Two popular small cars in mid-range grades, but is the Cerato Sport or Corolla SX our favourite hatchback here?
The Kia Cerato and Toyota Corolla are two exceedingly popular small cars.
The Corolla, at the time of writing, is still Australia’s favourite small car. The Cerato is fourth favourite, and also a rare small car in 2019 that is posting an increase in sales compared with last year.
This story was first published in September 2019
Their sales performances shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. While buyers have long been spoilt for choice in the small-car segment – and there are still nearly 20 options if you count just mainstream models – the list shortens considerably when priorities centre on a manufacturer’s reputation for providing the most relaxed peace of mind in terms of good reliability and low running costs.
Kia’s benchmark seven-year warranty, of course, is a major drawcard.
The Cerato Sport and Corolla SX grades we have for this twin test suit buyers who are looking for that middle ground where they can’t afford flagship models above $30,000, though neither do they want a poverty-pack base model (unlike the majority of buyers in both cases).
Pricing and specifications
The Kia Cerato Sport hatch is priced at $25,790 before on-road costs. However, if you want the Sport to come with a five-star crash rating, you need the Safety Pack version we have here – which costs an extra $1000 to bring a more advanced autonomous emergency braking (AEB) system that adds pedestrian and cyclist detection (together with adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring).
The Corolla SX, which costs from $26,870 and also sits in the middle of the line-up, features AEB that looks out for more vulnerable road users as standard and is rated five stars by ANCAP. It also matches the Kia’s radar cruise and blind-spot systems.
That essentially brings pricing parity – until you take current drive-away pricing into account.
Kia has long been running sharp drive-away deals on the Cerato – and you can pick up the Sport with Safety Pack for just $25,990… With no more to pay.
The Corolla SX? Well, if you want it in any colour other than white (or simply don’t want to look like you’re driving a rental car), it costs just over $31,000 with on-road charges added. At this pricepoint, that’s a massive difference.
Yet, the Toyota counters strongly in the value battle with a much longer equipment list.
Features exclusive here to the Corolla SX are LEDs for headlights, daytime running lights and fog lights, heated door mirrors, dual-zone climate, keyless start, one-touch power windows front and rear, wireless smartphone charger, auto high beam, speed-sign recognition, and driver’s knee airbag.
Items the Kia offers singularly are 17-inch alloy wheels (16-inch alloys for the SX), front and rear sensors, and tyre pressure monitoring.
You won’t have to worry about something going wrong on the Cerato for seven years thanks to Kia’s super-long warranty.
Toyota’s warranty is still a healthy five years, and the Corolla’s servicing costs are remarkably cheap – averaging $175 per annual service over five years. The Cerato will cost you $403 per year on average.
In the cabins
The Cerato’s cabin design continues to mature with the latest-generation model that debuted in sedan form initially in 2018.
An 8.0-inch touchscreen neatly integrated into the dashboard plays a key role in this respect.
Kia’s materials progress is more glacial, however. Shiny, hard and roughly textured surfaces abound throughout a cabin that struggles to lift itself above ‘budget car’ status. Cheap roof-lining only reinforces the limited sense of quality and dull satin trim inserts fail to brighten proceedings.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The damping of key switchgear is good for this pricepoint, there’s an unquestionable solidity to the cabin’s construction, and all key functions are easy to locate.
The infotainment system is also simple to use and nicely presented, it includes navigation, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.
Plenty of manual adjustment for the steering wheel and seat makes it easy to find a comfortable driving position, which is enhanced by good under-thigh cushion support.
It’s all very basic in the rear – no vents (Sport+ or GT models only) or seatback pockets – though the Cerato offers a relatively luxurious amount of head and leg room. And there’s a centre armrest with cupholders and drinks storage built into the doors.
Toyota’s Corolla has long held a (deserved) reputation for build quality, though that hasn’t necessarily equated to an attractively or adventurously presented cabin.
This 11th-generation model is a step forward, though. Despite a touch of cheekiness that buyers have to purchase the flagship ZR grade to have their door cards in soft-touch material, hard plastics are mostly kept to the lowest eye level, allowing squidgier parts of the dash to be more noticeable.
Overall, there’s a more premium look and feel to the Toyota’s cabin, which extends to the Corolla’s posher steering wheel and soft-leather gearshift gaiter. There are even design flourishes in features such as the C-shaped vents.
Also notable is the standard wireless smartphone charger – a feature surely any modern-day car buyer would value highly.
If only Toyota had invested more in another key technology component. The Corolla’s 8.0-inch infotainment not only jars slightly in the way it protrudes prominently from the dash, but the low-resolution display is uninspiring.
