Kia’s factory-owned UK importer is hoping a combination of European-influenced styling, localised suspension tuning (by its German R&D centre), quality materials, loads of equipment and attractive pricing and incentives will get its new Cerato range off to a strong start.

Unlike the US, where it is sold only as the two-litre petrol-powered Spectra sedan in two trim levels, Europe and the UK are seeing a much broader palette of models with a hatchback body alternative, three trim levels and three engines.

Just to confuse things, the Americans are still offered a previous-shape Spectra hatchback which was called the Shuma this side of the Atlantic and is now gone from the UK range. Australians get just a two-litre sedan, like the Americans.

Apart from pricing new Cerato models as much as £1,500 to £3,000 below their targeted Japanese and European rivals, Kia UK will also lure buyers with things like £1 deposit, special insurance offers and a three-year, unlimited distance warranty, though it’s worth noting the US market gets a five year/60,000 mile basic warranty and 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain. Even more strange: parent company Hyundai’s products, imported to the UK by a private rather than factory-owned distributor, get a five-year unlimited distance warranty. Kia UK has previously said it keeps an eye on the competition but has no plans to change.

Hatchbacks way outsell sedans in the UK and in many parts of northern Europe while the four-door style is more popular in southern Europe, the US and most of Asia, including rapidly developing China. Perhaps that’s why the new Cerato hatch looks a bit like a re-done Mazda 323 (before being taken over by Hyundai, its cars were based on Mazda technology) and the sedan looks like a stylish compact European sedan – US consumer website even saw shades of BMW’s 3-series during its recent evaluation.

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Whatever, it’s a very nice looking car, and Kia UK’s target market is both old Mentor sedan owners and conquest sales now that a two-litre petrol engine (twin cams with Kia’s first variable valve timing) and a bang up to date direct injection 1.5-litre diesel are available.

“We thought long and hard about the sedan but it ‘cliniced’ so well we decided to go with it,” said PR head Paul Carter.

The sedan will come in both twin cam 1.6LX and two-litre SE forms (a diesel 1.5LX arrives later) and the top one, at a tentative £11,995, is aimed at Nissan Almera, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus Ghia and even Volkswagen Bora competitors priced up to £15,850. It’s well equipped, with items such as leather upholstery, heated seats, curtain airbags, auto climate control and even an MP3-playing stereo thrown in to lure buyers from the more familiar brands.

The Cerato hatchback in its base GS and volume-selling LX forms with 1.5 diesel and 1.6 petrol engines – plus the range’s only automatic variant – will target former Shuma hatch owners as well as seeking out other brands’ diesel buyers. The base 1.6 GS will hunt 1.4-litre Daewoo Lacetti, Seat Leon and Ford Focus models, as well as Nissan’s 1.5-litre Almera. Kia’s prices are up to £1,900 cheaper and its standard equipment items such as air conditioning, antilock brakes and full airbag set are not on all rivals.

The LX targets more upmarket Nissan, Ford and Seat models, as well as Toyota’s Corolla 1.4, and is up to £1,600 cheaper, again with more equipment.

Kia’s recent results give it optimism. Year on year growth to the end of July was up 44% and it had sold 17,465 cars in the UK during 2004 by then, compared with 12,143 in 2003. That’s still only a 1.12% share of the UK’s roughly 2.5 million unit annual market but the company retorts that is roughly how Toyota and Nissan got started three decades ago.

This year’s target is 33,000 sales, compared to 21,000 last year, while the Cerato is expected to shift 2,000 units in ’04 and 12,000 in ’05. That’ll make it a range mainstay, alongside the very successful Sedona minivan. The big, relatively new Sorento SUV is also doing well and a fully redesigned Sportage small SUV, a Toyota RAV4 rival, is due at year’s end. Platforms and mechanicals are shared with Hyundai but the vehicles’ interior and exterior styling is unique enough that few potential buyers will be aware of the connection.

Indeed, as in the US, Kia is fighting hard with new models like these to shake off a reputation for reliability problems acquired some years ago and is now targeting the low-cost, high quality, first-new-vehicle niche now largely abandoned by the Japanese as they battle ever upwards into luxury car, SUV and pickup truck sectors.

Certainly, the cabin quality is now there. The Ceratos wheeled out for UK launch media events appeared very well put together and, while materials are still obviously chosen on price they fit well and look good. We were particularly impressed with upholstery fabric and leather appearance and feel, and at how well the plastics are now fitted and finished.

Equipment offers appear up to date but Kia still needs to learn to adapt its cars fully to market needs – we in the UK are now used to our indicator stalks on the left, even on right-hand drive cars. Fiddly aftermarket stereos also may bamboozle older drivers but Kia UK says the models offered as factory-fit aren’t good enough so they go the independent route instead.

Graeme Roberts

New Kia sedan with lofty ambitions

Cerato off to a good start at home