The pro_ceed GT is powered by a 201bhp 1.6-litre turbo engine

The pro_cee'd GT is powered by a 201bhp 1.6-litre turbo engine

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Can a Kia ever be considered against the Golf GTI, Glenn Brooks wonders, as he tries the strangely named pro_cee'd GT.

During the last couple of years, I've watched Kia Motors Europe (KME) steadily replace all of its formerly dull or dodgy models with cars that in every case, have become big improvements. Never class leaders for driving dynamics, but most buyers care more about good looks, reliability, faultless build quality, low CO2, and a cheap and hassle-free ownership experience. 

Anyone considering a Golf GTI or others in the C-sports hatchback segment might be surprised to find themselves directed towards a Kia configurator. That's because the latest pro_cee'd GT and its new-to-the-UK cee'd GT brother are now two of the smartest buys in that segment.

The car which came to me on test is priced at GBP 19,995 and for that you get a zero to sixty two mph time of 7.4 seconds, a top speed of 143mph and styling that's sharper than the cut of Don Draper's suits.

The GT is arguably the best of Peter Shreyer's design team's work for the brand, so it's no wonder the bloke found himself being called upon by Hyundai to work his magic on the parent company's cars too - anyone else seeing his touches in the new Genesis sedan and this week's teaser shots of the seventh generation Sonata?

The pro_cee'd is a three-door hatchback, while the cee'd is a five-door and the Sportswagon you can guess. If you don't know the story behind this odd choice of name, it's Kia's interpretation of the French for the European Economic Community. Still, I don't get the lower case c, nor have I ever quite worked out why the apostrophe, and then the underscore and....

The names stayed for the second generation cars, and these are built exclusively at KME's Žilina (j'LEAN-ah) plant. The Slovakian factory also sends SKD kits to Kazakhstan for assembly at the Ust-Kamenogorsk plant. While Europe and certain markets to its east are where most sales take place, a modest number of five-door cars are exported to South Korea. Ironically, having insisted that KME use the cee'd name, HQ calls its home market model the K3 Euro.

The first generation range was built for six years from 2006, so the latest model won't be due for a mid-life update until probably mid-late 2015. The cee'd and Sportswagon had their world premieres at the Geneva motor show in March 2012. The range also shares much with the second generation Hyundai i30, that car having been first seen at the Frankfurt motor show in September 2011.

The current shape pro_cee'd had its debut at the Paris show in September 2012, which was a month after build of the wagon got underway. The three-door car joined it on the line at Žilina in January 2013. The cee'd GT and pro_cee'd GT were announced by Kia in November 2012. They became available from the second half of 2013 in LHD markets; their global debuts having been at the Geneva motor show in March 2013. Kia UK launched the pro_cee'd GT first, and is only this month adding the five-door car.

As well as the pricier Golf GTI and Scirocco, rivals include the admittedly faster and 65hp more powerful Renaultsport Megane 265, plus Vauxhall/Opel Astra GTC. I would also add the sportier Toyota GT-86 and Subaru BRZ twins, plus maybe the Mazda MX-5. Kia will probably launch a more powerful variant in 2015 - around 250bhp should be enough to justify what will no doubt also mark a shift up towards the GBP 23,000+ mark. Next year's 280PS Honda Civic Type-R will if anything help KME by drawing more buyers into this class.

You don't have to have your pro_cee'd with the 200hp 1.6 turbo engine; there are other, smaller capacity choices. These start with a 98bhp 1.4 petrol. There's also a 133bhp 1.6 or a 126bhp 1.6 CRDi diesel. An 89bhp 1.4-litre diesel is also available, but only in the cee'd and Sportswagon. And there's more to come: as well as the faster, more powerful versions of the GTs, a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder petrol-engined cee'd is also said to be under development.

KME's R&D operation in Germany saw to it that the GT cars were given retuned suspension to go with the rise in power and torque over lesser pro_cee'ds. Chassis engineers increased damper rebound and compression rates, and specified stiffer springs and bushes and a larger rear anti-roll bar. There are also 18-inch alloy wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres.

The steering has also come in for attention. Kia says it has been tuned for a more direct and sporting feel. The Flex Steer function, which allows you to select from three levels of power assistance in other versions of the cee'd and pro_cee'd, has been removed for the GT. The brakes - 300mm ventilated discs at the front and 262mm at the rear - are the most powerful yet fitted to any variant in the range.

For keen drivers, this is easily the best Kia on the market and on bumpy British roads, the ride is surprisingly compliant. The performance of certain, pricier rivals isn't there but the handling is excellent and the GT could definitely cope with more kilowatts. Torque steer is admirably hard to induce too.

A neighbour of mine, who sometimes casts a critical eye over what's in my parking space, wandered over to have a look at the GT. And this is a man who drives a CLS 63 AMG. I had expected him to dismiss the Kia but he expressed admiration for the pro_cee'd. The seven-year warranty was also on his radar. Did he want to drive it? No, but he did ask me was it as good as he'd heard, and read. If Kias are being admired by guys like this, clearly, this is now a respected brand. The future can only be bright, and by the end of the decade, this company's cars might no longer need to be cheaper than Volkswagens.