, too often feeling like a rudder held on hard tack against the current.
Our initial experiences of the SW suggested a slightly more resolved ride than the hatch, along with nicely weighted steering.
Six-speed manual gearboxes are standard across the range, with a recently added seven-speed dual-clutch automatic available as an option. The manual is stick and nice to use, while the auto is rather stodgy and unresponsive. Better is the DCT dual clutch 'box which is offered only on 1.6-litre petrol models. While it shifts quickly and cleanly, it is best in manual mode. By hanging on to gears for too long during fast driving and increasing both emissions and fuel consumption, it falls short of the expected standard.
Beneath it all it’s secure, grippy and stable, but the Cee’d never engages like a Focus or Golf. It is quiet, comfortable enough (on the right wheels), roomy, frugal and practical too, but, like its Hyundai cousin, these virtues are only sufficient to take it so far in the class war.
If Kia wants to eventually topple Ford and Volkswagen - and you can bet it does - it will need to work harder in the final furlong that currently separates the front runners from the rest of the field.