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The well-loved Forte is the car the new Kia Cerato is here to replace. That little Naza-badged car really did demonstrate the strict rules by which C-segment sedan sales work. Sticking a realistic price tag on the windscreen and standing back to watch the queue form isn’t nearly enough. Just look at the Chevrolet Cruze‘s dismal sales record. Or even the Ford Focus to a certain extent.

Not here in exec land, and especially not in the class-conscious Malaysian market. To be noticed, the well-engineered and visually inoffensive Forte had to be priced down to the point where it rivalled cars a whole class lower, and it also had to be full of toys to boot. It was a successful formula, as of the non-Toyota or Honda brigade, it was the only model that managed to move anything approaching respectable numbers.

The Cerato builds on that same fill-er-up-full mantra, but lives without the key edge that its predecessor enjoyed: a significant price advantage over its class rivals. Now positioned much closer to similar-sized alternatives, the Kia Cerato will now have to bank on its good looks, long list of gadgets and, this is the hard sell, improved brand image to succeed.

Is the Kia badge now desirable enough to command little to no price leverage over the long-established brands? That’s totally up to you to decide. What we can definitively tell you, though, is whether or not the new model is worth your hard earned cash. Read on for our verdict on the Kia Cerato as evaluated on Malaysian roads.

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Every car has a strong point, and the new Kia Cerato is big on style. In profile, it looks like a longer, more cultured Honda Civic, fresh from a European reboot, and no longer thinking that a pie and a pint is the ultimate in fine dining.

Kia has styled a car to regain its presence in the mid-size sedan market. In the flesh, you get glimpses of that low, sleek roofline and it all makes the new sedan seem alive with dynamism. It has mostly the right angles, from the lowered stance and wider tracks, and even the extended overhangs look good.

The new design has plenty of moments, perhaps more so if you’re approaching from the side or rear. Kia has gone for a European look, and the Cerato could just about pass as a Teuton. The way the roof arches into the C-pillars and the rear lights cut into the flank is pure Ford Focus.

But the years when you can pin point a Korean car’s design influences from contemporary vehicles and laugh at the way clashing elements are forced to work together are long gone. As the Kia Cerato looks distinctive and original wherever you’re looking, and the impression stays together when you move in close.

The chroming is subtle, the panel gaps tight and consistent and the paint deep, crisp and even. It’s tasteful, restrained and completely unmindful of how other players decide to style their vehicles. Kia has now grown a look of its own; one that is to be seen with respect and even admiration.

But moving around the front, the criticism gets considerably hotter. The Cerato suffers from that bane of modern car design: the corporate front end. Presumably to make Kia Picanto and Rio owners feel better by association with something so sleek and prosperous.

As fresh as it is, though, the details don’t really matter. Passers-by during the pre-launch press drive to Kuantan loved it from every direction, regardless of the small fashion faux pas around the fussily styled headlights and grille. And in driving around you’ll spend far longer looking at the interior. This is recommended, because the Cerato’s cabin is a pretty impressive place.

Firstly, there’s a palpable air of quality – not something you’d associate with Kias of old, or indeed pretty recent. Apart from the slightly hollow top of the dashboard, the feel and fit of the plastics could pass for a semi-premium German (that’s Volkswagen, not Audi), lifting it beyond the Japanese bunch and the Hyundai Elantra, which is decidedly still very Korean.

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Okay, the carbonfibre-effect used on the centre console is rather outré but quite a few bystanders rather like the finish. Maybe it speaks to its target market well, so you, not us, will be the judge of that. Easily said, over a good 800 km of frequent rough roads, nothing creaked, squeaked or came asunder.

It’s the ergonomics that impress. Important switches are in rational, expected places. Indeed, many buttons on the steering wheel allow most everyday driving things to be done with hands on the wheel, and the touchscreen controls are all well labelled and parked in obvious places.

On our busy roads, that reduces the likelihood that you’ll still be fiddling with the radio controls or adjusting the ventilation switches when slow traffic pull across the road or a three-abreast overtaking battle approaches from around a corner.

Then there are two display screens (both coloured in the 2.0), offering a selection of warnings and chirpy advise, but more often than not one is telling you what the stereo is doing while the other keeps you informed of trip and efficiency details. Again the controls are logical rather than extravagantly complicated as others tend to be (Ford, we’re looking right at you).

If this is making the car sound a bit semi-detached, let us state that it isn’t. Despite its bulk, the electronics and sheer quantity of kit being lugged around, the Cerato does a good, if digitally synthesised, impression of enthusiasm.

The engine is responsible for most of it. The lesser version makes do with a lightly updated 1.6 litre engine (now with dual-CVVT for an improved 130 PS and 157 Nm of torque), but at the top of the range, a new Nu 2.0 provides motivation. It has already seen duty in the Optima K5 and facelifted Hyundai Sonata, and here it gets 161 PS and 194 Nm of twist.

On a light throttle and low revs, it’s all executive waft, most of the torque available from 2000 rpm onwards. But when called upon to extend itself, the 2.0 litre motor does so enthusiastically with a pleasantly hard-edged note filling the cabin. And importantly, it stays sweet to the red line.

Acceleration is certainly impressive, even in the test cars that were barely run in. For highway cruises the larger engine is definitely the one to go for, as it offers effortless acceleration and less engine drone (with longer gear ratios to assist). Ask more of it and it always delivers, be it uphill action or traffic-gap filling.

That’s not to say that the cheaper model is underpowered, because it isn’t. Less powerful would be the obvious and accurate descriptor, but there’s enough for everyone, really. The older engine does show its age next to the brand new mill, shouting louder over prolonged throttle-heavy instances, and with slower response too. But lose out to rival engines it does not, both in refinement and performance.

Either engine are good at the pumps; the lesser option averaging 6.8 litres per 100 km on a combined cycle, and the 2.0 needing just 0.2 litre more over the same range. Test results weren’t anywhere near those claimed figures of course, but taking into account the way the cars were driven (hard, most of the time), you’ll be looking at more than respectable mileage in the real world.

The suspension retains the Forte’s tried and tested MacPherson strut front and torsion-beam rear set-up, although the settings have been tweaked and polished. The car has wider tracks on both axles, and the wheelbase has been increased too. The set up heavily sides straight-line comfort over cornering ability, and the car is better off for it.

Let’s be honest here: you’re not going to buy a Kia Cerato for sports car handling. Or, if you were, don’t. This is still a comfort-biased front-driver with considerable weight in the bows. At low speeds, excessive cornering demands result in understeer, although the standard ESC stability control system will attempt to tame it by throttling back the engine and doing some autonomous wheel braking.

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At higher speeds it feels solid and certain (provided you’re not being silly), staying flat-ish and mostly neutral on the quick stuff. Just don’t expect sensory overload in terms of feedback, as the variable-load electric power steering is predictably over-assisted.

The Flex Steer system offers three modes: comfort that is finger steering good, normal and sport. The last two feel most natural, but as neither adds any real feel to the wheel, you’re more likely to stick to one mode and forget the rest just a few days into your ownership. A novel, but ultimately useless addition, really.

As you’d expect, comfort comes before sporting intent, with a well-smoothed ride largely unbumping any given section of road. At higher speeds the Cerato feels remarkably stable, with the mass taming of high-frequency undulations and the dampers stepping in to stop the harmonics. It’s far better tuned than the mechanically-related Hyundai Elantra, for instance.

The decision to go for touring (if not exactly grippy) tyres also pays off with the velveteen ride quality. Only at really high speeds does the impression of stability diminish, with an exploratory (downhill) run to 230 km/h discontinued with the onset of what felt like rear-end lift. As a 130-140 km/h cruiser, the tall gearing and impressive refinement make the Cerato exceptionally civilised.

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Right, we’ve been leaving the best until last: the toys. The Kia Cerato bulges with an incredible amount of equipment. The secret is multiplexing, as both the models are absolutely loaded. As in stuffed.

There’s the class-unusual standard kit: cruise control, dual zone climate control with cluster ioniser and auto defog systems, powered memory seats, projector headlamps with DRLs, LED rear combination lights, aero blade wipers, puddle lamps and pocket lights (both part of the smart welcome lighting system linked to the keyless entry/start feature).

Also included are aluminium foot pedals, leather wrapped multi-function steering wheel, chilled glovebox, Bluetooth connectivity, 800 MB on-board jukebox, folding rear seats with centre armrest (and cupholders), all-around three-point seat belts plus that all important rear air-con vents.

Next, the common-sense safety features: front airbags, sidebags, curtains (six in total), rear-view camera, ISOFIX anchor points, electronic stability control, traction control, steering-assist vehicle stability management, brake assist and hill-start assist.

The dearer 2.0 litre adds leather upholstery with ventilated (air-conditioned) driver’s seat, auto-levelling xenon headlamps, rear lip spoiler, colour 4.2-inch supervision cluster and sunroof, not to mention the 2.0 badging and extra performance that comes with it.

Kia well recognises that the Cerato is going to fight on value for money and goodies. And there’s a clear target in the Toyota Corolla Altis and Honda Civic, which the 2.0 model closely matches on price. Equipment levels beat the alternatives comprehensively.

On first acquaintance, it does feel like the new Kia Cerato has the measure of all its dated competitors too (yes, the Honda is still new, but it hardly feels it). Driving dynamics isn’t quite its forte (pardon the pun), but neither is it any of its rivals’ bar the keen handling Ford Focus. On the comfort front, the Cerato has them all licked.

Objectively then, it’s a winner, and now it all comes down to the price and brand acceptance. So over to you: do you see the Kia Cerato as a viable alternative to the usual suspects? You really should, but we’ll leave you to make the final decision.

For more on the Kia Cerato, read Jonathan’s test drive report from Dubai as well as our comprehensive launch report. Or if you prefer pictures to do the talking, check out the large gallery below or another set of images from the showroom here.

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