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For all the fanfare made over the Stinger, and all the positive press given to the Sportage and Sorento crossovers, it’s the Cerato that is Kia Australia’s mainstay.
The rapidly expanding company has doubled its sales in just four years, but over that period the aggressively priced Cerato’s volume has about tripled. It now accounts for one in every three Kias sold here, racking up almost 19,000 units last year.
With this in mind, it’s clear how vital the new generation is for the company, even taking into account the general decline in passenger car sales. The Picanto, Rio and Cerato make for a potent one-two-three punch at the market’s cheapest end.
The rollout begins this week with the Cerato sedan, known as the K3 in Korea and Forte in North America. The higher-volume hatchback (potentially previewed by the new Ceed hatch) is due just before the end of 2018. For the time being Kia is conducting a runout of the old version, for bargain hunters.
“With the new generation car all the things that made Cerato great are still there, just that little bit better,” Kia’s local chief, Damien Meredith, reckons.
The first part of the equation is value. The base Cerato S keeps the $19,990 drive-away price tag - vital considering the serious discounting going on in the segment, led by the Holden Astra. There’s a $1500 stretch to the Cerato S with automatic transmission.
The automatic-only Cerato Sport is a $2200 walk at $23,690 drive-away, and is expected to account for the lion’s share of private sales. The S will be the fleet-favoured option. The flagship Cerato Sport + costs $26,190, a $2500 walk.
The second part of the equation is standard equipment, always a Cerato hallmark at its price point. Once again, Kia has done a good job squeezing as many niceties in as it can without losing money.
The base S gets autonomous emergency braking (AEB), forward collision warning (FCW) and lane-keeping aid (LKA) active safety, plus an 8.0-inch screen with reversing camera, parking sensors at both ends, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and cruise control.
The walk up to the Cerato Sport gets you satellite navigation with SUNA live traffic updates, 17-inch alloy wheels in place of the S’ steelies with plastic covers, and a ‘premium’ steering wheel instead of the base car’s urethane number. Worth it? Sure.
We can’t imagine many people will opt for the Sport +, but there are a heap of extras including AEB ‘Fusion II’ with pedestrian/cyclist recognition, active cruise control, LED daytime running lights, button start, leather seats and rear air vents. Loaded.
Options are few and far between. Sparkly paint is $520, and there are two ‘Safety Pack’ tick boxes. Number One costs $1000 and adds blind-spot monitoring (BLM), rear cross-traffic alert (RCTA), Fusion II AEB and more to the Cerato S and Sport, while the Number Two pack adds BLM and RCTA to the Sport + for $500. Kia lists full 'build and price' details here, and the full brochure here (links open in new tabs).
Despite this, independent crash tester ANCAP has not yet smashed any Ceratos into barriers and poles. Theoretically this car should stack up well, but until the results are out... Chop chop, Kia.
Ok, now the brochure-repeating is out of the way, let’s get to business.
Like many small sedans, it’s a pretty conservative thing to look at from the outside, as frankly befits its older demographic. Well, it is once you get past that aggressive grille, headlight and front bumper ensemble that draws from the Stinger’s playbook.
The beltline is dead straight, though there are broader shoulder than before and a slight contour along the doors. The roof tapers gently and the boot is stubby, set off by a rear light bar that runs the width of the car. It’s handsome enough, but largely anonymous.
This new Cerato is 80mm longer than before (and 60mm longer than a Mazda 3), 20mm wider and 5mm taller, but rides on an unchanged 2700mm wheelbase. This means there are merely longer overhangs at each end.
The interior design has come a long way compared to its dated predecessor. The dominant aspect is the floating tablet-style touchscreen, sitting above slimmer vents. Both are mounted higher than before, in a more horizontal layout.
The steering wheel is a nice design and keeps fussy buttons to a minimum, with crisp white-on-black gauges sitting behind. There are lashings of soft-touch materials on the dash, offset by hard (but hard-wearing) plastic on the doors, though the higher grades look and feel nicer.
There are decent door bins, a double open storage area below the fascia and a decent console mounted 31mm higher for arm-resting, plus three USB inputs. It’s all thoroughly unexciting, but also perfectly ergonomic - for example, the shortcut buttons next to the wheel to switch off the lane assist - and flawlessly built.