It makes the lack of smartphone mirroring feel like a bigger omission, and the Toyota Link app doesn’t compensate (if you can be bothered to go through the rigmarole of setting it up).
At least the SX gains navigation and digital radio (as well as that inductive charging) over the Ascent Sport base model.
At 4.3m, the Corolla is one of the shorter hatchbacks around (the Cerato is 4.5m long). The cramped rear seat is still unexpected, as a Volkswagen Golf offers notably more room from similar exterior dimensions.
The Corolla mirrors the Cerato’s lack of rear vents, but has one seatback pocket in addition to an armrest with cupholders and bottle holders neatly integrated into the door arms.
Disappointing packaging extends to the Corolla’s boot, where space is squeezed to just 217L by its high floor and steeply raked tailgate. Even Toyota’s Yaris city car offers greater luggage capacity.
The Cerato’s boot is huge in comparison, offering both width and depth to accommodate multiple pieces of luggage.
There’s also useful under-floor storage – which can be accessed in its entirety by simply lifting up the floor or, quite cleverly, you can pull a strap either side of the boot for quick access to side sections.
On the road
Kia Australia continues to tailor the steering and suspension of the brand’s imported cars for Australian tastes.
It’s both clear and unsurprising, then, that its engineering team has focused on disciplined body control for the Cerato.
On the plus side, this injects the Kia hatch with a composed attitude if you take to a winding road with gusto, with driver confidence further heightened by the strong grip of our test car’s 17-inch Kumho tyres.
The middling weighting of the steering also works well here, and it’s mostly accurate. Only when you’re travelling in a straight line is there a slightly vague on-centre feel, which can result in the need for minor adjustments of the wheel to prevent the Cerato from wandering left or right.
The negative side of the suspension set-up is a firm and fussy low-speed ride, though the Kia is good at dealing with bigger bumps or surface indents such as potholes.
You’ll experience more body roll tackling corners in the Corolla and its light steering isn’t as helpful for keen drivers, yet assess the Toyota in the context of how it will be driven 99 per cent of the time and it’s terrific.
The supple and absorptive suspension makes for a remarkably plush ride whether around town or on a country road, if noisier than the Kia on coarser surfaces in respect of its 16-inch Bridgestone eco-tyres.
Comfort also comes from the effortless steering, which, with its ultra-smooth, linear quality, makes guiding the Corolla a genuine pleasure. It ties in with a tighter turning circle and the car’s smaller dimensions to make the Corolla feel both nimble and easy to park (though the longer Kia isn’t tricky to park courtesy of its front/rear sensors).
The Toyota’s smooth-operator status is completed with the 125kW/205Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and continuously variable auto transmission (CVT).
While performance is nothing remarkable, the CVT neither dulls throttle response nor drones incessantly as with most examples of this gearbox breed.
Of course, you can have an even quieter city-driving experience with the low-speed electric-motor running of the SX Hybrid, which asks only another $1500 over the SX petrol.
The hybrid cuts official fuel economy by nearly a third, though the petrol auto’s 6.0L/100km figure is respectable, and our indicated testing consumption was only fractionally higher at 6.1L/100km.
The Cerato’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder is an oldie but certainly not a goldie.
Even lacking the direct fuel injection almost taken for granted on engines today, its 7.4 litres per 100km lab-derived economy figure isn’t great – if also similarly close to a real-world guide based on our testing.
It’s an uninspiring engine and sounds quite coarse even at low revs. It’s not a deal-breaker, however, because while performance is modest it’s also adequate for most buyers at this pricepoint.
The 112kW/192Nm motor is also helped by a six-speed auto that has the smarts to downshift quickly and subtly enough to keep the engine in a sweeter spot.
If your budget can go higher, though, the Cerato GT with its more powerful turbocharged 1.6-litre engine is worth the extra investment (from $31,990).
Kia’s Cerato has a few rough edges, but for many buyers these are smoothed out by the Korean hatchback’s excellent ownership credentials that start with its sharp drive-away pricing and finish with that generous factory warranty (unless owned even longer than seven years, of course).
And in between there’s a practical and comfortable interior that makes the Cerato roomy transport for a small family. Just tick that Safety Pack option, and don’t expect a press of the accelerator to reflect the Sport badge.
The Toyota Corolla disappoints with its tiny boot, cramped rear cabin and sub-par infotainment. They are potential deal-breakers for some buyers.
Yet, for empty-nesters or owners who will rarely carry rear passengers, the 11th-generation Corolla rewards with its hugely satisfying driving experience and the SX’s lengthy equipment list.
And, really, only buyers will know which of these hatches best fits their bill – and their budget.