The top-spec Kia Cerato SLi hatch is a well-made, well-equipped and pain-free choice at the high end of the mainstream small car segment
The Kia Cerato is a bit of an unheralded and underrated offering in the small car segment.
It may only sell in fractions of the segment leaders — with about 6000 sales this year, its volume is about one-fifth that of the Hyundai i30 and two-thirds that of the aged Mitsubishi Lancer — but on paper it's a match for the very best in the class.
For one, Kia stands alone with its seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, introduced recently. As a value proposition, both at the time of purchase and years down the track of ownership, this comparative unknown stacks up.
This point is perhaps most marked at the entry level, given it starts at $19,990 plus on-roads, but is regularly offered for the same price driveaway. But what about at the other end of the Cerato spectrum? It’s one thing to be lured to a highly affordable entry model, but what about a $32,990 flagship version?
That’s the question we want to answer, after spending a week at the wheel of a top-of-the-line Cerato SLi hatch, though you can have a rather dashing sedan for the same money.
The real elephant in the room, though, is the proliferation of entry level small cars with premium badges coming down to steal sales from the established mainstream. Don’t forget an Audi A3 1.4 TFSI Attraction or Mercedes-Benz A180 can be had for $35,600…
So we can immediately see it isn’t particularly cheap, but then again it doesn’t feel or look cheap either. If you’re still one to write-off Kia as a budget proposition, we can tell you it isn’t.
What features do you get for your money? Because at this price, you’d expect a bunch.
Cabin amenities include powered leather seats with memory and heating up front (and ventilation for the driver), artificial-leather-wrapped steering wheel and instrument cluster surround, colour TFT instrumentation with multi-function display, alloy pedals, faux carbonfibre cabin inserts and metal-look trim, and an air-conditioned glovebox.
Features include an embedded seven-inch LCD touchscreen with Bluetooth audio and phone, satellite navigation with SUNA traffic updates, a DVD player, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, push-button start, a reverse-view camera with guidelines, LED daytime running lights, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and parking sensors all-round.
External features include 17-inch alloy wheels (with a full-size alloy spare), a chrome grille surround with black mesh inserts, LED tail-lights, a powered sunroof and exterior mirrors with nifty puddle lamps.
All told it’s a handsome and rather luxo-looking car, not as edgy as the i30, but more mature.
You can always save $3000 and get the Cerato Si, which misses out on the sunroof, dual-zone climate control, heated/ventilated seats, alloy pedals, colour TFT cluster, seat memory, DRLs and 17-inch wheels, among others. Seems a reasonable price for the jump up, we think.
Finally, as with all Ceratos, you get a five-star ANCAP crash rating, six airbags and a pair of rear ISOFIX anchors. There’s no preventative tech such as low-speed city braking or active cruise control, though those features remain rare in the segment.
The cabin itself has a fairly clean and modern design, with the large screen embedded above the basic ventilation controls, under which sits a large cubby with a sliding cover.
The leather touches and soft plastics give it a fairly premium feel, much the same as the related i30 offers, though even the faux carbon bits can’t disguise the overwhelming sea of blacks and greys in the cabin. It’s lovely, but lacks flair. Then again, so does a Golf…
Highlights include the comfortable and soft leather seats and the plethora of storage options, including excellent cupholders, big door pockets, sunglass holders and numerous other hidey holes.
While not a paragon of modernity with its rather simple and basic graphics, the navigation system is a breeze to operate, the Bluetooth connection is snappy and clear and the SUNA updates actually work.
Lowlights include the naff red digital clock and — a regular issue with Kias — the intrusion of the sliding sunroof on headroom. I could never quite get the chair low enough to avoid having the (extendable) sun visor in my forward vision. It’s not too obstructive, just a little irritating.
Note also that there are some cheaper-feeling plastic surfaces surrounding the gear shifter and lower on the doors and dash.
Rear-seat space is about par for the class, meaning you’ll fit a pair of average adults without too much strain, and they’ll be catered for by a nicely angled bench, big rear door pockets, a flip-down ski port and grab handles. There is only a map pocket on the back of the front passenger seat.
Luggage space is an acceptable 385 litres, including a hidden compartment in the two-tiered bay. The seats fold 60:40 almost flat to yield 1213L of space, though not quite as cleverly as a Honda Civic, increasing storage. There are tie-down hooks, hangers and a sliding cargo cover.
Under the bonnet of both the Si and SLi sits a direct-injected 2.0-litre naturally aspirated GDI petrol engine producing 129kW at 6500rpm and 209Nm at 4700rpm. Power is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox with paddles.
This engine sits between the 110kW/178Nm 1.8-litre multi-point engine in lower grade Ceratos and the 150kW/265Nm 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine in the Cerato Koup Turbo. Naturally, we’d love to see Kia offer a turbo Cerato five-door, or even one using the Hyundai i30’s 94kW/260Nm diesel.
As it stands, though, the 2.0 GDI engine is a nice enough unit in most conditions. As its torque and power graphs indicate, it’s a little peaky and doesn’t have the gusto down the rev range of a small turbo such as that used in the Golf, but it’s linear and responsive enough.
The regular six-speed auto again shifts decisively, which is a necessity to keep the engine in its torque sweet spot. The paddles are extraneous, but in a fun way. The changes aren’t as slick as a double-clutch, but it’s also less prone to hesitancy.
Under heavy throttle it becomes a little raucous, but generally the NVH is kept well under wraps. Kia claims fuel use of 7.4 litres per 100 kilometres of unleaded on the combined cycle, a figure we found broadly achievable if you don’t push too hard.
Like many Kia/Hyundai models, the Cerato has an electro-assisted steering setup with FlexSteer, a switchable system that adds or takes away resistance. In Sport, it’s too heavy, but in Normal it’s a decent enough balance of heft and quickness. It’s mid-field in this regard, really.
A Golf, Mazda 3 or a Focus has the Cerato beat for steering sharpness and chassis balance, but the Kia’s Australian-developed suspension tune exhibits a nicely balanced body control and ride that tows the line between comfort and sportiness better than many.
It certainly soaks up B-road corrugations and low-speed urban roads quite well, and the 215/45 tyres exhibit decent mid-corner grip. The rear end is a little prone to skip about if you push on with things. Still, we suspect that’s not going to cause a bother to most prospective buyers.
Overall, as a package, the Cerato offers a pleasant drive, not a razor sharp one like the aforementioned class-topping rivals. It also offers an excellent standard equipment list that makes it a pseudo-premium offering, albeit without the premium badge.
Where it, and most Kias for that matter, excels is in the category of aftersales. A seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty is a class leader. You also get seven years of capped-price servicing (with good 15,000/12-month intervals) and seven-years of roadside assist.
This should be a painless car to own.
Generally, it’s a highly accomplished package that is priced broadly in line with rivals, rather than a spectacular one. And the days of Kia models being any cheaper than rivals are no more.
The real value in this range probably lies down lower — the S Premium and Si stack up pretty well — but you do get a fair bit here for your money, in a handsome package to boot.