But Kia's latest car shows evidence that the fast-growing company is beginning to take the volume sectors very seriously.
Launched a few months after the highly competent Picanto city car, the quality of the Cerato when it first arrived in the country prompted Kia to double its original sales estimate for the UK in a full year to 12,000.
The Cerato will also present Kia with a new opportunity as it has a diesel engine in a mainstream car – not an SUV or and MPV – for the first time. Paul Williams, UK managing director at Kia, is confident the company will attract more than a few company car drivers.
He said: 'Since the motor show in Birmingham we have re-evaluated our figures and we are now expecting sales of 12,000, 20% of which should go to fleets.
'Between 1991 and March 2004, Kia had sold 100,000 units in total in the UK but we are planning to sell the next 100,000 in the next two-and-a-half years.'
Kia plans to offer diesel variants on all its models by 2005 as part of its expansion. The company has recently announced 49% year-on-year growth to the end of May, with sales of 11,600 units compared to 7,838 last year.
The Cerato, based on a platform related to the Hyundai Elantra, has been designed to increase Kia's popularity even further in Europe. Fleets will be able to choose from a four-door saloon or five-door hatch. The Cerato hatch takes the place of Kia's Shuma II and the saloon replaces its Mentor.
The Cerato is the result of 40 months' intensive work and an investment of £146 million, according to Kia, primarily developed by a team in Frankfurt.
Kia is hoping to take sales from lower-medium contenders including the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and the Mazda3.
'In terms of competition, we will identify soft targets,' said Williams. 'There is no point going against models such as the Ford Focus or the Vauxhall Astra.'
A generous specification list and competitive price list are expected to be Kia's trump card on the Cerato.
An aggressive pricing strategy is expected when figures are announced in August and Williams told Fleet News that prices for the entry-level 1.6 should be under the £11,000 mark, with the fully loaded 2.0-litre nudging £14,000.
Two equipment levels – LX and EX – are being offered alongside two petrol engines – 1.6-litre and a 2.0-litre with manual or automatic – and a 1.5-litre manual diesel. Kia has also produced a 2.0-litre diesel but the UK will not see this until next year at the earliest.
All models will have twin front, side and curtain airbags, air conditioning, remote central locking, ABS with EBD and brake assist, radio with CD/MP3 player and split folding rear seats.
The LX has electric front windows while the EX adds twin front foglamps, heated door mirrors, remote central locking and alarm.
Additional options will include traction control, a trip computer, cruise control, automatic air conditioning, sunroof, leather upholstery and 15-inch or 16-inch alloy wheels.
From the three-version engine line-up, the 1.5-litre diesel is most likely to appeal to fleets. Tuned for economy, the 16-valve engine produces 100bhp at 4,000 rpm with torque reaching a respectable 174lb-ft at 2,000 rpm.
Provisional figures indicate 57.6mpg on the combined cycle, with CO2 emissions at a fleet-friendly 128g/km.
Williams said: 'We do see business opportunities with the Cerato, especially with the diesel producing CO2 emissions of just 128g/km. The diesel will target fleets because of its low retail price and high fuel economy, which makes it a fantastic case for the corporate market.'
Kia believes the hatch will be the more prominent choice in the UK and will roll out the different models at various stages throughout the year. The four-door saloon will arrive first, going on sale in August. The five-door hatch will follow in September and the 1.5 diesel should arrive in October.
Behind the wheel
ALTHOUGH it is likely to be Kia's fleet favourite, the 1.5-litre diesel is not available for testing until September this year after production starts in August.
However, both petrol variants were available, both fitted with six-speed manual transmissions.
The five-door Cerato has a mainstream Euro-hatch appearance and is likely to appeal to fleets wanting an economical run-around rather than a 'stand out from the crowd' eye-catcher.
It never feels short of power and performs the transition from sharp country bends requiring plenty of low-speed gear changes to long motorway stretches with ease. Its firm suspension set-up helps give the Cerato quite a sporty feel, but its steering seems to follow the Korean tradition of emulating Japanese cars, which means it's a bit too light at high speeds and is vague and unresponsive.
The four-door does have a smarter look about it and, with Kia aiming at a price tag of below the £14,000 mark, it could be a cheaper alternative for fleets wanting to remain in budget but still have a sharp-looking saloon. The 2.0-litre engine gives the car performance to match.
The saloon is surprisingly spacious with heaps of legroom in the rear and an ample boot.
Both models are well put together inside, with decent quality materials that make the car look a lot more expensive than it is likely to be.
After spending time inside the cabin, there is one principal complaint, regarding the driver's seat. Despite moving it forward and backward several times, I could not get it into the perfect driving position, something that is taken for granted in most models in this sector, although many drivers should be able to find a suitable set-up.
Driving position aside, Kia has produced an economical, well specced contender for the lower-medium sector which should appeal to fleets, especially when the 1.5-diesel is launched later this year.
Kia Cerato fact file
Model: Cerato 5-door (4-door)
|Engine (cc):||1.6||2.0||1.5 CRDi|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||103.5/5,800||141/6,000||101/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||106/4,500||137/4,500||174/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||116||129||107.5|
|Fuel consumption:||40.3 (41.5)||37.7 (37.7)||57.6|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||167 (165)||180 (180)||128 (129)|
|Transmission:||5-sp man,||4-sp auto||1.6+2.0 only)|
|Fuel tank capacity (l):||55||55||55|
|On sale:||4-door August||5-door September,||diesel October|