KIA has undertaken extensive Australian tuning with its third generation Cerato small sedan.

Officially launched this week in the Hunter Valley, the new Kia Cerato sedan is longer, lower and wider than the current car and has an extended wheelbase.

Basement price has risen by $350 to $19,990, while topping the range is the SLi with sat nav for $30,990.

Kia can expect the mid-spec 2.0-litre derivative to attract the lion's share of sales given its value for money and solid equipment levels.

The entry level S model is Kia's play for a slice of the fleet market.

It is only available with the 1.8-litre petrol engine, but Kia is expecting five-star safety, and along with low emissions and solid credentials on the Green Vehicle Guide brings it into the realm of government buyers.

Comfort

Despite sitting in the compact segment, the Cerato and others like the Holden Cruze and Nissan Pulsar are really "super smalls".

The cabin is expansive, with accommodation suited to four adults. Even with tall front passengers there is reasonable head, leg, knee and elbow room in the rear. Those in the back also get air vents in the Si and SLi models.

Kia has maintained its black interior colour scheme, which has some inoffensive plastics along with plenty of soft touch materials - including some groovy ripples on the dash and doors.

The ambience doesn't have much wow factor, but it's all functional, with the range-topping SLi variant boasting the best touch-screen and graphics for the driver.

There's a busy steering wheel with controls for cruise, audio, steering wheel load settings and the trip computer. On first introductions it can take time to get your bearings.

All the main centre console operations are slighted skewed toward the driver.

The seats offer good support at the base and laterally, with the entry-level and mid-spec cloth trimmed pews spongey and pliable.

On the road

Tackle a bend at speed and the Cerato's ability immediately shines.

Extensive Australian ride and handling tuning was undertaken. While this car is also in North America and domestically in South Korea, there is up to a 40% deviation in amendments to meet our market conditions.

It has the standard suite of safety equipment, like six airbags, stability control, anti lock brakes and all the associated gizmos, but it's the handing which makes the Cerato an inherently better and safer car.

There are no flat spots or vagueness in the steering, it's smooth and responsive.

The suspension soaks up the bumps well, and when you push too

hard its scrubs wide on corners with typical understeer - but it does so predictably and maintains a confident feel for the driver.

You can alter the steering feel by a press of a button, varying from normal to sport or comfort. Sport makes it heavier and is best on the highway, while comfort is lighter and is most suited to use in car parks and around town.

The six-speed automatic transmission has timely shifts, and it's only when you want to get willing on hills or country roads that you need to make use of the manual-style shifts (there are steering wheel paddles on the SLi variants).

What do you get?

Standard gear includes six-way driver's seat adjustment, cruise control with steering wheel mounted controls, MP3 compatible CD player with six speakers, Bluetooth for your phone and audio streaming and air-conditioning.

With the Si you also gain alloys, rear-view camera and screen display, auto lights, fake leather-wrapped instrument cluster, better interior finishes like carbon-fibre look facia and chrome-look door handles, along with a colour 11cm touch-screen.

In the SLi there's also bigger alloys, LED daytime running lamps, leather trim, eight way electric power seat control, sunroof, paddle shifters, alloy sports pedals, dual-zone air con as well as heated front seats (driver also has a ventilation function).

For an extra $1000 you can get a bigger 18cm sat nav LCD screen with sat nav and DVD player (only to be used while stationary). Those models won't be available for another month.

Other options

There's the two newcomers, the Nissan Pulsar (from $19,990) and Holden Cruze (from $19,490), Toyota Corolla (from $19,990), Mazda3 (from $20,330), Hyundai Elantra (from $20,590), Ford Focus (from $20,290) and Holden Cruze (from $19,490).

Practicality

While the rear seats have a 60-40 fold (not quite flat), the wheel arches impede on the load space which would make carrying things like bikes and furniture difficult.

Child seat anchorage points are easily accessed on the rear parcel shelf.

There are four bottle/cup holders, along with two good centre consoles (one in front of the shifter the other between the two front seats) for storage and equipment like phones and MP3 players.

Kia earns a big tick for its full-size spare, something of a rarity nowadays.

Funky factor

Designer Peter Schreyer has again delivered for Kia.

There's the "family" grille, and a beautifully shaped rear end along with a coupe-like line at the back. It doesn't shout boring sedan.

Many of the latest sedans look restrained, skinny and devoid of presence.

The Cerato is a styling stand-out among a busy crowd.

The lowdown

One size doesn't fit all. The previous Cerato model was testament to that fact.

Kia's Australian tuning program has worked wonders and buyers can be confident of a surefooted and balanced performer with this latest offering.

The Si presents as the best value for money, backed by an excellent warranty and capped price servicing, in what is an extremely capable sedan among hot competition.

What matters most

The good stuff: European exterior styling, cabin space, confident road holding feel.

What we'd like to see: Improved load space with seats folded, more exciting interior design.

Warranty and servicing: Five years unlimited kilometres warranty. Servicing is annually or every 15,000km (average $365 each year).

VITAL STATISTICS

Model: Kia Cerato.

Details: Four-door front-wheel drive small sedan.

Engines: 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 110kW @ 6500rpm and peak torque of 178Nm @ 4700rpm; 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol 129kW @ 6500rpm and 209Nm @ 4700rpm.

Transmissions: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

Consumption: 6.6 litres/100km (1.8 manual); 7.1 (1.8 auto); 7.4 (2.0 manual and auto).

CO2: 158g/km (1.8 manual); 169g/km (1.8 auto); 176 (2.0 manual); 177 (2.0 auto).

Performance: 0-100kmh in 8.5 seconds (2.0-litre manual), 9.0 (2.0 auto); 9.3 (1.8 manual), 10.2 (1.8 auto).

Bottom line: S $19,990, Si $23,990, SLi $27,990, SLi with nav $28,990. Plus on-roads. Automatic transmission costs $2000 extra. Premium paint an additional $520.


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