WE'RE NOW into week five of our long-term test of the Kia Cerato SLi manual, and while the car has mostly endeared itself to the TMR team, it seems there’s one major shortfall in the Cerato experience.
And that’s the manual transmission.
With an incredibly short first gear and a vague clutch pedal, it clouds the enjoyment of what otherwise appears to be one of the better small cars on the market, and one that is certainly good value.
The question is: does the addition of an automatic gearbox bring the Cerato that one step closer to being the perfect small car?
So, when Kia sent an auto-equipped Cerato SLi our way, we were more than happy to put it to the test.
Being the top-spec model, the automatic transmission is more likely to be the gearbox of choice for most Cerato SLi buyers (adding $2000 to the price of the Cerato whether in base S or premium SLi spec).
Certainly, at $24,990 plus on-roads, you can hardly accuse the self-shifting Cerato SLi of being pricey.
When it landed on the market here earlier this year, the Cerato surprised more than a few with its fresh lines and balanced design. It was one of the better lookers in the segment then, and still is.
Kia’s ‘dogbone’ grille is a neat new corporate look for the brand, and the wraparound headlamps are undeniably handsome – even if they do seem to be inspired by Honda’s Accord Euro.
The tail-lights even have a hint of Audi to them, while the rest of the Cerato’s lines are well-defined and subtly stylish. The faux-diffuser panel under the rear bumper also lends an added air of sportiness.
Overall, the Cerato is very well proportioned for a small, three-box sedan; holding a distinct style advantage over the more dynamic Honda City, one of its key competitors.
Overhangs aren’t too short, the scalloped-out lower door panels work well and the stumpy bootlid and thick C-pillar add visual weight to the rear of the car – important for the image of this otherwise un-athletic front-driver.
Foglights, 17-inch wheels, a chrome grille and chrome door-handles come as standard kit on the SLi, and do much to inject some extra zing into the Cerato’s form.
Despite its humble position in the automotive food chain, the Cerato really is an attractive machine. It is, without doubt, one of the best-looking Korean cars ever sold in this country.
Moving inside, the Cerato’s cabin continues the exterior’s understated style theme.
Some of the silver dash plastics may feel a touch cheap, but the overall feel is one of honest quality and utility. The interior is spacious, the seats are comfortable and supportive and the steering wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake, making it easy to get settled in.
The instruments are large and easy to read too, with a centrally-mounted speedometer flanked by the tachometer and fuel gauge, while a central LCD panel houses the trip computer display.
The centre stack holds the SLi’s climate control and MP3-compatible CD tuner, with red backlighting illuminating both the LCD panels and the buttons.
All of the controls are easy to operate and identify during both daytime and night driving, and the steering wheel-mounted audio controls help keep the driver’s attention on the road.
Cruise control is standard on the SLi, as are leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector, alloy pedals, silver dash trim and the aforementioned trip computer. iPod integration is also included.
The boot, while not exactly ‘cavernous’, will swallow a decent 415 litres of cargo. A handy feature is the inclusion of boot-mounted releases for the 60/40 split-fold rear seatbacks, which compensate somewhat for the rear seat’s inability to fold flat.
Kia has chosen to equip the Cerato SLi with a good amount of safety gear. Dual front airbags, front side airbags and curtain airbags are standard, as is ABS, EBD, brake assist, traction control and stability control. Though take note prospective Cerato buyers: traction and stability control are not standard on the base Cerato S, and are a cost option.
Each seat is equipped with three-point seatbelts, while pretensioners are fitted to the front row belts.
When tested by ANCAP, the base Cerato S scored a four-star crash rating and a two-star (out of four) pedestrian impact rating.
The entire Cerato range is powered by the same 115kW/194Nm 2.0 litre petrol inline four, currently the most powerful engine at the value end of the small car segment.
While it’s a smooth-enough unit, the engine nevertheless lacks punch for more urgent overtaking manoeuvres. However, it’s otherwise perfectly adequate for everyday motoring and highway cruising.
In our tester, we had the optional four-speed automatic. While a conventional auto gearbox, the SLi’s auto does come with one party trick: a plus-minus plane for tiptronic shifting.
Brakes are discs all around, with 15-inch ventilated front discs and 14-inch solid items on the rear.
Suspension is handled by the ubiquitous MacPherson strut up front, while the rear is a simple torsion beam axle.
What difference does the automatic make to the Cerato? Loads.
Without the spongy clutch and short-ratios of the manual transmission, the Cerato is a much more relaxed, comfortable vehicle. Performance is blunted somewhat by the extra weight and mechanical drag of the auto, but the smooth shifts are more befitting of the SLi’s more upmarket posture.
It’s also much quieter. With the manual, the short first gear gets the engine buzzing up the tachometer too quickly, with a lot of engine noise intruding into the cabin as a result.
No such problem with the auto. It’s a more refined vehicle and one that’s a pleasure to potter about town in.
The handling won’t do you any favours on a skidpan, but the soft springs and good dampers certainly do a great job of soaking up urban inconveniences like manhole covers, potholes and rippled tarmac.
Fuel economy suffers slightly thanks to the auto, and we didn’t manage to equal Kia’s claimed combined average of 7.9 litres per 100km.
Our average during the time we had the car was 8.8 l/100km, however that’s not too shabby for a relatively unsophisticated auto-equipped petrol sedan.
Spend the extra $2k on the auto, or save your pennies and put up with the manual?
With the difference in claimed fuel consumption between the auto and manual being just 0.1 l/100km, you won’t save much money by choosing the (slightly) more economical manual.
The auto, on the other hand, offers a more sedate drive and much less harshness. Is that worth two thousand dollars? It’s a tough question, and one that can only be answered by experiencing both gearboxes for yourself.
As for us? We’d probably pony up the extra cash and get the auto. It might be a different story if we were testing the base Cerato S, where the emphasis is on cheap, bare-bones motoring. But for the top of the range SLi we expect a little more refinement.
Automatic it is.
- Great styling
- Pleasant interior and comfortable seats
- Softer suspension produces a quite reasonable ride
- Still feels a little raw
- Engine performance blunted by auto
- Rear seats don’t fold flat