The cheap small car that looks like an expensive one
THE pace of improvement in new cars can sometimes be difficult to judge. When it comes to the cheap seats, progress is more obvious because the bar is set so low.
Once, your typical small, cheap hatchback or sedan was, if not complete rubbish to drive, at least half a bin full. A $19,990 drive-away price bought you something that could get you from A to B just fine. It did so with the bare minimum investment required to, first, not kill you in a crash and, second, hang together until the warranty ran out. Quite a few couldn't.
Tougher safety and emissions regulations, more cost-effective design, engineering and manufacturing and ever-increasing competitive pressures have obliged the leaders among today's small, cheap cars to lift their game to become sophisticated, refined and, yes, enjoyable drives. A prime example is Kia's new Cerato sedan, which starts at $19,990 drive-away for the six-speed manual S; with a six-speed auto, it's $21,490 drive-away.
We're testing the Cerato Sport, priced at $23,690 drive-away with the auto. All variants run the same 112kW 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four, carried over from the previous model.
The Cerato sedan (a hatch will follow) is one of the larger small cars and among the best looking, too, with a sleek fastback silhouette and muscular sheet metal inspired by the brand's Stinger performance hero.
More than 50 per cent of the bodyshell uses high-strength steel for safety and rigidity, supplemented by stiff subframes and locally tuned suspension. On the road you can feel this engineering investment in the car's exceptional tightness, composure and solidity at speed, which compares favourably with a premium-priced European.
Base S specification runs to 16-inch steel wheels, eight-inch touchscreen infotainment with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and digital radio. Sport grade adds 17-inch alloy wheels, navigation with live traffic updates and map upgrades for 10 years, leather-wrapped wheel and shift lever knob and richer cloth upholstery.
Other makers such as Ford, Holden, Honda and Mazda have recently increased their warranty coverage from three to five years. No one has yet matched Kia's seven.
The only notable whinge I have about this car is its overly harsh ride. Kia's local suspension tuning prioritises taut handling at speed on our rough country roads.
The Cerato Sport certainly meets this brief but it's a compromise designed to please motoring writers rather than customers, most of whom will drive around town at 40-80km/h and have to put up with constant jarring and discomfort, exacerbated on the Sport by larger wheels and low-profile rubber.
Compliance improves at highway speeds but here the 225/45 Nexen tyres are noisy on coarse bitumen, where they also transmit a lot of that coarseness up through the steering.
In other respects, the Cerato provides big car comfort, with supportive seats, plenty of driving position adjustment, generous rear legroom and a simple, elegant new dash with a high-mounted touchscreen. Ample storage is close at hand.
Voice control operates only via the relevant app on your smartphone, connected via one of three USBs. The test car also came standard with an annoying buzz from within the dash that would have had it back at the dealer for a fix.
Autonomous emergency braking, effective lane keeping, parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring and camera with moving guidelines are standard. A $1000 pack adds pedestrian/cyclist detection to AEB, adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert. Then you have a car with comprehensive driver assist safety spec for less than $25,000 drive-away.
The Cerato's port-injected 2.0-litre is honest rather than inspiring. Hooked up to the six-speed auto, it does the job well enough, answering with decent performance if you exercise your right foot and smooth, quiet cruising once you're up to speed.
It lacks the low-down oomph and fuel efficiency of a smaller capacity turbo; the upside is proven reliability and use of regular unleaded. Driving modes are Eco, Normal and Smart (adaptive) but it lacks auto stop-start and paddle-shifters.
There's no Sport mode, either, which is a bit strange given than this variant is the … Sport.
As mentioned earlier, it's one of the better handlers in the class. Body movement is tightly controlled, four 225/40 tyres are a lot of rubber on the road for a small car at this price, braking is adequate and electric power steering is sharp and reasonably tactile.
I want a cheap small car that looks like an expensive small car. When I jumped in, it felt like something I couldn't afford.
This is all the car I need and Kia is the market standard setter among affordable cars for value, quality and warranty coverage. It drives better than its price suggests, too.
HOLDEN ASTRA LS PLUS FROM $22,750
Honest, spacious and comfortable, with 110kW/240Nm 1.4-litre turbo/six-speed automatic that returns great fuel economy on regular unleaded. No AEB.
SUBARU IMPREZA 2.0I-L FROM $24,490
Probably the pick of the small sedans at this price. Its 115kW/196Nm 2.0-litre/CVT/all-wheel drive is frugal but a bit sluggish. The most comfortable ride in the class and A-grade safety.
The Cerato's engineering, its infotainment and safety specification and its sheer competence on the road show that in 2018 a bargain drive-away price no longer means you need to settle for a second-rate small car.
KIA CERATO SPORT
PRICE $23,690 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICING 7 years; $1668 for 4 years/60,000km
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 112kW/192Nm
SAFETY Not yet rated, 6 airbags, AEB, lane keeping, parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring