Kia Cerato

The city of Dubai is a melting pot (almost literally so in the middle of the year) of cultures. With an overwhelming four-fifths or so of its dwellers foreign and its popular role as a mid-way stopover point for travellers from the east as well as the west, few places on the globe can truly boast of such levels of diversity and colour.

This modern, global city recently played host to the international media test drive of a modern, global sedan – and we were there to experience it in the sun and sand, first-hand. So, if Dubai is where the world meets, how well does the new Kia Cerato meet the world’s needs?

Some old English poet and playwright once questioned the significance of names, but clearly those were pre-Kia days. The C-segment sedan has been known as the K3 in Korea, Cerato in Australia, South Africa and Brazil, Forte in the US and Cerato Forte in Singapore.

Closer to home, it’s been made official that we will call the new car Cerato, that pre-booking has begun and that its launch has been set for July 2, which is not at all far away. The name change seems a curious move considering the success of the Forte nameplate in Malaysia; we suppose this connotes an all-new model.

Kia Cerato

Now, the Kia Forte was pretty much a game-changer when it burst onto the international scene half a decade ago and into Malaysia in 2009. Successfully playing the value-for-money card with its abundance of standard equipment and class-beating price, more than 20,000 units have found Malaysian homes to date.

Big shoes to fill. But you only have to look at the Cerato to deduce its confidence in dealing with the task at hand. Kia’s American Design Centre in Irvine, California has defected dramatically from the previous car’s now-dated exterior to bring you something a lot more extrovert and contemporary, which will no doubt resonate with younger buyers.

Noteworthy styling elements include the prominent, honeycombed and chrome-surrounded ‘Tiger Nose‘ grille, swept-back HID projector headlamps with LED DRL eyebrows, the striking kick-up lower crease along the body and the warm red glow of the wrap-around LED rear lamps. It really is quite good-looking.

It’s also longer, lower and wider than the Forte, with the wheelbase extended by 50 mm to 2,700 mm and the boot volume increased by six litres to 421 litres. The drag coefficient is down to 0.27 from 0.29, while the bodyshell is 37% more torsionally rigid.

Kia Cerato

The interior is also a big departure from the Forte’s – there’s a new dashboard layout, complete with a neat driver-oriented centre stack and a new three-spoke steering wheel with buttons and toggle switches for audio, cruise control and hands-free operation.

There is an upscale aura (certainly more than a few rungs up from the Forte), helped along by the inclusion of more soft-touch materials on the dash, door cards and sliding armrest. Also contributing to this is the consistency of feel of the various buttons, switches and knobs – they sink in, flick and turn with equal tactility, which not only heightens the perception of quality, but is a boost to overall ergonomics as well.

The driver’s seat is 10-way electrically adjustable, with two memory settings. It’s air ventilated too (our market gets this in the 2.0 litre variant only), with three blower speeds. With 60:40 split folding back seats, an abundance of cubbyholes and a good deal of room, the practicality box gets a big tick.

Exactly how much occupant room is there? Headroom measures 992 and 948 mm front and back; legroom 1,073 and 913 mm. For the constantly thirsty, there are two cupholders in the centre console and another pair in the rear armrest, as well as a bottle holder within each door pocket.

Left: 1.6 litre Gamma II MPI. Right: 2.0 litre Nu MPI.

Kit, as we all know, is the Cerato’s forte – and disappoint it doesn’t. I’ll just reel some off here: dual-zone climate control with rear air vents and cluster ioniser, wing mirror-mounted welcome lights, auto demister, front and rear park assist, cruise control, sunroof, a 4.3-inch touch-screen with rear-view camera display on the centre stack, a 4.2-inch supervision cluster in the instrument panel – and I’m not even done yet!

On to the bits that make the car move. The two powerplants we sampled that day in Dubai (also the two choices we’ll get) were the 1.6 litre Gamma II MPI and the 2.0 litre Nu MPI. The smaller engine will be familiar to Forte owners, only here it has dual-CVVT, as opposed to single, so it develops 130 PS and 157 Nm of torque – a small jump. Fuel economy improves from 7.0 to 6.8 litres per 100 km on a combined cycle.

