A strong alternative to a Vauxhall Astra or Ford Focus, and not just because of the seven-year warranty. In some ways it beats the market leaders hollow.

What is it?

The new Kia Cee'd, a Korean car that's about to give the world of European cars an almighty shake-up. From now on it’s not just the traditional market leaders, Ford, VW, Peugeot and Vauxhall who build credible compact hatchbacks for Europe’s discerning Mr Average. It’s the Koreans, too.

The new Cee’d, on sale in UK showrooms at the end of January 2007, has been conceived in Europe by Europeans, and its only purpose in life is to impress and attract Golf-Astra-Focus buyers. On our first acquaintance, it does an extremely good job.

What's it like?

Oddball name apart, the Cee’d is the first Kia (or Hyundai) completely to eliminate the peculiarities of styling and specification that have previously put Korean cars beyond the pale for many buyers. Park the Ceed between a Golf and an Astra and it’s a perfect member of the fraternity. Sit inside and you’ll feel the same — and no wonder; it's designed by Europeans, and built in Slovakia.

The result is a modern but conventional, all-steel, transverse front-drive five-door hatchback — to be joined next year by three-door and five-door estate versions — which manages to attract attention with its neat, perfectly balanced styling and some eye-catching standard equipment, rather than with an exotic mechanical specification.

In most internal dimensions — especially shoulder width and headroom — the Cee’d is a little bigger than the already-generous Ford Focus, and Kia claims a clear class lead in overall interior space. The instrument cluster design offers a nice change from the Ford-VW white-on-black treatment, without being too radical, and the soft-feel fascia materials and controls seem to offer something very similar VW quality (though the early left-handed cars we drove on test were built to Italian spec, not British, so it was difficult to judge).

The Cee’d's mechanical specification stays in the meainstream, too. The car adopts the MacPherson strut front suspension and electric power steering which the top five models use, plus a five-link independent rear system of the type adopted first by Ford for the first Focus, then by VW for the current Golf. Basic Cee’ds get 15-inch steel wheels, but mid-spec cars get 16-inch alloys.

There are three petrol engines offered, all with twin cams, 16 valves and variable valve timing (2.0 litre/141bhp, 1.6 litre/120bhp and 1.4 litre/108bhp). There is just one turbodiesel at launch, a 1.6-litre direct-injection, common-rail 16-valve unit, but it comes in two power outputs (89bhp and 114bhp). A 2.0-litre single ohc 8v unit, with 138bhp on tap, will be added in mid-2007. All engines except the 2.0-litre come with standard five-speed manual boxes but the 2.0-litre gets a six-speeder. An optional four-speed auto will be offered with the 1.6-litre petrol.

In Britain there will be four trim levels. The big sellers are likely to be the well-equipped 'starter' S spec (six airbags, air conditioning, a CD player with MP3 capability, steering wheel audio controls, central locking, front electric windows and trip computer) and the 'everyman' GS (which adds 16-inch alloys, a six-speaker audio system with a USB, aux and iPod socket, remote locking and electric/heated outside mirrors). There are two upper models, the luxurious LS (climate control, rear electric windows, part-leather seats, front fog lamps) and the sporty TS (17-inch alloys, six-CD autochanger, ESP, alloy pedals, sports seats and black bezel headlamps).

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Kia is remaining coy for a little longer about its precise pricing, but says the entry level 1.4S will cost around £11,000 and a 2.0-litre diesel LS should be a shade over £18,000.

We drove three cars; 1.6-litre petrol models with both five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions, and an early version of the 2.0-litre diesel six-speeder. All were impressive for their immaculate body assembly and paint quality. Also for big doors, easy access and impressive cabin/boot space.

Though before driving we’d heard some bullish claims from Kia’s European engineers, the all-round excellence of Cee’d’s on-road performance was still a surprise. Think of a car somewhere north of today’s Toyota Corolla, dynamically speaking, and within striking distance of the class best, and you have the Cee’d. It has the same impressive body rigidity and acoustic 'deadness' of today’s best bodyshells, and its well-chosen spring/damper settings are far better than those on any previous Kia.

The steering is accurate enough, but lacks runs-in-ball bearings ease of the Golf and Focus, and there are times when an excess of self-centring near the straight-ahead and the inertia of the biggish wheel come into play. But the deficiencies aren’t great: only enthusiasts will notice them.

The brakes have a powerful, self-energised feel, the handling balance is neutral, moving to mild understeer and there’s very little body roll when you chuck the car hard into bends. In sum, the Cee’d feels predictable, neat, easy to place on the road — and fun.

We did most miles in the petrol 1.6s, and found them typical of the modern breed: willing but fairly hard-worked in cars of this class, low in mechanical noise but a bit boomy when you used the revs, which you often did. The auto would never be an enthusiast’s choice (smooth, but not enough ratios and a consequent flaccid throttle response) but the five-speed manual was sweet, quick and light to use. The 2.0 litre diesel was impressively strong from around 2000rpm, and its six-speed gearchange was lighter and less notchy than that of the Ford Focus we had along for comparison.

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Should I buy one?

The new Cee’d is impressive on all counts. Open-minded buyers will see it as a strong alternative to the Vauxhall or Ford they originally set their heart on, and will be egged on by the seven-year warranty (five years body, seven years powertrain).

The Cee’d may not quite have attained Focus-Golf levels of dynamic excellence (we’ll need to do a full UK compoarison test to know for sure) but it’s close enough for many buyers not to notice or care, and in some ways it beats the market leaders hollow.

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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