Old-school Korean style is passé in Europe, so Kia is taking a leaf out of Volkswagen's book, writes David Wilkins

Kia doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to describing the significance of its new cee'd; the company simply states that it is the most important car it has ever launched. Even by the standards of car launch hyperbole, that's a bold claim - but it's one that's probably justified. Now you may be wondering what's so special about the cee'd. After all, Kia has renewed most of its range over the past few years and cars such as the Picanto and the Sorento have achieved a level of awareness with mainstream buyers that previous models did not.

The first reason the cee'd is so important is that it's Kia's first truly convincing effort in what motor industry executives call the C1 lower medium segment - that's Golf class cars to you and me. Just as bank robbers hold up banks because that's where the money is, so car manufacturers lavish attention on the C1 segment because that's where the sales are - in fact, the Golf, Astra, Focus and comparable models account for more than a fifth of all car sales in the UK. Kia aims to sell just 2 per cent of the cars in this category with the cee'd but that represents more than 10,000 units per year.

The second reason is that the cee'd is Kia's first truly European car. It's not just built in Europe - at a brand new plant at Zilina in Slovakia that is expected to boast some of the highest levels of efficiency once production is fully on stream - it was designed in Europe too. In fact Kia has opened a new European R&D centre in the German town of Rüsselsheim, home to General Motors' Opel operation. Talk about parking your tanks on the opposition's lawn.

This process of Europeanisation seems to reflect an acknowledgement by Kia of the limitations of its previous approach. Recent models launched prior to the cee'd have been vastly better than their predecessors but getting better hasn't been quite enough. Kias have been previously been designed for world markets, which has inevitably meant giving a lot of weight to Asian and American tastes. Now Kia has done a lot of deep research into European preferences and incorporated the results into the cee'd. For example, it found that Europeans adopt a more upright driving position than Asian customers who typically opt for automatic transmissions and spend a lot of time slouching in their cars in traffic jams. European customers tend to prefer a deeper exhaust note, and so on.

In terms of its styling and the design and quality of its interior, Kia has in my view almost entirely succeeded. The cee'd's exterior is attractive, if not as adventurous as the original concept car shown at last year's Geneva motor show. Inside, it's almost entirely good news as well. If I were being really picky, I might say that the plastics used for the instrument cowl and one or two other bits of interior trim were a little bit hard and shiny, but overall, the cabin sets a high standard. Panel gap fetishists and door thunk connoisseurs won't have any complaints either. It's iPod-compatible too.

On the road, the Kia pretty much matches the mainstream European opposition as well. I tried two examples; the 1.6 litre petrol-engined version and the more powerful of two 1.6 litre diesels. The diesel was the better of the pair, mainly because if its superior levels of torque; buyers can also opt for 1.4 litre petrol engines and a larger 2.0 litre diesel unit that will be introduced later.

Kia is providing four trim levels and claims that equipment levels will be better than most competitors. All cars, including the basic £11,000 version, will be fitted with air conditioning, for example.

But if the car itself is good enough to succeed, Kia still faces a few challenges. The mainstream European manufacturers may be struggling, but they still have powerful advantages such as extensive dealer networks and a certain amount of loyalty from buyers built up over decades of market presence. Kia, though, is combating these factors by offering what is probably the best guarantee provided with any car; a seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty that is transferable to later owners.

Personally I have a soft spot for some of the quirks of old-school Korean cars, so I scrutinised the cee'd very closely in order to see whether, despite Kia's enormous efforts, any had slipped through this time. My search was largely fruitless; even the old right-hand indicator stalk, still present on the new Carens, has finally been expunged. In fact, only the Kia tradition of giving cars slightly daft names seems to have been upheld with the cee'd - I just hope the DVLA computer is able to handle that apostrophe.

Incidentally, on the subject of odd Kia model names, years ago, long before the company could afford impressive development programmes like that which produced the cee'd, it used to sell an old Japanese cast-off as its smallest model. Mazda named it the 121; Kia called it the Pride. That was a silly name for a car, but it's an emotion Kia's people are probably entitled to feel as they launch their new Golf-class competitor.

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