It’s my favourite holiday of the year again and time, once again, to play ‘hire car lottery’.
Our Easter break trip to the middle of France. Staying in the grounds of a charming chateau owned by a Danish couple who are living their dream. It’s always a peaceful and restful stay in a largely by-passed part of France where the pace of life is borderline somnambulant.
It’s also the time of anticipation and surprise of booking a hire car in advance and then waiting to find out what you are really going to get. This year, I’d aimed to make small economy and gone for a small SUV (2008 was the guideline) over a medium-sized estate which we have had over recent years (308 SW, Astra estate, etc.). So I was a little nonplussed when I read, upside-down, as the agency lady got out the paperwork that our steed for the five days would be a Ceed.
A glance out of the window and over the road and there, indeed, was a Ceed; a new shape one, in that on-trend mid-flat-grey colour. My heart … registered nothing in terms of interest or excitement.
The first observation was an obvious one – a compact hatch is going to struggle with one large and two aircraft cabin-friendly suitcases. The Ceed’s boot seemed smaller than most and I only just managed to get the hatch to catch shut. As I got into the driver’s seat, I immediately got the sense that we were all a little crammed in to the cabin. I don’t remember that with the 308 and Astra of previous years and our own Octavia back home feels expansive in comparison.
The dash added to the sense of claustrophobia. Everything seemed very close up, hemming me in. There’s a de-rigeur infotainment screen sticking up vertically and a little awkwardly from in between the central air-vents. One also felt quite close to the windscreen.
That said, it was a logically laid out dash, with decent HVAC controls (the temperature shown by large red LED numbers on the top of the knobs – a rather 90’s-naff take on an Audi-cool detail) and a number of other functions and features still operable via push-push buttons.
Nothing rattled and the build looked good, it was just a busy design, cluttered and a bit unsophisticated. And very dark grey. Put another way, it was almost the polar opposite of last year’s 308, the latter which offered a very clean look on the surface, but you pay for it in the way that the functions of all those buttons are buried in an array of screen-based menus. Something in between would be nice, which, I guess, is where the VW Group products come in, as well as the new Mazda 3.
The driver’s seat felt quite small and tight, but held my back quite comfortably. Space was a bit tight in the back and the overall impression was cramped surroundings in lots of dark shades of grey. Furthermore, the car produced a number of bings and bongs.
When you got in and shut the door, the KIA plays you a short, bland, theme tune. It then bonged warnings about selecting reverse gear and heaven help anyone who is slow to put their seat-belt on. Steering over white lines resulted in a bong AND something ghostly grabbing control of the wheel from me (like last year’s 308 – but at least there was a dash-based button hidden behind the wheel that turned it off). Not at all restful.
So far, so unexceptional. Speaking of which, a few words on the exterior styling. Overall, I thought that this is a car which the manufacturer wants you to take seriously. Extravagantly swept into the front wings front lamp assemblies apart, there’s not much ‘show’. The ‘tiger-nose’ grille and similar shape to the top of the windscreen, both KIA hallmarks, are present and correct, but are attached to a pretty homogenous everything else.
In profile, it could be the current A-Class, or i-30, or Focus (at a pinch), but it has lost much of the sense of movement which was there in the previous generation car. It’s neat and tidy and unlikely to offend, but there’s little to excite. A bit more Stinger would be nice. That HMS Belfast paint job just about saved it from anonymity to my eyes, but my family lost it in every car park in which we left the car.
On a related matter, whilst examining the exterior, I noted that the front door seals lacked the extra piece of rubber which fills the gap between the trailing edge of the front doors and the centre pillar, which probably explained why I thought that the wind and road noise was less well isolated than on our Octavia.
It wasn’t all so so-so, though.
Let’s start with the engine. It was a three cylinder turbo job, the 1.0 T-GDi as I believe KIA calls it. It’s the first of its type that I have really liked. It was super-smooth and revvy, with decent torque, a hint of turbo-whistle, and it made a fun noise on the couple of occasions when I extended it.
If you weren’t that minded, you might not have guessed it was such a small, three cylinder engine. It was quite economical too for a petrol – to be honest I drove quite gently and to or below speed limits everywhere, but calculated we had done around 45 MPG over the 6 days and 800 Km that we had the car.
It is attached to a slick 6-speed manual gearbox, which is a little wide of gate and was, in this instance at least, possessed of a rather artificial ‘clack-clack’ action as it slotted between the gears. Not close to Mazda or Honda in quality, nor quite that of the VW ‘box, but, miles better than a PSA or Renault.
Steering was neat and precise and well weighted, via a nice, circular wheel of a relatively thin and non-squidgy rim dressed in nice-feeling leather. The handling was neutral and the car rolled little. Ride was on the firm side and hence pattered over less well cared for surfaces (of which we encountered only one in our time in France). Hopping back into our Octavia on returning home made me appreciate that the Ceed has a marginally better controlled ride than the Skoda.
Noise levels were OK, with road noise being the dominant element, the engine signing a pleasant tune (I have got used to diesels), and wind noise only noticeable around the doors at auto-route speeds.
Overall, the way the car drove was very competent – not sparkling in any way (even if I did like the engine), but very competitive without doing anything outstanding. And I think that sums up the new Ceed quite well. To me it seemed almost clinically (cynically?) aimed to be about 4/5ths as good as every benchmark car on every measure – i.e. to be a benchmark all-rounder. As such, I think KIA’s aim is awry on interior space and ambiance, but pretty much spot-on in terms of driving dynamics, all wrapped in an efficiently executed, styling-by-numbers body shell.
On one hand, I’d say that it’s a very professional product, effectively executed, albeit to a relatively unambitious brief. Maybe that makes it the ideal car for a Hire Car firm to purchase and rent? Maybe, next time around, KIA will feel more self-confident in its own abilities and aim higher in the first place.