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The finest mid-$30k ‘warm’ hatchback on the market? The Kia Pro_cee’d staked its claim 12 months ago, dispatching Hyundai’s poster boy Veloster SR Turbo and Renault’s potent and racy Megane RS265 Sport as the best all-rounder in the sweet spot bridging humble $20k-something conveniences and properly hot $40k-plus hatchbacks.

How sweet? If you favour three-door sportiness – or a handy ‘extra’ fourth in Hyundai’s case – there’s plenty of choice around in the $30k-somethings. Manual gearboxes? There are ample offerings. Turbocharged 1.6-litre engines offering the sort of potency expected from yesteryear’s two-litre units. And you can thank benchmarkers such as the Kia for lifting expectations of comfort, quality, functionality and features.

Call them warm hatches if you will though, realistically, they’re as quick and fruity as the hottest hatches were just a generation ago.

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New to the fray – sort of – is the Astra GTC, the former Opel-badged high-$30k prospect in high-spec GTC Sport form just two years ago. Now, however, the renamed Holden Astra GTC Sport wants for a sharp $29,990 plus on-roads in manual form as tested here. Worth a mention is that the non-Sport manual can be had $3000 cheaper.

Concurrently, Hyundai had introduced its Veloster Series II, promising upgraded dynamics and sharper value, starting from $29,990 in manual SR Turbo form. Fronting up for this four-way tussle, though, is the want-for-nothing Turbo + asking $33,990 plus on-roads.

While both the Astra and Veloster offer automated transmission options – a torque convertor unit for the Holden, a twin-clutch auto for the Hyundai – the ostensive defending champ, the Kia Pro_cee’d GT, can be only had as a conventional manual. Like its contemporaries, $29,990 plus on-roads is the predictable ask, though our top-line GT-Tech wants for an added $5000 premium.

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Twelve months ago, the Kia was the most affordable in competition – now, however, it enters the sporty hatch fray as the priciest of the bunch.

So far, so lineball. But throwing the sparrow among the pigeons, we’ve added a compact hottie wildcard: the Citroen DS3 DSport. It’s newly updated, has three doors, is 1.6L turbo-powered and available as a manual only. It is, though, a whole segment smaller, so more lightweight and potentially friskier in performance and dynamic ability. But given that the baby French car wants for $33,990 plus on-roads, it’s right on the money.

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Specs and equipment

Once the bargain contender, in present company the Kia needs its healthy equipment list to leverage its value pitch. Key standard gear includes leather and suede Recaro front seats, 18-inch wheels, reversing camera with parking sensors, LCD TFT instrumentation, six airbags and dual-zone climate control. The Tech package bundles in seven-inch touchscreen infotainment with sat-nav, active HID headlights, a sunroof, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a smart key and a luggage area 12V power socket. From leather door trims to auto dimming rear view mirror, it’s fully loaded.

The Hyundai has its Korean contemporary well covered, offering leather trimmed sports seats, seven-inch LCD touchscreen with sat nav, a reversing camera with reverse parking sensors, push-button start, panoramic sunroof, Bluetooth connectivity, 18-inch wheels and six airbags. While the top-spec Veloster lacks the Kia’s front parking sensors and has a single-zone climate control design, its seats are heated and cooled and, like all Series II variants, the ‘Turbo plus’ version gets wider (225mm, up 10mm) tyres and revised suspension tuning. From its driver-adjustable three-mode Flex Steer system to heated wing mirrors, the specifications list is very comprehensive.

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While lacking the sheer breadth of standard equipment enjoyed by its Asian contemporaries, the Astra GTC Sport has plenty to offer given its sub-$30k pitch. Its front seats are leather trimmed/heated with electric driver’s seat (including lumbar) adjustment, there’s Bluetooth connectivity, climate control is dual zone and, like its rivals, taillights are LED. There’s no sunroof. And while it also boasts a seven-inch infotainment display, it lacks touchscreen functionality, and much of what it offers is smartphone app dependent. It is, however, the only car here to offer 19-inch wheels and a ski port.

