Tim O'Brien | Feb 20, 2010 | 12 Comments

AN UNLIMITED FIVE-YEAR warranty is, at the least, a sign of confidence. Kia's advertised faith in the robustness of its model line-up is either well-founded, or marketing bravado. If the latter, there may be some hefty warranty claims ahead for the ‘second Korean’.

Let's face it: Australian conditions can be tough on cars. And some Australian drivers were born without the mechanical sympathy gene. More than a few of those Kias will have to withstand five years of hard labour before the warranty expires.

So, faced with a 2010 Kia Cerato SLi manual long-term test car, we were interested in finding out how well it would cope with three months of solid graft – the kind of off-hand treatment a family might subject it to.

In all, we covered more than 10,000 kilometres in ‘our’ metallic grey Cerato; most of them running back and forth to the farm loaded up with dogs, ice-creams, power tools, paint tins, chainsaw, oil-drum, potting mix and assorted family ballast.

Add a daily section of road with teeth-rattling corrugations, plus a long gravel drive, and we've got a 'real world' long term test – one, you’d reckon, that would hunt out any weaknesses sitting just below the skin.

We also stretched its legs a few times over our preferred 'test track' (... er, responsibly bro...) to put the little Cerato's dynamic capabilities under the microscope.

So, how did it go? After three relatively unkind months you'd expect a few rough edges emerging in the inexpensive Korean wouldn't you – you know, squeaking plastics, some scratches, a few rattles, perhaps something breaking or a knock coming from below?

Well, no, nothing. Aside from a cracked windscreen and a few doggy nose-prints on the back windows, the robust little Cerato bore no battle scars.

Mechanically, and in the interior, it remained as tight as a drum. In fact, a quick wash and interior detail on the run back to Kia, and the Cerato looked no worse for its three months of wear.

Importantly, it was still an enjoyable drive.

Kia has something special with the Cerato. Dynamically, and for style, there is a chasm between this generation and the older model. This car, of any model in Kia's line-up, is the one that will break the ice for the brand in Australia.

If it is ever going to put any pressure on the established brands, Kia is going to have to grab increasing numbers of younger buyers and small families. And that's where the Cerato comes in.

Now, sure, the Cerato is far from perfect. There are some surprising things that Kia has got almost completely wrong (that could so easily have been engineered right).

But for inexpensive family transport in a quite stylish package, one that does most things pretty well - and is built like a vault - the Cerato takes some tossing.

So, in the more heavily-featured SLi model, what do you get for your $25,990 recommended drive-away price besides a well-built and family-friendly small four-door?

From any angle, you get a nicely-styled small car.

The Cerato attracts more than a fair share of positive comment for its balanced purposeful lines. Some think it is Honda-esque, with echoes of the Accord Euro,

Whatever… the Cerato's edgy frontal treatment, sculptured front guards and blistered wheel-arches all look pretty damn good.

To these eyes, for style, it's a cut above any other Korean car we've seen in this market. We had the range-topping SLi model with the five-speed manual box. (The auto is $2k pricier but otherwise identical.)

Like the Koup, the Cerato offers a lot for its relatively modest price. There are good drive-away deals for the manual SLi at the moment. We could find dealers prepared to shake at $24,190 drive-away.

The standard S version with the same willing 2.0 litre VVT engine offers even better value. You’ll find it as low as $18,990 drive-away for ’09-plated cars.

At those prices, each represents good buying and a good saving over the recommended RRP.

Most importantly for value-conscious buyers, the Cerato won't shake itself to bits over the first stretch of corrugations. It's a solid little unit; at the wheel it feels very robust – like it's built like a brick.

With this long-term review, we won't dwell on the styling, interior or mechanical package. Each has been well-covered in earlier TMR reviews (Kia Cerato SLi Road Test Review).

Suffice to say, for exterior and interior style, the Cerato is one of the sharper-looking cars in its segment.

In 'the round', there is a balance and assuredness to its lines that suggest it will not quickly date. To these eyes, it more than holds its own against competitors like the Corolla, Civic, Hyundai i30 and – some might disagree here – the Mazda3.

