Kia cee'd 2 1.6 CRDi - First Drive

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Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual (optional six-speed automatic)
Power: 126 bhp at 4,000 rpm
Torque: 192 Nm at between 1,900 and 2,750 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 76.3 mpg
CO2 emissions: 97 g/km
Top speed: 122 mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 11.5 seconds

The first-generation Kia cee'd was a surprise. It was the first of the Korean company's models to make the big jump required to match some of the best products of mainstream European car makers and, more than any other single car, it cemented Kia's shift in status from also-ran to serious contender in Europe.

Now the second-generation cee'd is here and the only real surprise is that it has arrived so quickly, less than five years after the original model first burst onto the scene. That fact alone will worry Kia's competitors, who are typically locked in to far longer replacement cycles. Skoda's current Octavia, to take one extreme example, first appeared three years before the first cee'd, and still has no publicly announced successor. A shorter cycle is evidence of superior financial firepower and project management expertise, and a huge advantage at a time of rapid technical change since some innovations can only be fed in easily at the time of a model changeover. For the rest, though, the new cee'd is pretty much what you'd expect – and that's a good thing because these days, we have come to expect a lot of Kia. The reason? That original cee'd was followed by a whole range of half a dozen really good cars that all but obliterated any lingering memories of their dreary predecessors.

Anyway, the good news starts with the latest cee'd's appearance. The 2007 car was neat and attractive in an understated, anonymous sort of way but it pre-dated the arrival of Kia's highly talented design chief, Peter Schreyer, previously of Audi and Volkswagen, who has worked hard to give the company's cars a much more stylish and distinctive look. The latest cee'd not only cuts much more of a dash than the old – it's also far more readily recognisable as a Kia, mainly because it has the most extravagant, attention-seeking interpretation of the company's trademark pinched-in-at-the-centre radiator grille shape so far.

Inside, the new car shows a similar advance in terms of style, with a look and feel that immediately brings to mind the attractive interior of Kia's larger Optima saloon, which isn't a bad recommendation at all. It also feels quite a bit roomier than the old cee'd. There are four trim levels, which, in the now familiar Kia fashion, are simply designated 1,2,3 and so on, and all provide decent equipment levels. I drove a 2 and a 4 Tech, a new top version that provides such features as a big glass sunroof, electrically adjustable seats and Xenon headlamps. Thanks to its big sat nav screen and extra “piano black” trim pieces, the 4 Tech certainly felt a bit classier, but the 2 didn't feel particularly bare either - and both were a far cry from the slightly grotty old-school pre-cee'd Kia interiors of of five or ten years ago.

The new car's extra polish is apparent out on the road as well. The engine line-up – petrols and diesels, both available with capacities of 1.4 and 1.6 litres – has a familiar look to it. The Korean manufacturers don't have much of a tradition of making diesels, but the 1.6 fitted to the first cee'd was excellent, and it also benefited from some further improvements with that car's mid-life facelift. The 1.6 diesel in the new car also has Kia's version of stop-start technology, ISG (Intelligent Stop & Go), which helps it to achieve an excellent 76.3 mpg (combined cycle) and 97g/km of CO2 in official tests on the smallest 15-inch wheels. It has retained its characteristic smoothness and easy, free-revving character, although it perhaps has just a touch less mid-range shove than some rivals. The cee'd handles well, although the (electric) Motor Driven Power Steering to some extent uses weight as a substitute for feel. You can alter the level of assistance between three different settings – Comfort, Normal and Sport – depending on driving conditions but my experience of this sort of stuff is that it can be fun to experiment with at first but tends to be ignored once the novelty has worn off.

I also tried the 1.6-litre petrol but this was less appealing than the diesel. For the most part, it shares the diesel's refinement but it's noticeably down on torque and its performance is further blunted by long gearing - although that helps economy. Petrol engine development is the one remaining area in which Kia has, for the time being at least, been outflanked by some of the European manufacturers, who have been busy switching to livelier downsized turbocharged engines for cars in this bracket. Notable examples are the Volkswagen Group's 1.2 and 1.4-litre TSI power units, Renault's 1.2-litre TCe, and of course, Ford's impressive new 1.0-litre EcoBoost. On paper, the cee'd's 126 horsepower normally-aspirated 1.6 compares fairly well with the outputs of these smaller turbocharged engines, but in practice it has rather less character and subjective urge. The 1.6 petrol is also available in conjunction with a new self-shifting twin clutch transmission (TCT). This appeared to flatter the petrol engine's performance with smooth quick shifts but also seemed a bit reluctant to change down under acceleration or when climbing hills. The 1.6 diesel is available with a conventional automatic as an alternative to the manual, rather than the TCT.

Overall, the new cee'd maintains the high standard Kia has set since the original model first appeared. But there is one area in which, for all its polish and sophistication, it reflects its maker's roots as an emerging budget brand – value for money. With a starting price of just £14,395 it's a conspicuous bargain and will surely repeat the success of its predecessor.

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