The 2011 KIA Cerato hatch has raised the standards and set the benchmark in its category.
There was a time when Korean cars were regarded as inferior, of lower quality, slow, unreliable and just downright ugly. These days, that seems like it was a lifetime ago (although Ssangyongs are still downright ugly). We live in a strange time when cars from Korea are now starting to topple their Japanese rivals for quality and design.
It's fair to point out that the Japanese went through the same ordeal, initially they were regarded as ordinary and in time they managed to catch up and (arguably) overtake the European and American car manufacturers. However, they have been a little complacent as of late. Perhaps a little too assured of their dominance.
There was a great marketing campaign by AVIS car rentals in the United States a few year back that stated “We are number two, so we try harder” - this worked rather well for two reasons. One, because it was honest as AVIS was in fact the number two car rental company and hence seen as the underdogs, and two, because AVIS did in fact try harder.
This exact same situation has now happened for KIA and Hyundai. The amount of Korean national pride involved in building better cars and overtaking the Japanese is humongous. Great news for car buyers everywhere. Whilst the Japanese may have seen their leading position as a reason to relax a little, the Koreans are determined to change the status-quo.
With the introduction of Kia Sorento, Kia Sportage, and of course the Kia Cerato sedan and Koup, Kia has managed to rebrand itself in Australia as a company capable of designing elegant, sophisticated and European inspired vehicles.
The latest in Kia's model revamp is the introduction of the Kia Cerato 5-door hatchback.
The Cerato sedan and Koup have both been great buys in the small car segment but they've struggled to make a big impact in the market. In September this year Kia sold just 304 Ceratos (about 90 of which were Koups), compared to Hyundai i30's 2,233 sales.
You can argue why that is the case for hours. The truth of the matter is the new Cerato hatch will finally give the Korean company a chance to compete in the small-hatch segment, which accounts for half of all small car sales.
Prices for the Cerato hatch Si Manual start from $20,240 and for that you get a lot of car.
From the outside the Cerato hatch shares a lot with its Sedan sibling. From the front the two variants are nearly identical, however the mesh grilles and fog lamps have been redesigned. There is a new roof, c-pillar, rear-lights and bumper. Kia Australia has also equipped the hatch with unique 17” alloy wheels for stronger differentiation.
In order to review the Cerato hatch, Kia handed my co-drive and I the keys to drive from Sydney airport to Hunter Valley and back over a two day period. Having dealt with Sydney's horrid traffic we eventually found our way through a series of beautiful, twisty mountain roads and country towns.
The Cerato hatch exudes a sense of sportiness similar to the Koup, thanks to its ultra-modern design. It's not overly aggressive but it's not soft either, a near perfect balance.
Unfortunately for Kia customers there is no “performance” variant, but you can be assured the chassis is capable of handling more power. Plus, the hatch only sits 1,460mm tall, making it the shortest hatch in its class (read: better handling). It's also 190mm shorter in length than the sedan thanks to a reduction in the rear-overhang.
Around Sydney traffic the manual gearbox can take some time to get use to, thanks to a high clutch pick-up point. Nonetheless, it's a smooth six-speed manual that even your grandmother could drive.
The Cerato hatch is powered by the same four-cylinder Theta II petrol engine in the sedan and Koup. It manages 115kW (best in class) and 194Nm of torque. That means a 0-100km/h time of 9.1 seconds and fuel economy figures of 7.5L/100km for the manual.
The pick of the bunch, however, is the new six-speed automatic transmission now available for the first time in the Cerato range (already seen in Kia Grand Carnival, Sorento, Sportage). Although already equipped to the hatch, the sedan and Koup will get the update from 2011 models arriving in a few months.
Officially the six-speed automatic is 0.7 of a second slower to 0-100km/h (and uses 0.2L of fuel more per 100km), unofficially it feels a lot faster around highways and mountain ranges. The range topping Cerato SLi also adds paddle shifters that come in handy for enthusiastic driving.
