By Jonathan Crouch
In its original second generation form, Kia's cee'd no longer only looked to undercut Focus-class family hatchbacks: it wanted to tackle them on equal terms at equal prices. That meant it had to be very good indeed. Still, sharper looks, great quality and higher technology promised much. How does this model stack up as a used buy?
The rise and rise of the Korean motor industry has been one of the enduring industrial stories of the last decade, right up there with Google, Apple and Facebook and every bit as impressive. From an embarrassing budget brand base, marques like Kia have in recent years been embarrassing mainstream makers with style and high technology at sensible prices. It was an evolution that took less than ten years and one that all began with one car - the cee'd family hatchback, launched in 2007, but better established in the much smarter and more sophisticated second generation guise we're going to look at here.
Automotive historians will look back at the original cee'd as a landmark car, the first to take on the European and Japanese market leaders on their own terms, especially in the volume Focus and Golf-dominated Family Hatchback sector. Built in the heart of Europe, it was targeted at the heart of the European motor industry, hence the unusual 'cee'd' name, a combination of the French abbreviation for European Community (CE) and this car's project title (ED). It shamed the established players by matching their quality while massively undercutting their prices and offering an astonishingly long 7-year warranty. And the result was a sensation, with nearly half a million European sales.
Creating the second generation version though, was much harder. After all, converting customers into a new brand is always possible if the product is right and its prices low. But selling this cee'd for the same kind of money people would pay for a Focus or a Golf? At this MK2 model's original launch in 2012, we wondered if that might be a step too far, even for a brand as ambitious as this one. To pull it off, this second generation model needed to be nothing less than a showcase for everything the Korean company knew about design, quality, engineering and technology. Fortunately, it was. Kia offered buyers a choice of five-door hatch, SW estate and three-door 'pro_cee'd bodystyles. The original MK2 model we look at here sold until the Autumn of 2015, when it was replaced by a significantly revised facelifted version.
What You Get
You might have heard people complaining that almost all cars in this class look pretty much the same. That's because there's only so much you can do with a total length that tends to be just under four and a half metres, into which you've got to slot five people, their gear, an engine and transmission - and then ensure it doesn't look like an MPV. In nature, this is known as 'convergent evolution'; where species evolve separately but end up looking alike. That's not to say that Kia has produced a bland car. Quite the opposite. In second generation form, the cee'd has a more contemporary stance that's both longer and lower than its predecessor, with the rising beltline giving the five-door hatchback a more aggressive, dynamic wedge shape.
All very nice, but a more dynamic shape is usually a less practical one if, as in this case, it's based on essentially the same platform with the same wheelbase as the previous generation design. So how can Kia claim this car to be the most practical option from its era in the family hatchback segment? We always think the acid test here is found on the back seat. That lower roof height has been more than compensated for with a lower ride height, so even tall folk are better catered for, with 12mm more roof space than before. And the 50mm of extra body length that this car enjoys over its MK1 model predecessor has translated into 21mm of extra space for their legs too, so a six foot tall passenger can sit behind someone in front of them of a similar size. True, the narrower cabin puts paid to any idea of being able to comfortably transport three adults here for any distance but we're struggling to think of any car in this class that can do that anyway. Three kids will be quite comfortable.
The extra body length also provides for a boot that's 40-litres bigger than the MK1 cee'd, offering a 380-litre capacity that's 20% bigger than that of a comparable Ford Focus from this era. That advantage is maintained when you push forward the split-folding rear bench to free up a useful 1,318-litres of total fresh air.
And at the wheel? Well, the fascia layout is neat, though there are rather a lot of buttons. What's important though is that this is a classy place to be, with improvements in quality that are actual as well as perceived. Soft-touch surfaces, high-quality materials with chromed highlights, damped sun visors and lidded storage areas, subtle red ambient lighting, tactile door grab handles and precise panel gaps all combine to give the interior of this cee'd a solid, mature, almost premium feel. Walk around the car and you'll find tight shutlines wouldn't look out of place on a Lexus. This is clearly a design that's had a great deal of money spent on its execution.
What to Look For
The cee'd has proven an extremely reliable car, with both petrol engines and the diesel motor scoring well in reliability surveys. Customers have noted that some of the interior finishes can get scratched quite easily and the alloy wheels fitted to top models are quite easy to kerb. Other than that, it's a clean bill of health. Kia's brilliant seven-year warranty arrangement means that these vehicles very rarely fall into premature neglect.
