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After the acclaimed Stinger, Kia sneaks into ‘compact premium’ territory

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As a bellwether for the capabilities of a brand only just waking up to its creative potential, the 2017 Kia Proceed concept was quite the head-turner.

It had everything an archetypal concept car needs, in fact: voluptuous body panels, tyres seemingly moulded to the wheel-arch liners and the crucial, exciting sense that it may well make it into dealerships largely unaltered.

There’s more than a hint of Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo in the design of the rounded rear haunches. The swooping D-pillar and tail-light are a particularly striking homage

Which, as you can see, it duly has. But if the production Proceed’s striking appearance is a world away from the dull-looking cars Kia was turning out only a decade ago, then the thinking behind that aesthetic is plain cunning. The Proceed of the previous generation was a more conventionally shaped hatchback, but a particularly rakish one. Its attractiveness couldn’t compensate for the fact that sales of three-door hatchbacks have driven off a cliff in recent years, and so the nameplate has been repurposed for a bodystyle that has risen like a phoenix from the days of the Reliant Scimitar and Volvo 1800ES: the high-design ‘shooting brake’ estate car.

Indeed, Kia expects this new shooting brake to eventually account for a quarter of all Kia Ceeds sold (the others being the hatchback, estate and an XCeed crossover due later in 2019). If that comes to pass, the brand’s product planners will have earned their keep.

However, with curves like these comes the expectation of an elevated driving experience. Owners might reasonably expect the Proceed to steer, ride and handle if not with hot-hatch levels of poise and accuracy, then at least with a feeling of premium-worthy integrity and involvement. In this respect, the basic Ceed provides a sound basis, though one in need of the sort of dynamic fine-tuning that traditionally premium manufacturers of modern shooting brakes (notably Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Ferrari) are more accustomed to making.

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Has Kia, then, performed something of an undercut with a practical, affordable car that drives as well as it looks? Let’s find out.

Price £28,685 | Power 138bhp | Torque 179lb ft | 0-60mph 9.5sec | 30-70mph in fourth 11.4sec | Fuel economy 34.0mpg | CO2 emissions 133g/km | 70-0mph 49.2m

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DESIGN & STYLING

Kia Proceed GT-Line 2019 road test review - hero side

Kia builds this car at its Slovakian plant alongside the Kia Ceed five-door hatchback and estate but, as far as bodywork goes, it shares only a bonnet and front wings with the normal five-door. Considering that there is more than a whiff of Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo about the Proceed’s cab-rearward silhouette – and that the rear light bar quickly invites any comparison – this is hardly surprising.

The Proceed also appropriates the wide-spaced bootlid lettering of Porsche’s four-door shooting brake, along with its contoured tail-light lenses. The two even share the same 0.30 drag coefficient, while Kia’s Blue Flame paint bears an uncanny resemblance to Porsche’s Sapphire Blue Metallic. How the Kia’s 64.2deg rake for the rear screen (it’s 52.4 for the Ceed hatch) compares with the Porsche, we don’t know, but it would seem to be a very close match.

While we’re well used to Kia’s ‘tiger nose’ grille, we’re not yet tired of it as a design feature. You can see the resemblance to the flagship Stinger saloon here especially clearly

No matter the inspiration, the stated aim of Kia chief designer Peter Schreyer and his team was to infuse the visual athleticism of a three-door hatchback with estate-car practicality – and on that basis, the Proceed has to be judged a success. In the metal, this is a handsome car – perhaps the most handsome yet to wear the Kia badge, albeit plainly not the most original.

Under the skin the Proceed is less avant-garde, though far from unsophisticated owing to an independent multi-link rear suspension standard on all models.

Built on Kia’s box-fresh K2 steel monocoque platform and with MacPherson strut suspension at the front, this is the same architecture used for the Ceed and Ceed Sportswagon, with a 2650mm wheelbase placing the Proceed between the Volkswagen Golf Estate and Mercedes A-Class in terms of usable cabin space. More elegant overhangs account for the Proceed’s extra length over its siblings.

The car comes on firmed-up suspension springs, recalibrated passive dampers and softened-off anti-roll bars compared with a like-for-like Ceed hatchback, the chassis cradled 5mm closer to the road overall. Meanwhile, the electromechanical steering promises adequate response, at just 2.5 turns lock to lock, and in terms of kerb weight the Proceed is also right on the money, weighing in some 40kg less than the equivalent Ford Focus Estate.

The engine line-up consists of a 138bhp 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol and a similarly powerful but far more torque-rich all-new 1.6-litre turbodiesel, with the most powerful GT pseudo-performance version of the car outfitted with Kia’s 201bhp 1.6-litre T-GDi petrol, mated for the first time to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT).

The very same gearbox is fitted to our test car – a 1.4 T-GDi in mid-spec GT-Line S trim. All Proceeds mount their engine transversely, with power delivered to the front axle alone.