New updates (April 2015) to the one-size-smaller Citroen DS3 include revised automatic LED and xenon headlights and Active City Brake, the only competitor here to offer low-speed automated braking, while a reversing camera, rear parking sensors, and heated/electrically folding mirrors, six airbags, ‘three-dimensional’ LED taillights, seven-inch infotainment with sat nav and Bluetooth connectivity. Leather, however, is a $2000 option, putting into serious question the supermini’s value credentials. Theirs is, however, a new e-THP 1.6-litre engine to compliment the freshened appearance.

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Interiors

Parked side by side, the disparity in size between the largest and smallest hatches here is such that the you’d swear you could load the DS3 into the Astra’s cargo area and still have space for groceries.

Biggest car, roomiest cabin, a winner for ‘interiors’ right? Not necessarily. The Holden’s front seats aren’t terribly shapely and a number of our crew noted that takes a lot of fiddling with seat adjustment to get comfortable. Fit, finish and materials are reasonable rather than stunning, though it presents well.

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The MyLink system, which incorporates sat-nav, isn’t a touchscreen design and the knob/joystick interface is annoying at best, frustrating and distracting at worst. Another negative quirk is the red button lighting and red-on-red driver’s digital display, all of which are illegible when the cabin is dark.

The Astra’s long doors do allow reasonable access to easily the roomiest second row of the four cars, though the interior grab handles are close to the hinges and require decent muscle to shift the doors’ significant heft. Also, it’s not the first Astra we’ve sampled with a flimsy ‘clang’ when you shut the tailgate.

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In stark contrast, the DS3 is easily the smallest cabin, though the lift in perceived quality over the Astra is noticeable. It’s far from claustrophobic given its compact nature, though rear accommodation is tight for head and knee room, it has the smallest boot space on test and if you need to haul four adults regularly it’s the least-suitable candidate.

It’s typically French – equal measures of flare and frustration – with its hodge-podge of materials and functions, and its obscured handbrake, switchgear hidden behind the steering wheel and other oddments best suits buyers who willingly forego practicality for style. The same goes for the driver ergonomics, though the seats are more supportive and purposeful than the Astra’s despite appearing the contrary.

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The Hyundai’s novel rear kerb-side door offers added child-friendly convenience, you’d probably cross-shop Veloster against five-door offerings rather than this test’s three-door company. Not only is the Korean car’s second-row accommodation very compromised for head room, it only offers two rear seating positions to its rivals’ three.

The youthful, techy cabin styling is let down somewhat by average materials and only a modest sense of solidity that, while hardly low rent, are merely acceptable for a mid-$30k price point. It struggles to hide cost-cutting, though while the plastics are bit harsh and leather less than sumptuous, the angular styling and attention to detailing lifts overall presentation nicely. Boot space, too, is smaller than that of the key rival from Kia.

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The Pro_cee’d GT has the finest cabin of the four. Its design is clean and logical, its controls and infotainment system are easy to use, and it has the best functionality and fewest foibles. There’s maturity and richness abound, it’s amply sporty and, with details such as the neat digital instrument cluster, it feels suitably premium enough justify the mid-$30k ask.

The leather and Dinamica (aka synthetic suede) Recaro front buckets certainly lift the quality feel and are purposefully shaped for spirited driving, though they are firm – and lack electric adjustment – and can get uncomfortable for long hauls. There’s easy access to the second row, which is spacious enough adults, and from cup holder count to refinement levels the Kia remains a class act.

Performance and economy

For proof that superior on-paper prowess doesn’t necessarily translate to the on-road, look no further than this quartet.

For instance, in the Kia and Hyundai, the most powerful cars of the group, offer identical power (150kW at 6000rpm) and torque (265Nm at 1750-4500rpm) stats – not surprising from what are ostensibly identical mechanical engine packages. However, they’re characteristically different, if by measure of shades.

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The Kia is slightly more tractable off idle through to the midrange, whereas the Hyundai is more leisurely down low, a little flatter in delivery around 4000rpm. In higher rpm the Kia revs cleanly, though lacks the urgency of its Korean rival’s more eager lunge to redline. They even sound different, the Veloster more metallic in exhaust sound than the bassy Pro_cee’d.