The bigger engine, however, is new to the Cerato, producing a healthy 161 PS and 194 Nm of twist. Fuel consumption is quoted at 7.0 litres per 100 km. Both mills are coupled to the six-speed auto ‘box that carries over from the later Forte 6-Speed model.

As you would imagine in the UAE’s most populous emirate, the roads were mostly wide, straight, seemingly endless and starved of inclines, providing little opportunity to evaluate the car’s handling characteristics or ability to take grades. We also had to drive in relatively close convoy, which meant that exploring the further end of the speedometer was out of the question.

Kia Cerato

Even so, more than a couple of things were evident – we’ll jog through each element of the driving and then sum up. The six-speeder’s gearchanges are not rapid, but the transitions are smooth in most conditions. A spot of do-it-yourself can be had through the steering wheel shift paddles (if you’re at the helm of the 2.0) or by pushing the gear lever into sequential mode.

The motor-driven power steering (MDPS, Hyundai-Kia’s name for EPS) is reasonably precise, with the newly-introduced FlexSteer offering Comfort, Normal and Sport settings. The system is light in Normal, and hilariously so in Comfort.

I settled in Sport for most of the time, which provided the right dose of surface feedback and weight for me, even though I was hardly driving in a manner befitting the name. Of course, Comfort would be good for manoeuvring through tight spaces and narrow city streets, or even parking – but really, steering feel can be subjective, and is certainly up to the individual.

Suspension is taken care of by MacPherson struts up front and a coupled torsion beam out back. The geometry has been revised, and the use of new insulating materials brings refinement up a notch or two – indeed, wind noise is pretty much undetectable up to 120 km/h or so.

Kia Cerato

While the 2.0 litre Nu undoubtedly packs more grunt, the 1.6 litre Gamma is eager and free-revving, while possessing a certain sweetness that’s difficult to describe. Although at a speed of 110 km/h, the Gamma spins at 2,500 rpm and the Nu at a lower 2,250 rpm, the latter’s operation is a little less refined.

Both powerplants offer more of a smooth and progressive power delivery than one of a sporting nature. I feel the Gamma is more suited to the Cerato’s docile road manners, but if you’re always in a hurry, the Nu’s the one for you.

Brake pedal action is very linear, making it easy to modulate the amount of braking to your liking. Drivers used to cars with a more sensitive pedal may apply less pressure than required at first, but the system is by no means inadequate – when push comes to shove, an enlarged master cylinder and the addition of a tie-rod to the booster collaborate to improve braking performance and feel.

It is for all these reasons and more that the Kia Cerato is on the whole an easy and relaxing car to drive. Add to this a pliant, relatively softly-sprung ride and the car’s focus becomes clear – you wouldn’t really place it in the dynamic, provocative or engaging camp where driving it is concerned (looks, definitely), but if a smooth, refined and comfortable experience is what you’re after, you’d do well to consider the Cerato.

Whilst the Forte was sold in 1.6 EX, 1.6 SX and 2.0 SX trims in Malaysia, we were told during the drive that the low EX trim would be dropped for the Cerato. The Forte 1.6 SX outsells the other two by quite a margin, which gives an indication of the Cerato variant more Malaysians are likely to plump for.

Globally, 10 body colours, four interior colours and four wheel designs (including the five-spoke 215/45 R17 alloys you see here) are available. Spyshots indicate that both our 1.6 and 2.0 litre-engined Ceratos will sit on these five-spoke 17s, with the latter slated to get a sunroof, air ventilated driver’s seat and HID xenon headlamps. A boot spoiler could possibly be a 2.0 litre-only feature, since none of the 1.6 litre-engined cars we drove in Dubai had this item.

Regardless of the variant, however, six airbags, VSM, ESC, fog lamps and welcome lights should be on the local menu, but all is set to be revealed at the beginning of next month. We’ve already had our nation swept by Girls’ Generation, Gangnam Style and Gwiyomi, but the Korean wave is clearly far from over.