REMEMBER the days when Kia was laughed at as being some cheap Korean attempt to take on the Japanese? It is amazing how far the company and its sister company Hyundai have come.
At the launch of the new Kia Cerato sedan in Dubai, communications guy Jungwook Wi showed a picture of the Kia range of 2002 and then one of 2013 and the change is amazing.
Today Kia is one of the foremost car makers in the world and is no longer in the shadow of Hyundai, with some of its models such as the Sportage being better than its Hyundai siblings.
With former Audi designer Peter Schreyer at the design helm it has morphed into a company that produces cars people are proud to own, rather than simply a mass manufacturer of cheap A to B vehicles.
Schreyer has taken over as the first non-Korean president of the company and it looks set to go from strength to strength.
"We have reached where we want to be in terms of design," said Wi. "Now we want to focus on changing perceptions of quality."
He pointed out that perception is still an issue for the brand, with many assuming that while the designs may be great, the quality is not up there with some of the European brands.
This year will be another busy year for Kia with the new Carens, Cerato hatch and Cerato Koup on the way. It will also unveil the new Pro_C’eed GT at the Geneva motorshow with a potent turbocharged engine to take on the Volkswagen Golf GTi as well as a new concept that could spawn a sporty crossover.
First up is the Cerato sedan which, according to product manager Ok-Hwan Park, is crucial for the brand as it accounts for 28% of Kia’s global passenger car sales.
There are no real surprises in terms of the design. At the front you have that trademark "tiger nose" flanked by large headlamps and the LED daytime running lights that no self-respecting car maker seems to be able to do without.
The side profile has nice sculpted lines and at the rear there are huge upmarket looking tail lights in a high rising boot which has just a slight look of Ford Focus about it.
Inside you don’t get any of these fake carbon fibre or aluminium inlays; it is all plastic, but it has been executed really well.
Soft touch plastics on the dash provide a slight air of premium quality and you get a long list of bells and whistles including a colour touch screen infotainment system.
It is angled a little too much towards the driver and is also susceptible to glare from the sun through the windscreen but it bolsters the value for money factor for which Kia is renowned.
With decent rear legroom and comfortable seats, the overall appeal of the interior is good. It aims to be more executive than funky and I may describe it as rather middle of the road, especially when compared to the external design.
When it arrives here in May, we will get both the 1.6 and 2.0l petrol versions featuring manual and automatic transmissions.
Neither is going to blow your hair back in terms of performance but then these are stylish urban vehicles where the power on tap will actually be perfect for most. The auto box is a bit of a screamer, but it came into its own in town where the revs were lower and it purred around relatively well.
Unfortunately the event management team at Kia either doesn’t trust journalists on windy roads or, worse still, they don’t trust their cars because they planned a 150km route on the highway where we turned left and drove a route of 150km back, again on the highway.
The only bends to be found were when entering or exiting a roundabout.
This means I cannot tell you anything about its handling. I am also a little unsure about its ride comfort. The highways in Dubai are so smooth it is tricky to tell whether the Cerato has great ride quality or whether it was simply the superb road surface.
That verdict will have to wait until it is launched in South Africa and faces up to our roads.
Like other Kia models, the steering is vague — perhaps they need to poach a steering engineer from Porsche, VW or BMW. Also, the paddle shifts on the auto are more of an attempt to follow a trend rather than being of any practical use.
It is a good overall package and as Kia continues its onslaught on the market I can see it increasing its market share to the detriment of rivals such as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
Given South Africa’s preference for hatchbacks I suspect many will wait to see what that looks like when unveiled later this year.