(approx prices, based on a 2013 1.6 cee'd 2) Kia spares prices have gained an enviable reputation for good value, and replacement parts for the cee'd are no exception. A clutch assembly is around £150, whilst front brake pads weigh in at around £40. An alternator will cost around £130, and for a starter motor you'll be looking at £120.
On the Road
You can't fault the way that Kia has gone about this. Clearly, someone in Seoul has looked at just what makes the best family hatchbacks great and gone to much trouble to try and emulate them. In the original MK1 version of this car, that meant the same clever multi-link rear suspension system pioneered by Ford's Focus and copied by Volkswagen's Golf, something that's still not the norm in this segment. With this second generation model, Kia went further. Think our steering system lacks feel? No problem: here's a Flex Steer system so you can choose your level of feedback. Believe our petrol engines to be ordinary? Here's a state-of-the-art direct injection unit. Find our automatic gearbox antiquated? Check out this hi-tech double-clutch version.
But you don't achieve perfection merely by ticking boxes. The cee'd still won't be first choice if yours is habitually a dynamic driving style. And the main reason why is tinged with irony: a lack of feel through the steering. Isn't that dealt with by the Flex Steer system? Well it can't be on entry-level cee'd models because they don't get it. Those variants that do have this set-up offer their drivers a button on the wheel that enables selection between 'Comfort', 'Normal' and 'Sport' modes. Given that 'Comfort' is rather light and 'Sport' artificially heavy, you end up leaving it in 'Normal' all the time, which rather defeats the point. And is essentially as lifeless as the steering system in the previous version of this car. As we said when trying the same set-up in Hyundai's i30, we know electric steering is difficult to get right but it'd be better next time for the engineers to simply develop one set-up that's direct and incisive.
Does all this matter? Probably not. Forget what the motoring mags tell you, family hatchback buyers as a whole don't prioritise on-the-limit handling - and never will. What's important is that, Focus and Golf apart, this cee'd is an easy match for just about any other family hatchback rival in terms of body control, handling response and chassis balance, thanks to a structure that's 45% stiffer than the MK1 model could offer and a front end offering effective bite as you turn into sharp corners. Building in any more capability than this car now has is arguably pointless, given that the range doesn't offer any of the really pokey powerplants that would tempt in more spirited drivers. The mainstream line-up after all, is based around just two engine sizes - 1.4 and 1.6. The smaller unit comes in petrol form with 98bhp or as a CRDi diesel with 89bhp. More sophisticated though, are the 1.6s, fitted as they are with the ISG 'Intelligent Stop & Go' system that makes both the 133bhp petrol GDI and the 126bhp CRDi diesel impressively green and frugal.
These models are certainly as rapid as most owners will need them to be, the diesel 1.6 making sixty from rest in 11.5s on the way to 122mph, a second and a half and 16mph quicker than its 1.4-litre CRDi counterpart. There's a bigger difference between the two petrol variants though, the direct injection 133bhp GDI petrol unit in the cee'd 1.6 making sixty in 9.8s, over two and a half seconds quicker than the petrol 1.4, on the way to 118mph. The 1.6-litre GDI was the model Kia chose to use to launch the company's first dual-clutch automatic gearbox, this 6-speed DCT unit one of those clever transmissions able to seamlessly select the next gear before you've even left the last one. With its steering wheel gearshift paddles and silky-smooth change pattern, it was definitely a step forward but wasn't very efficient. Which for us makes the 6-speed manual 'box that's standard across the range the default choice.
Overall, a seat at the wheel of this car is a very pleasant place to spend your time. The driving position is excellent, the seats and the wheel feel good and all-round visibility is better than many rivals: in fact, thanks to those quarter windows in the front pillars, it's better than its cousin the Hyundai i30. Though there's perhaps a touch more road and wind noise than you'd get in, say, a Golf, the muted engine note ensures that refinement levels are quite good enough to encourage lengthy journeys, though on them, you might find the ride a touch firmer than many will expect.
There will still be some buyers of used family hatchback of course, who'll blindly buy a Focus, a Golf or some other contender in this class from a conventional mainstream brand without considering its Korean alternative. But these will largely be uninformed folk yet to fully cotton on to the way that products in this segment have changed. Thanks to the success of this cee'd, there are fewer and fewer customers of this kind around.
Of course, shortlist selection isn't the same as a sale. There are family hatch folk who'll want more powerful engines or more dynamic handling than this car can offer. But, we'd suggest, many more will enjoy this Kia's sharp looks, impressive quality, class-leading practicality and low running costs. True, the asking prices may be a little higher than you might expect from a South Korean brand, but don't judge them until you've tried the product, a confident design from a very confident brand. We think you might like it.