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Car factories are amazing places, with rolls of sheet steel going in at one end and transport units of stunning sophistication coming out the other.
Most factories which mass-produce popular cars tend to be similar to each other, but something is different at the Kia factory outside Zilina, in Slovakia.
Unusually spacious, the factory has a pervasive air of calm. This is the brave new world of car-making. That this Slovakian factory builds Korean-badged cars designed mainly in Germany shows us how the world has shrunk. And the latest Kia, the second-generation Cee'd whose predecessor was the factory's first product, makes the point the best of all.
The hatchback version arrived in Europe in April and the estate Sportswagon is on sale now. As for the South African market, the Cee’d is under consideration but our local contact can give us no definitive yes or no for now.
Kia's parent company, Hyundai, has also just launched a Tourer version of its i30, a car which is almost exactly the same as the Cee'd under the skin, has a similarly steeply rising waistline and seeks to snare similar past buyers of Volkswagen Golfs and Ford Focuses.
They can do this on equal terms with their old-world rivals, because today's Korean-instigated cars are every bit as sophisticated as rivals from Europe or Japan. It does pose a marketing problem, though, when the same corporation produces two similar cars of competing brand. How to choose between them?
Tricky. Kia is meant to be the “sportier” brand, although that applies more to the people it aims to attract than the cars themselves, but it's true that Kia's products have a more European look to them because that is where they are styled.
The new Cee'd is certainly a good-looking car by today's depressed standards. Though roomy, it comes across as a neater, more integrated design than the new Focus estate, and lither than the surprisingly vast Vauxhall Astra estate.
Engines are of 1.4 or 1.6 litres, diesel-only, reflecting the market reality for such cars, in the Sportswagon. Trim levels rise from base “1” to plush “4”, with a top 4 Tech version featuring extra electronic toys you don't need.
Either “4” version is best avoided because it forces an electric parking brake on you, which might make sense with the 1.6's optional six-speed automatic but is just a nuisance with a manual transmission.
Actually, there is little need to move beyond the base level: it shares the high-quality padding and trim materials of the dearer versions, and it has air-conditioning, electric front windows, a good stereo system, electric mirrors and plenty more.
The 1.4 model has steel wheels, a material which has proved excellent for wheel construction over the years, but the 1.6 does give you the aluminium-alloy ones that buyers now expect. Their bigger diameter might be expected to spoil the ride comfort, but they make little difference.
Nor does the steering-wheel button fitted to “2” and above, which alters the resistance of the (very good) electric power-steering according to taste. The middle “normal” setting is generally best, but the variation is subtle. All of these Cee'ds have a firmer ride than their equivalent Hyundais but remain comfortable enough.
As for the engines, the 66kW 1.4 is unusually smooth and quiet for a diesel, and makes up for its gentle performance with terrific fuel economy. The 94kW 1.6 is much punchier but sounds harsher. Either way you get a remarkable seven-year/100,000-mile warranty, but would I pay £7900 (R105 000) more for a 1.6 “4 Tech” than I would on a thoroughly equipped, very frugal 1.4 “1”? Absolutely not.
-The Independent on Sunday