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Upstart Kia Cee'd looks to go upmarket

Kia?s made the Cee?d?s body stiffer, added sound insulation, and thickened its window glass. The reward is a solid and quiet driving experience.

Compact cars are one the largest new vehicle segments in Canada. But if you think small cars are ?big? back home, come over here to Europe.

With seating for five-in-a-pinch, easy-to-park dimensions, and low operating costs, compact cars lead the best-seller lists overseas ? trucks and cars included. On the continent, compacts like the Ford Focus, Opel Astra, and Volkswagen Golf perennially top the sales charts. And in this competitive market, Korea?s Kia is chasing these established players with its second-generation Cee?d.

Launched in 2007, the original Cee?d (which awkwardly stands for Community Europe European Design) quickly established upstart Kia as a serious contender. Penned in Kia?s Frankfurt, Germany design centre, and built at the Korean automaker?s European plant in Slovakia, the Cee?d quickly became the brand?s best-selling European car.

Redesigned versions of the Cee?d four-door hatchback and wagon debuted at this spring?s Geneva Auto Show and are going on sale in Europe this year. A replacement for the two-door Pro Cee?d hatchback is in the works.

Kia?s Canadian compact offering is the Korean-built Forte compact family of coupes, hatchbacks, and sedans. Up against mainstream Japanese rivals, the Forte scores well. But sales of premium small cars are expected to climb. So would Canadians buy a luxurious compact Kia like the Cee?d?

To find out if it can compete with its highly-regarded euro rivals, I got a chance to sample gas and diesel versions of the new Cee?d four-door hatchback, a car that would directly compete with compact hatches found in Canadian showrooms such as the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra GT, Mazda3 Sport, and the one car every automaker in this segment is chasing ? Volkswagen?s Golf.

At first sight, compared to the Korean-built Fortes we get in Canada, the Cee?d looks more upscale, substantial, and premium.

Outside, the Cee?d gets Kia?s latest design theories. Its front stance looks like a BMW, with browed headlights and wheels pushed wide. There are subtle curves along its sides, a delicately chrome-wrapped greenhouse, and clean proportions from front to back.

Inside, the Cee?d continues Kia?s upmarket intentions. All of its instrumentation and controls are well-segregated in logical groupings like an Audi. The seating position is excellent, with supportive and comfortable thrones. The leather-wrapped steering wheel and stick shift feel refined to the touch. While the fit-and-finish and use of black gloss- or silver-painted highlights are as close as you?ll find to the class-leading VW Golf in this segment.

And then ? of course ? there are the Kia?s ?big? car features the brand is clobbering the competition with these days. A full-length glass roof, automatic parking assist, customisable steering, active headlamps (that follows turns), and Kia?s first dual-clutch automatic transmission can be found on the Cee?d?s options menu.

In Canada, the Forte is offered with a pair of less-sophisticated (i.e. no direct-injection nor turbocharging) gas engines. A 2.0-litre making 156 horsepower and 144 lb.-ft. of torque; and an optional 2.4 L, delivering 173 hp and 168 lb.-ft.

Like its euro competition, the Cee?d offers more variety underhood. A pair of four-cylinder, gasoline engines starts with a 1.4 L unit creating 99 hp and 101 lb-ft. A 1.6 L four ? essentially the same direct-injected mill in the Canadian Rio subcompact, where it makes 138 hp and 123 lb.-ft. ? is available. There is also a trio of four-cylinder diesels, starting with a 1.4 L version with 89 hp and 163 lb-ft, a 1.6 L version making 108 hp and 192, and a turbocharged and direct-injected version of that engine making the same torque but an additional 18 hp.

Compared to its predecessor, Kia?s made the Cee?d?s body stiffer, added sound insulation, and thickened its window glass. The reward is a solid and quiet driving experience, with a distinctively firm, European suspension specification.

The well-equipped examples I drove came with the optional adjustable steering. Activated by a steering wheel button, three settings are available. ?Comfort? is for one-finger parking lot manoeuvres. ?Normal? offers more feedback and weight. While ?Sport? replies with even more information from the road and added firmness.

I didn?t get to try the Cee?d?s new dual-clutch automatic. But the six speed manual is precise and easy to use.

Compared to what you can buy in Canada, the Cee?d?s handling/ride balance falls somewhere between the luxury-car feel of the Golf and the livelier characteristics of the Mazda3. It won?t get you playing boy racer, but its refinement will be appreciated on the daily commute.

Neither the topline 1.6 GDI (gas direct injection) gas engine, nor 1.6 CRDi (common rail direct injection) diesel engine I drove felt overpowered. But they did deliver excellent fuel economy.

Over the course of two days, covering almost 500 kilometres from Vienna, Austria, to Kia?s plant in Zilina, Slovakia, to Krakow, Poland, I recorded on average 6.8 L/100 km with the gas model, and 5.7 L/100 km with the diesel.

Zero-to-100 km acceleration times are competitive: between just under 10 seconds for the gas and just under 11 seconds for the diesel Cee?d.

Needless-to-say, I was impressed with the new Cee?d. With each model launch, Kia confirms its progression up the automotive food chain. Compared to the existing Forte, the newer Cee?d is more refined, better built, arguably looks better, and offers more features. While the overall package puts it ahead of the Focus and right behind the Golf.

So should the Cee?d remain a euro-only proposition?

Canadian Kia officials are keeping mum on that question. But importing the Cee?d family as a premium compact (much as VW does with the Golf over the entry-level Jetta) would go along way in cementing Kia?s up market intentions.

Playing armchair auto exec, I?d keep the Rio?s 1.6 gas mill as a Cee?d base engine. But a ?premium? diesel engine needs to be closer to the Golf TDI?s 140 hp and 236 lb.-ft. numbers. Likewise, the Cee?d can?t be had as a sportier model, as per the Golf GTI. A 2.0 L turbocharged four with around 240 hp (as expected in the next-gen GTI arriving next year), powering a new Pro Cee?d would not only add to Kia?s brand image but also incremental sales to its bottom-line.

And finally, why not give the Golf wagon some deserved competition, and bring in the Cee?d wagon too?

2012 Kia Cee?d 1.6 GDI/1.6 CRDi

EST. BASE PRICES: $23,500/$25,500

ENGINES: 1.6 L I4 gas/turbocharged diesel

POWER: 138/108 hp

TORQUE: 123/192 lb-ft.

TRANSMISSIONS: Six-speed manual/automatic

EU COMBINED FUEL ECONOMY L/100km: 5.8/4.1

COMPETITION: Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra GT, Mazda3 Sport, Mitsubishi Lancer, Volkswagen Golf

WHAT?S BEST: Upmarket styling and interior accommodations; ?big car? features; nice balance between ride and handling.

WHAT?S WORST: Engines won?t overpower you; no sporty models.

WHAT?S INTERESTING: ?Cee?d? stands for ?Community Europe European Design?, a tag credited to Kia?s head designer, Peter Schreyer.

  • Upstart Kia Cee'd looks to go upmarket
  • Upstart Kia Cee'd looks to go upmarket

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