The back seats offer sufficient legroom and headroom for anyone 185cm or less, though my 194cm frame found headroom lacking just slightly. Understandable! The seat-backs are easy-to-clean hard plastic. At the same time, the seat bases are quite short, a clear tactic to free up space.
The boot grows from 482 to 502 litres, and measures one-metre wide and 710mm tall. The back seats flip downwards 60:40 too. On the downside, there’s no longer a full-size spare wheel under the loading floor, replaced by a space-saver.
Kia counters by offering seven years of free 24/7 roadside assist, but rural buyers or high-milers may still prefer a proper spare. You should note that there appears to be room for one, with the temporary tyre hardly filling up its spot.
The wheelbase hasn't changed, but Kia has done some fettling to other areas under the body. As with all Kia product, Sydney-based engineers tuned the suspension for our market, working within spec parameters offered by the factory. The setup is a basic MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear layout, cheap and effective.
Kia points to the stiffer body (105m of structural adhesive is used, and more high-tensile steel than before), new suspension mounts, and addition of extra sound-deadening material reduces noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) inputs, though the Cerato S's Nexen tyres emit some roar into the cabin.
As with most of its product, the ride is a little firmer than its Hyundai cousin the Elantra, giving it a tied-down and planted road feel and good body control through corners. It's motor-driven steering, with various driving modes to change the resistance, responds quickly from centre, while the dampers round off sharp hits well, isolating occupants from gnarly, corrugated B-roads.
We're used to Korean product being in the upper percentile for ride and handling in their respective classes now, thanks to the investment in localisation work, and the Cerato is no exception.
However, while the design may carry elements of the Stinger halo car, the launch engine is a less dynamic choice, and hardly stretches the chassis' capabilities. It’s the carried-over 2.0-litre ‘Nu’ multi-point injected, normally aspirated unit making 112kW of power and 192Nm of torque.
Most people will opt for the in-house six-speed automatic transmission, though the base car can be had with a $1500 cheaper six-speed manual. Both are new-generation units, Kia claims. Claimed 91 RON fuel use is 7.4L/100km for the auto and 0.2L/100km worse for the manual. This is marginally worse than the old car on account of the heavier kerb weight.
Kia fits a Drive Mode Select software system to all auto versions, with Smart or Eco modes that change the throttle calibration and gearbox mapping.
In a world now dominated by small-capacity engines with turbochargers that give you maximum pulling power from low engine speeds, Kia's unit doesn't give you peak torque until 4000rpm, and at these engine speeds becomes a little raucous. It's not slow, and happily works for commuting, but it's also devoid of excitement, or any more poke than is strictly necessary.
Let's not forget, of course, that the priorities here are price and value, both of which demand an affordable and proven engine of this type. It's not a criticism per se, merely an observation. Luckily, a 150kW turbo Cerato GT will arrive in about six months by best estimates, matching the Hyundai Elantra SR. That'll spice things up no end.
The automatic transmission with torque converter manages to be relatively unobtrusive and assists the atmo unit's linear torque delivery, while the manual (to account for 5 per cent of sales at best) has a lovely mechanical shift pattern undermined just slightly by a vague clutch take-up point. Still, it brings some actual character out of the engine...
More impressive is that active safety suite. The lane assist effectively reads road lines and nudges you back between them by applying slight wheel adjustments, while the reassurance of AEB and the availability of blind-spot and cross-traffic, plus radar cruise, across the range will be music to the ears of fleet buyers in particular.
The other big win is Kia's usually peerless customer care program, including the market-leading private-buyer seven-year warranty with roadside assist and advertised servicing prices, matched occasionally by Honda and Holden if they're doing a campaign. Kia details its warranty here (opens in new tab).
Here's the thing about the Cerato sedan range. The priorities are price, value, safety, space and running costs, and the Kia really does sit at the pointy end in all of these areas. It's a largely charisma-free zone, sure, but it also achieves what its maker set out to.
No doubt both it, and us, are eagerly waiting for the hatch version expected to account for about 60 per cent of sales, but anyone after a small sedan that meets the above criteria - you know who you are - would be remiss not to add this Kia to their shortlists. We'll work up some comparison content, to elaborate on the point, soon.