Kia Australia says it has spent considerable time and resources tuning the Cerato hatch for Australian roads. Even so, the ride is still firm, perhaps a little too firm for bumpy roads, but the upshot is the Cerato's great handling when it matters.
The more mature folks may find the Cerato's suspension a little too stiff around town, over bumps and potholes. Nonetheless, for those who actually enjoy the 'driving-experience' and see their car as something more than just a tool to get from A to B, the Cerato hatch has a great suspension setup.
During the drive program around country New South Wales, it conquered the winding mountain roads without hesitation. There is little to no hint of understeer even under hard cornering whilst it feels very planted and confident around long bends. It's almost criminal that Kia hasn't released a performance model given how well the Cerato handles.
If you're wondering, the Kia Cerato is not based on the same platform as the very successful Hyundai i30. The Cerato shares the same front underpinning but not the rear. It was also designed after the i30. Additionally, the Kia Cee'd (or C apostrophe D as Clarkson calls it) is not coming to Australia, making the Cerato hatch the only small Kia hatch on offer here.
Take it for a drive and the first thing you'll notice is just how much quieter the new Cerato is. Kia has improved the model's NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) levels by adding more foam pad insulation to numerous areas of the car.
Speaking of the interior, this is where Kia has started to make serious headway over the last few years. Sitting inside most new small Japanese cars means dealing with incredibly spartan interiors made of cheap and hard plastic. The Cerato, however, has got a very Volkswagen Golf feel to it. Dark trim colours blend well with the red stitching on the steering wheel and door trim (SLi) plus semi-soft touch plastics give the cabin an upmarket feel. Unfortunately the red LCD unit in charge of the stereo is still there, desperately asking to be replaced with a full colour system.
The switchgear has a nice feel to it, although you can easily spot the difference between this and a Golf. A redesigned centre console and native support for iPod/iPhone bluetooth audio streaming are new additions to 2011 Kia Cerato.
If you've never tried bluetooth audio streaming, let me assure you that it's one of the most convenient features you can find in a modern car. Walk out of your gym workout with your iPhone still playing your favourite tunes, simply sit inside the car, unplug the headphones, turn on Cerato and there it is, instantly, music begins playing from where you stopped only seconds ago, no wires, no connections, all through bluetooth and all seamless. A lot of new cars have this feature and it's just brilliant.
Kia believes the Cerato Hatch will appeal to Australians in the 30-50 age group with an even male to female distribution. Buyers are expected to keep the car for a longer than average period. It's also meant to keep existing Rio buyers looking to upgrade from defecting to other brands. The company believes that in time the Cerato hatch will be the volume seller for the model, overtaking sedan and Koup sales combined.
It's hard to say who exactly the Cerato will appeal too, but it will require the ability to "get over the Kia badge".
As for practicality the Cerato hatch offers 385L of luggage space which is more than all its competitors. Split fold rear seats (60:40) also mean it's practical enough to carry most things.
Compared to the Hyundai i30, the Cerato is certainly a firmer ride but handling is still comparable to its Hyundai cousin. To be fair, it does look better front and rear, however it's not available with a diesel powerplant which KIA says is not on the agenda in the foreseeable future.
The Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza hatch both provide good competition even if the Cerato is cheaper (and arguably the better looker).
According to Kia, the Cerato was designed to withstand the North American crash test regime, which awarded it 19 out of a possible 20 points. Nonetheless, in Australian testing (sedan) it failed to gain the five-star safety rating, having to settle for four. This puts it at a disadvantage compared to the Mazda3, Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer to name just a few.
Even so, it does come with a plethora of safety features such as ABS (anti-lock brakes), EBD (electronic brake-ford distribution), BA (brake assist), TCS (traction control system) and six airbags.
If the Kia Cerato Hatch had a Toyota badge on it, it would sell many thousands per month, so the question you have to ask yourself is, can you overcome brand prejudice to accept the Kia badge?
With great looks, handling, performance, standard features and an unlimited kilometre 5 year warranty, the Kia Cerato hatch now sets the benchmark for value-driven small-hatches in Australia.