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Style is the new weapon in Kia's war to win back buyers from an avalanche of fresh small-car rivals. It starts with the Cerato hatch, a heavily rejigged small car with more performance options that arrives here mid-year with the aim of clawing back some average sales results.
The neat Cerato sedan and hatch currently on the market have been no match for heavy hitters Corolla and Mazda3, let alone its sister Hyundai i30. Even the more expensive Subaru Impreza outsells Cerato.
This time Kia reckons it's got it right. The Cerato, shown this week at the biggest US motor show in Chicago, arrives in Australia as a hatchback in July that follows the April launch of the sedan equivalent. It sits on a 50mm longer wheelbase and is lower and wider than the current hatch.
Boot space is up to 422 litres, bigger than the i30 (378), Golf (350), Corolla (280) and Mazda3 (340) but less than Holden Cruze's 445 litres. Looking more like a mini-Optima at the front - indeed the Cerato sedan is almost a shrunken copy of Kia's biggest Australian-sold sedan - the hatch repeats the crisp styling and signature lines of the company's chief designer Peter Schreyer.
It has all the performance looks to justify Kia's 150kW/264Nm 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo-petrol engine - only 5kW/16Nm off the bigger 2-litre engine of the Golf GTI - but we won't get it. Kia Australia has knocked back this sparkling engine in favour of retaining the current model's 103kW 1.8-litre multi-point injection engine and a perkier 129kW 2-litre direct-injection petrol four.
This upgrades the current 2-litre engine's 115kW/194Nm output. The turbo-petrol engine - the same as fitted to the Hyundai Veloster Turbo - is hoped to be used here late this year as Kia Australia plans to import the Europe-sourced Procee'd GT hatch. Annoyingly, the US market has nabbed the turbo-petrol for the Cerato five-door hatch and displayed it at the Chicago motor show this week.
Kia Australia is not talking money. But it's fair to say it will start around the same level - say, $19,990 - because that's where its rivals such as Corolla and Pulsar are starting. At that money, dependent on equipment levels for which Kia are renowned, it'll be a strong buy.
The 2-litre engine is also bigger than the others so there's appeal from a performance base. The elephant in the room is the excellent i30 from parent company Hyundai that shares the Cerato's platform. But there's Kia's industry crunching five-year warranty and capped-price service program with roadside assistance. Strong arguments. But we have to see the car in Australia and with its sticker price to make the final call.
In the flesh it's crisp and distinctive. It's a pleasing car to look at and that'll appeal to buyers who appreciate a head turn. But it's not outrageous and not dated in its lines, so it should age well and that'll hold value. The cabin is pretty and appears workable. The car will keep its three model line-up of S, Si and SLi. Again, the proof is in what it looks like when it lands here.
The 2-litre engine's direct injection improves performance and lowers fuel consumption. Kia gets unique suspension tuning for Australia - incidentally, Hyundai do likewise but by a different mob - so the Cerato hatch should hang on through the bends. The rear suspension is by torsion beam and though not as sophisticated as the multi-link set up of Holden and Opel, is economical and allows for a bigger boot area.
No news but it's expected to be a five-star car with six airbags. It's the standard safety gear that gets fitted to the Australian cars which is unknown. A rear camera should be the minimum with lane-change monitor and even low-speed auto braking being desirable. In this sector though, it's all about price.
A very appealing package that offers good space in a relatively small car. Nice to see some power upgrades in the 2-litre which should make it a fun drive. The car isn't on the road - or even a carpark - yet.
Kia Cerato hatch
Price: est from $19,990
Warranty: 5 years/unlimited km, roadside assist
Service Interval: 12mths/15,000km, capped price
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS, ESC, EBD, TC
Crash rating: 5-star
Engine: 1.8 and 2-litre 4-cyl turbo-diesel, 103kW and 129kW
Transmission: 6 spd manual or auto; front drive
Thirst: est. 7.3L/100km; 192g/km CO2
Dimensions: 4.3m (L), 1.8m (W), 1.5m (H)
Spare: Full size
Price: from $19,990
Engine: 1.8-litre, 4-cyl petrol, 103kW/173Nm
Transmission: CVT; front drive
Thirst: 6.6L/100km; CO2 152g/km
Price: from $20,330
Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl petrol, 108kW/182Nm
Transmission: 5-spd auto; front drive
Thirst: 8.2L/100km; CO2 216g/km
Price: from $21,490
Engine: 1.8-litre, 4-cyl petrol, 104kW/176Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto; front drive
Thirst: 7.5L/100km; CO2 179g/km