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The Kia Cerato has been the Korean brand's top seller for some time now, largely thanks to its sharp pricing and industry-leading seven-year factory warranty.
Earlier this year an all-new model launched in Australia – albeit only in sedan form for the time being – aiming to continue offering its predecessor's strong value-for-money proposition while also addressing key complaint areas of its forebear.
On test we have the 2019 Cerato Sport+ listed at $26,190 drive-away, and you might be surprised to hear that this is the top-of-the-range variant for the time being.
A flagship small car for $26,000 drive-away? Yep, and it's not short on kit, either.
Standard equipment on the Sport+ includes adaptive cruise control, leather seats, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, keyless entry and push-button start, electric folding mirrors, LED daytime-running lights, and an upgraded autonomous emergency braking system with pedestrian and cyclist detection.
That's on top of the mid-spec Sport's 17-inch alloy wheels, satellite navigation with SUNA traffic updates, leather-look steering wheel and gear lever, and 'sports' front seats.
From the base S up, all Cerato models feature AEB with forward collision warning, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, DAB+ digital radio, lane-keep assist, front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines, tyre pressure monitoring, and six airbags – the new model doesn't have an ANCAP rating as yet, though.
Our tester is specified with Runway Red metallic paint ($520), making for an as-tested ticket price of $26,710 drive-away. The only other option available on the Sport+ is 'Safety Pack 2', which adds blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert for $500 – we're not sure why that isn't just standard, either.
That's a very strong equipment list for a small car at this price point, regardless of its positioning in the range. It's not like it looks and feels cheap.
The exterior design was inspired by the Stinger, and it shows. The angry face is clearly reminiscent of its larger stablemate, and also has a Euro-inspired look that gives it an upmarket appearance.
We reckon the 17-inch wheels can look a little small, but this reviewer doesn't mind the more understated appearance – plus, smaller wheels and chubbier tyres are meant to translate to better ride comfort, but more on that later.
Out back, the wraparound tail-lights give the car a wider stance, though it's a shame we don't get the fancy LED units offered overseas. They should come with the upcoming Cerato GT, though, but that's still another six months away.
The metallic red paint on our tester also looks the goods, and it's one of two available 'colours' in the palette – however, there are two shades of blue on offer in addition to the black, two greys, two whites, and silver.
Inside is probably where Kia has made the biggest improvements. Whereas the previous-gen Cerato was starting to feel one or two generations older than Kia's newer models and its immediate competition, the new model has brought a much more modern and clean cabin design, which is bolstered by upgraded materials throughout.
The new steering wheel feels great in the hand, right down to the metal-like switchgear that is well-damped and ergonomically placed.
Immediately within reach to the driver is the high-mounted 8.0-inch high-resolution touchscreen, which again looks and feels premium, aided by the standard inclusion of native satellite navigation, digital radio, along with smartphone mirroring systems. Regardless of whether you're using the factory system or your smartphone software, the display is crisp and is snappy to respond to commands.
Another highlight is the amount of storage up front, with a capacious cubby under the centre stack that can easily swallow a smartphone, wallet, keys and more, along with a decent area underneath the centre armrest between the front seats.
Within that dual-tier area, there's also a 12V, AUX, and two USB ports – one being a dedicated charging port – meaning all the requisite inputs are available. An additional USB charging point lives in the centre armrest bin, too.
The cupholders in the middle and door pockets aren't as impressive as the aforementioned storage areas, but they're still adequate.
While we're in the front, let's talk about the seats – spoiler, they're pretty damn good. Both the front pews are leather-appointed 'sport' seats, and they offer great back and under-thigh support, particularly over longer journeys. Over a trip from Melbourne to Phillip Island and back, the Cerato was superbly comfortable, but we'll get to ride and driving comfort a little later.
Hopping into the rear, the soft door trims up front have been substituted for the harder variety, and there's only one map pocket behind the passenger's seat (none behind the driver), but overall comfort is still pretty good. A fold-down armrest with dual cupholders supplements the bottle holders in each rear door, too.