INTERIOR

Kia Proceed GT-Line 2019 road test review - cabin

You might expect this Proceed’s cabin to exude similar levels of premium appeal to those of the compact Audis, Mercedes and BMWs you could otherwise spend your near-£30,000 on.

But the car doesn’t quite deliver against that expectation; there’s just not enough here to differentiate the Proceed’s cabin from that of the regular Kia Ceed, or to allow it to mix at a fairly rarefied price point comfortably. The related Ceed’s cabin is, of course, generally well-built, ergonomically sound and well-equipped, and is certainly not wanting for adjustability in the driver’s seat or steering column. And the same is true of the Proceed’s.

Sloping roofline does eat into rear head room fairly significantly, while leg room is far from abundant. The second row of a Proceed is not an ideal place for tall adults

At this price, however, it’s a touch disappointing to find that the car retains a number of hard-feeling, scratchy plastic mouldings; that its doorbins remain unlined; and that the only noticeable example of any design flair is some contrast stitching for the leather seats.

Opting for the Proceed’s handsome shooting brake profile means you’ll have to be prepared to compromise a bit on practicality, at least in one respect. Head room in the back has been reduced from 940mm in the Ceed to 890mm in the Proceed, while leg room has also taken a hit.

In the regular hatch, we measured a typical rear leg room figure of 720mm, compared with 670mm in the shooting brake: most likely a function of the car’s lower hip point. However, what you miss out on in terms of passenger space, you gain back in luggage capacity. The Proceed comes with a 594-litre boot, which is plenty given its reasonably small overall footprint.

That storage can be extended to 1545 litres by folding the seats down, which might even be enough to give buyers of bigger wagons pause for thought. Useful underfloor storage compartments help the car to recover a decent, if not brilliant, outright score on practicality.

All Proceed models get Kia’s largest 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system as standard, as opposed to the smaller 7.0in unit fitted to lower-grade versions of the regular Ceed. The bigger screen size is welcome, but it’s worth pointing out that the upper-level system isn’t any more graphically sophisticated or responsive than the smaller suite.

Equipment on our mid-spec test car is plentiful, with DAB radio, satellite navigation, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto all coming as standard. There’s a wireless charge pad for compatible smartphones, too.

GT-Line S models feature an eight-speaker JBL premium sound system, although the sound quality isn’t particularly outstanding – and you would certainly expect better from a premium brand.

Those subtler sounds have a tendency to get washed out or lost in an abundance of road roar. We’ve heard better audio quality recently from Ford’s B&O Play premium system.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Proceed GT-Line 2019 road test review - engine

It’s an unusual derivative line-up that sees Kia’s 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine powering both the cheapest and the most expensive Proceed in the range (the more powerful, lesser-equipped 1.6-litre Proceed GT is, rather surprisingly, cheaper at list price than our test car) – and it gives this powertrain a lot of notional ground to cover.

On refinement, the engine gets off to the right start. Agreeably quiet almost all of the time except at low revs and under load (when an intermittent, just-audible, under-bonnet rattle-cum-flutter made its curious presence known in our test car), it has creditable throttle response and makes a usefully stout amount of torque through the lower and middle thirds of the rev range. At high revs, however, the engine becomes a bit wheezy, apparently failing to make any more power once the crankshaft has spun beyond about 4500rpm, and therefore undermining the otherwise subtle but effectively conjured sense of dynamism the chassis produces.

I’m 6ft 3in, and it’s very rare that I run out of head room in a modern car. I’m fine in most sports cars – but not in a Proceed’s driver’s seat. I’d certainly be avoiding that sunroof, which robs an inch or so

And so when you compare the car’s performance level against the clock with that of mid-range petrol rivals, it’s a bit underwhelming. The Proceed was the better part of a second slower than the Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI Evo we tested in 2017, both from rest to 60mph and from 30-70mph through the gears.

Where one of those measurements was concerned, the slight sense of clumsiness about the car’s seven-speed DCT was certainly a limiting factor. It prevents you from building any engine power up against the brake pedal during a standing start, so makes the car quite slow off the mark, and generally seems to struggle to swap ratios with quite the speed and slickness of the better twin-clutch ’boxes on the market.

The gearbox shifts smartly in manual, but Normal drive mode tends to make it upshift a bit too early to be the right gear for a swiftly taken corner or an overtake on an open road, while Sport mode tends to make it downshift a gear too many when you use a good lug of accelerator.

A slightly dead, poorly defined brake pedal is another primary control interface that hasn’t been tuned to the same standard as other elements of the Proceed’s driving experience; and, while it might not bother every driver, it contributes to a shortage of consistency that shows the Proceed up among the better driver’s cars in the class.