In fact, inside and out there is a lot to commend in the well thought-out Cerato. It's not at the head of the segment, but it's not bringing up the rear either.

The graphite metal highlights on the doors and dash are a nice touch, instruments are clear and legible, and, in the SLi, the multifunction leather-bound steering wheel with cruise and audio controls feels 'right'.

Family buyers will also be pleased to discover that the interior fabrics would appear quite hard-wearing. They are also, as we found, easily cleaned.

More to the same point, the interior plastics aren't bad either: there were no scratches from little paws after a number of trips with two terrier dogs in the back seat.

There is plenty on offer under the bonnet as well. The Cerato's 2.0 litre four-cylinder petrol engine develops a healthy 115kW and 194Nm, giving it, on paper at least, class-leading bragging rights.

On the road those figures don't work quite so well. The less-powerful Mazda3 (108kW and 182Nm) feels more eager and agile.

That said, the Cerato is no slouch. Provided you've tucked a few revs into its skirt, it can be hustled along pretty vigorously.

With a lazy fifth (for improved highway fuel consumption), you need to drop things back a cog or two if you need to overtake quickly, or if faced with a long incline.

But slot it back and it will pull strongly above 4000rpm.

It also makes the right noises, rising to an edgy rasp when stretching things out and only getting a little thrashy right at the top of the rev-band.

So, no complaints with the engine: good unit. There are also no complaints with the feel of the manual shift.

It's very good: the gate is precise, the shift ‘centres’ nicely between third and fourth, and the throw of the well-weighted lever is short and accurate. (Only the ham-fisted could miss a cog.)

But the ratios – my God they're awful. Worse than that, first and second gear ratios are simply completely wrong.

First is way too low to be of any use. Combined with a light clutch pedal with simply no feel (although a little improved after a mid-term update to the range), and it is almost impossible to get away from the line smoothly. And if you're in a rush, prepare for some awkward moments of lurching and over-revving.

The only way to get away cleanly and quickly is to load up the revs, slip the clutch like mad in first for a second or two, then grab second.

But that helps things only marginally. Second is also too low. And no matter how many revs you've got on board there is a moment of hesitation (like a momentary 'bogging down') before it gets back on the nail.

Into third - with a full 1600rpm gap between it and second - and it again bogs down momentarily.

Into fourth and fifth, blessed relief, things are fine. It remains absolutely mystifying though, that in building a car that has so many things right, Kia can have got the gear ratios so arse-about.

It's not a deal breaker but it can be pretty darn annoying. I will choose a manual over an auto every time, except perhaps in the Cerato.

On the road, when pushing things, there is a happier tale to tell. The Cerato is reasonably well-composed, even over rougher tarmac. The suspension leans to comfort: it’s set up for initial compliance, and is free from jarring over all but the very worst surfaces.

If really on the hammer through, mid-corner bumps can occasionally catch the back out – it can give a little unexpected skip sideways which, although easily managed, will quickly concentrate the mind.

NVH is surprisingly and commendably good. We expected something a little more ‘raw’ and certainly less-refined than the Cerato proved to be. There is little wind noise, and, even on coarser tarmac, the Cerato is pretty quiet.

Again, it’s not the best in the segment, but it is better than average and very easy to live with on a longer drive.

For inexpensive motoring, the Cerato feels far from cheap. It offers genuine value in a robust and well put-together package.

It’s not without a couple of important dynamic flaws, but three months of hard graft and we couldn’t belt a rattle out of it.

More to the point, it grew on us more as the weeks at the wheel wore on. If you’re in the market for a small car (that offers mid-size interior space), one that can handle the rigours of the family and feels at home on Aussie roads, the Cerato is worth a very close look.

If there was any doubt, like Hyundai with the i30, the Cerato is proof that Kia has arrived.

With the diesel engine from the Soul under its shapely bonnet, it would really shake up the segment. Perhaps you might ask Kia what their plans are for a diesel version.


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