Leg room is above average for the class, while head room is adequate for taller passengers. I'm a little over six-foot-one, and my voluminous hair was kissing the headliner. It's an improvement over the previous-gen model in most respects, though.
The Sport+ scores rear air vents, too, but there are no USB or 12V outlets in the rear, meaning there are no charging options for occupants in the second row.
Further back, there's a 520L boot (+38L more than the previous model). If you're planning on carrying longer items, the rear seat backs also fold 60/40. Our only real complaint about the luggage area is that the high load lip may make stowing heavier items a little annoying, though that's nit-picking. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare wheel.
Whereas an increasing amount of rivals are making the move to small-capacity turbocharged engines and dual-clutch transmissions for better low-down response and improved fuel efficiency, Kia has opted to stick with the tried-and-tested naturally aspirated petrol engine and six-speed torque converter automatic.
The powertrain itself is the same 2.0-litre 'MPI' unit as the previous model, which makes 112kW of power at 6200rpm, and 192Nm of torque at 4000rpm.
Performance isn't really in line with the 'Sport' moniker, but it's not underpowered, either. Compared to the previous-generation model, which I incidentally reviewed at the beginning of the year, the Cerato feels noticeably peppier, aided by what feels like a smoother and snappier transmission than the car it replaces.
Under load, however, the 2.0-litre mill can be a little thrashy and noisy, but if you're gentle with it progress is smooth and relatively linear – albeit not as brisk as some would like. There are configurable drive modes to adjust the throttle mapping and steering weight, though we wouldn't really bother.
If you like the look of the Cerato but want a little more pep, there's a turbocharged GT variant coming that will feature the 150kW/265Nm 1.6-litre petrol from the related Hyundai i30 SR – though that's a little off topic at this point.
The steering has a great feel to it – firm and communicative enough to give you a sense of connection to the front wheels, while also being light enough to be easy to park and manoeuvre in tight situations.
In terms of the ride, the Cerato borders a little on the firmer side, though it's well-damped to avoid crashing over sharper imperfections. While that can be annoying around town, the Kia really settles at higher speeds, and is a great cruiser.
However, it exhibits noticeable tyre roar on coarser surfaces at higher speeds, though it's not the worst in class for such an issue.
Speaking of highway driving, the Kia's adaptive cruise control was put to the test numerous times, and while it's a great feature to have overall, there were a few quibbles.
Once set, the system has a habit of letting the speed drop by 2–3km/h before holding the original set speed, which can be frustrating if you've just merged or overtaken someone. Additionally, if you get stuck behind another vehicle and manually accelerate to lessen the gap or change lanes, it tends to let the speed drop some 2–3km/h below the set speed as well, which again can be frustrating if trying to make a tight gap to overtake.
Occasionally, the cruise control can overcompensate up hills, too, eclipsing the set speed by a few digits, which isn't favourable in speed-conscious Australia.
The absence of the optional blind-spot monitoring was also felt with our tester – a feature that's becoming increasingly common at the higher end of the small car class, and really should just be standard instead of asking for $500 extra.
In terms of fuel consumption, we managed an indicated 7.5L/100km over 1000km of mixed driving, skewed towards highway conditions. Officially, Kia claims 7.4L/100km on the combined cycle, so that's not a bad effort considering the Cerato also spent a decent amount of time in bumper-to-bumper Melbourne peak-hour.
In the ownership stakes, the Cerato continues to lead the pack thanks to Kia's industry-leading seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with seven years of capped-price servicing and roadside assistance.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. The first five visits to the workshop will set you back $266, $460, $329, $613 and $299 respectively, making for a total of $1967 for the first 60 months/75,000km.
While it may not be the most flashy or exciting mode of transport, the Kia Cerato Sport+ is a spacious, comfortable, and fuss-free option in the ever-competitive small car segment, bolstered by its ripper value-for-money equation thanks to its high level of standard equipment and market-leading customer care program.
Sure, the powertrain is a little underwhelming and the tyre roar can get a little intrusive on country highways, but there really are few complaints about what is a solid and worthwhile package.