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Proceed GT-Line 2019 road test review - on the road front

An ability to tread the line between agile handling dynamism and everyday refinement and intuitive drivability is one of the key markers of a great sporting family hatch. It’s a tricky compromise to strike, but one that’s certainly achievable – as last week’s test subject, the Ford Focus ST-Line X, ably demonstrated.

With the Proceed, Kia has taken a creditable, if not entirely successful, swing at occupying this Goldilocks zone. It’s on faster stretches of country road that the Proceed is at its most convincing and where the benefits of its firmed-up, lowered suspension become apparent. There’s a reassuring sense of closeness in terms of how it controls vertical body movement over rippling road surfaces, while there’s considerably better mid-corner handling poise, too, than in the standard Kia Ceed – and better, even, than most family hatchbacks can provide.

Despite minor dynamic shortcomings, there’s a subtle athletic streak here that makes the Proceed enjoyable to guide through an interesting series of bends

There is, in fact, quite striking agility and a keenness to change direction about the Proceed’s dynamic character. Were it not for the fact that Kia still seems to think that unnatural cloying weight is a passable substitute for genuine contact patch feel through the steering wheel, that characteristic would be all the more enjoyable.

Still, the linearity of the car’s handling response inspires plenty of confidence, while the car’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres continue to cling to the Tarmac tenaciously mid-way through a corner.

The flip side of the Proceed’s more sporting set-up is a little bit predictable, but not dismayingly so. The car doesn’t ride with quite the same sense of civility as the basic Ceed around town, having a pattering secondary ride quality that gets a bit excitable at times, and can be slightly noisy at motorway speeds. But there’s fluency about the way the suspension deals with bigger intrusions out of town, and enough suppleness about the ride overall to justify a grand touring billing reasonably well.

Millbrook’s Hill Route further unearthed the Proceed’s underlying dynamism, while shining a light on its sure-footed handling composure. During high-speed directional changes, its lowered suspension set-up (firmer of spring but softer of anti-roll bar) helped to mitigate lateral roll, and also absorb the impact of hitting compressions at pace.

While it took a level of abuse you would be unwise to exhibit on the road to reach the limits of the car’s front-end grip, the manner in which it broke into understeer was gentle and easily managed. Steering response was usefully linear, too, and chassis response smart but predictable; there was no need to add on or wind off lock mid-corner.

The engine did sound strained at times, but the snappy response of the DCT when operated by the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters proved useful for keeping the crankshaft spinning at its optimum speed.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Kia Proceed GT-Line 2019 road test review - hero front

Kia is branching out into what you might call a pseudo-premium market segment here, selling what is ostensibly a premium-priced hatchback to those who might otherwise be in the market for a compact Audi, BMW, Mercedes or Mini. The Audi A3 saloon range starts at almost the same price as that of the Proceed and, for the price of our GT-Line S test car, you could have the equivalent version of the imminent Mercedes A200 AMG Line saloon – plus change.

The one thing that customers giving up proper premium brand metal might notice is the lack of optional customisation potential on offer from Kia. The only way to spend extra on our mid-spec test car, away from dealer-fit accessories, was with £550 premium paint; and that means you get a panoramic sunroof as standard – whether you’re willing to accept the compromise it enforces on interior head room or not.

Despite nearing the end of its life cycle, the Mercedes CLA Shooting easily outperforms the Kia in terms of residuals. The benefits of a premium badge…

Having said that, there’s little the Proceed lacks in terms of standard kit that you’d expect for a sub-£30k price point. Our mid-spec test car came with 18in alloys, LED headlights, electric sports seats with leather upholstery, seat-heaters in both rows, adaptive radar cruise control, an automatically opening powered tailgate and a touchscreen infotainment system with navigation, smartphone mirroring and wireless charging.

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VERDICT

Kia Proceed GT-Line 2019 road test review - static

The Proceed is a clear sign of Kia’s growing confidence; and, having brought us the impressive Kia Stinger and Kia Ceed hatchback, the brand has certainly earned the right to believe it is gathering the standing and the expertise necessary to deliver on its ambitions. It’s a mood we should welcome, too, if it keeps bringing us cars as fresh as this.

Still, on this evidence, Kia hasn’t arrived as a ‘new premium’ style brand and maker of world-class small cars quite yet. Whereas the Ceed seemed to stand up well next to its more common-or-garden competitors, the Proceed has set its sights higher – but doesn’t accede with them quite as widely.

Alluring and interesting, but not quite as special to drive as it looks

It looks desirable and combines eye-catching design with decent practicality in some respects; but it’s meanly packaged in other ways, and has a cabin that lacks the material richness and sophistication hoped for in a premium-priced offering.

A driving experience of notable successes but also one or two telling mediocrities, meanwhile, narrowly fails to truly distinguish the Proceed as a really classy dynamic act – though it’s by no means an ordinary car to drive.

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Kia Proceed First drives