Differences aren’t down to gearbox or (identical) final-drive trickery, though the Kia’s third-sixth forward gears are marginally closer to each other ratio. The Hyundai’s clutch has a vague take-up point, making it tricky to move off the mark without flaring engine revs or stalling.

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At 1330kg, the Hyundai is also 114 kilos more lightweight than the larger Kia, and yet by the seat of the pants it doesn’t feel appreciably quicker in a straight line. Both cars put their energies to the road surface well, the Kia’s superb 225mm-wide Michelin Pilot Sport 3 well matched by the grippier/broader 225mm Hancook Ventus Prime2 recently adopted for Veloster’s Series II update.

The Astra looks the goods on paper, offering 147kW from 4750rpm through to 6000rpm, with a field-beating 280Nm peak across a broad (1650-5000rpm) spread of engine operation. At 235mm, its Bridgestone Potenzas offer the largest footprint of the competition. And yet it patently feels the slowest device on show and the least energetic from idle to redline. It’s also fairly workmanlike in character, lacking anything like fizz or fanfare once called to arms.

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The main issue isn’t the engine, however, but kerb weight. At 1549kg, it’s not only the heaviest car of the four by around 100kg, it’s a whopping 400kg heftier than the featherweight (1140kg) DS3. And while we’re at it, the Astra isn’t all that shy, weight wise, of a base Commodore. Result? The worst power-to-weight figure (95kg/tonne) of the field.

So while the DS3 seems to make do with just 121kW (at 6000rpm) and only 240Nm (1400-4000rpm), it boasts the second-best power-to-weight figure (106kW/tonne) here, only playing second fiddle to the (112kW/tonne) Veloster.

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The featherweight Citroen makes its modest of its 205mm Michelin Pilot Exaltos, which hook up confidently and, exacerbated by its compact size, the DS3 feels very swift indeed. That said, letting the team down is the flaccid shift quality of the six-speed manual and the terribly exaggerated stagger of the pedal assembly, perching the clutch pedal very high in the footwell. The clutch itself, though, has a nice predictable bite point and superior feel to vague unit used in the Astra.

Extracting their best efforts demonstrated some tardy fuel consumption figures: a best in the DS3 with 10.7L/100km, the worst the Hyundai’s startling 16.0L. However, a lengthy highway stint to cool their collective heels returned more indicatively real-world combined cycle data for the Hyundai (10.4L), Kia (10.1L), Astra (10.0L) and Citroen (8.7L).

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Steering, ride and handling

Shown a succession of tight back-road corners, the DS3 is delightful. Expectedly, the most lightweight device of the four has the most nimble chassis and the biggest grin factor, at least from the driver’s seat. Add crisp, direct steering and the darty little French hatchback is as entertaining as it is animated on its tyres, all sans undue harassment from the electronic stability control.

Though the surprisingly softly set suspension means that it’s less planted and not quite as composed as its larger competition here, the suspension channels tremendous grip from such modestly sized rubber. The other plus is that ride comfort is pliant and the DS3 is mostly unflustered by any type of road imperfection – for ride and handling balance, the Citroen is the pick of the field.

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The mid-level GTC Sport shares its suspension with the more-affordable base GTC rather than the pricier, higher-spec Astra VXR. And it’s softly damped, conservatively tuned nature fails to make the best use of the largest rubber footprint here, despite HiPerStrut trickery on the front axle designed to promote handling and steering response while limiting torque steer.

You only have to enter a tight corner a little too hot for the front end to fall into understeer. And through more open corners, the available grip is more modest, and falls away more quickly, than any rival in this group. So while the Astra will march from A to B with a decent head of steam, it demands conservatism and restraint behind the wheel and, thus, isn’t much fun to drive quickly.

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It’s unfair to blame the Holden’s hefty weight – indeed, there are many heavier cars on the market offering more grip, response and driver engagement. Not helping its cause any is steering that, though nicely weighted, lacks genuine feedback, a facet arguably most needed in the car that runs out of front-end bite quicker than its three rivals.

It is, though, the best of the bunch for long-haul touring comfort, such is the general compliance of the ride and an ability to absorb hits from potholes and large road imperfections. Though slightly fidgety over small bumps, the Astra isn’t tiring or fatiguing sat on its low-profile 19s.

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In stark contrast, the locally tuned Series II updates focused heavily on injecting more dynamic character into Veloster. Suspension, steering and ride quality all went under the microscope, and while improvement can be felt across the board, they’re marginal lifts rather than big strides forward.

Outright road-holding grip, thankfully, is a noticeable improvement. It’s a little crisper in character, is keener to respond to driver inputs and holds a chosen line more confidently. However, despite across-the-board improvements, the Veloster is still at the mercy of an unsophisticated chassis and its torsion beam rear axle design. And the driver-adjustable three-mode Flex Steer trickery doesn’t impart any revelations to steering.

Both ride comfort and handling are acceptable rather than glowing, the Korean ‘four-door’ failing to benchmark the field in either area.

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If the Kia drops the ball anywhere it’s in ride comfort. It’s jiggly across small imperfection and jarring over sharp-edged bumps. But the trade-off is that for pure sporting character and connection between road and driver – and if you can live with a little harshness – it’s head and shoulders above its rivals.

The Kia’s chassis, tuned for local conditions and with a multi-link rear suspension design, works its high-quality rubber the most effectively of the quartet, offering handling poise only matched by the DS3, albeit with a more planted and frisky character. The steering, while a touch artificially heavy off-centre at lower road speeds, really comes to life linking curves during spirited back road punts.

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After-sales service

Kia offers an unbeatable seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with seven years of capped-price servicing. The caveat is that in lieu of the Pro_cee’d’s 1.6-litre turbo four, the servicing schedule intervals are just 7500km or six months, twice the frequency of other Kia models not fitted with the T-GDI engine.

The Citroen DS3 isn’t too shy of the Kia, offering a six-year warranty for unlimited kilometres and capped priced servicing for the entire duration. It trumps the Kia, however, in that servicing intervals, even 15,000kms, are half as frequent.

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The Hyundai comes with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and lifetime capped-priced servicing. And, like the Kia, maintenance is required every six months or 7500kms, perhaps in lieu of the Korean cars’ powertrain similarities.

The Holden is only covered by a three-year/100,000km warranty, though it is covered by the company’s lifetime capped-priced servicing and, like the Citroen, the maintenance intervals are a full 15,000kms.

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Verdict

With an ocean of both more-affordable and hotter small cars on the market, it stands to reason that the win in this sub-$35k segment hinges on striking balance between sportiness and value.

The Astra GTC Sport certainly offers more metal, glass and rubber for the money than its rivals. But the trade-off is a lack of requisite sportiness. Its smart road presence and comfortable nature, though, will appeal to buyers with little concern for chasing corners.

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The antithesis of the Astra is the feisty little wildcard entry from Citroen. That there’s so little of it does wonders for fun factor, the trade-off is that the pricey DS3 isn’t terribly good value, at least compared with present company.

The Hyundai ups the ante with a more comprehensive sportiness/value blend, and the Series II updates certainly do improve the breed. However, the moderate hike in driving enjoyment can’t quite compensate enough for its shortcomings in polish, refinement and all-round goodness when compared with the Kia.

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This time last year, the Kia Pro_cee’d GT took an emphatic victory over the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. And while the improved, updated and flagship SR Turbo + offers stiffer competition to the unchanged – though equally range-topping – GT Tech, it’s not quite a strong enough challenge to knock the reigning Korean champ of its throne.

Click on the Photos tab for more Citroen DS3 DSport, Holden Astra GTC Sport, Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo and Kia Pro_cee’d GT images by Glen Sullivan.

Video by Christian Barbeitos and Glen Sullivan.



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HYUNDAI VELOSTER BREAKDOWN

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CITROEN DS3 BREAKDOWN

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HOLDEN ASTRA BREAKDOWN

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