Ever since Kia headhunted designer Peter Schreyer from Audi and installed him in a high-tech think tank in Germany, the company's products have taken on a somewhat angular, recognisably European look that's been well received in most markets.

But for the third-generation Cerato, launched in South Africa this week, it has transplanted Schreyer (temporarily one hopes, for his family's sake) to Kia's American Design Centre in Irvine, California.

The result is distinctly New World, with strong, smooth curves, especially in the horizontal plane, and softer edges. Schreyer's signature 'Tiger Nose' grille is still there, but with slightly rounded corners reminding one of the young lady from Niger*.

One can't help wondering whether the new Cerato is also aimed at the fast-growing Chinese market, whose domestic products are also characteristically more rounded than those preferred by the gwai loh.

LONGER, LOWER AND WIDER

Cab-forward styling sees the A pillar pushed forward and the C-pillar pushed back to allow the insertion of quarter windows, making the cabin feel more spacious and minimising blind spots

Compared with its predecessor, this Cerato is 30mm longer at 4560mm overall on a 2700mm wheelbase (50 mm longer) 15mm lower at 1445mm and 5mm wider at 1780mm. Front and rear overhangs have been reduced by 15mm and 5mm respectively, while the longer rear deck increases boot capacity 67 litres, from 415 to 482.

Schreyer has increased interior space by dropping the cabin floor and the hip point of the seats (by 26mm in front and 20mm at the rear) and curved side glass provides 9mm more front and 5mm more rear shoulder room.

The front seat squabs are wider (up to 322mm) and their cushiona angle has been increased from 15.2 to 16.2 degrees.

MOTORVATION

Cerato 3.0 comes with a choice of two petrol engines - Kia's proven 95kW 1.6-litre Gamma and a new 118kW two-litre four called Nu, each with either a six-speed manual or six-speed auto transmission.

With the Gamma engine, the new Cerato goes from 0-100 in 10.1 seconds (11.6 with auto transmission) and reaches 200km/h flat out.

Two-litre versions do the 100km/h sprint in 8.5 and 9.3 seconds respectively and top out at 210km/h. Perhaps wisely, given recent embarrassments at the US Environmental Protection Agency, Kia doesn't quote fuel-consumption figures.

Jesse Adams drove the top 2.0 SX model at launch this week.

“I can't speak for the smaller 1.6,” he writes, “but this new two-litre is a smooth runner and I'm impressed with the power it makes (at the coast anyway). It's a very relaxing car to drive, with easy inputs and long gear ratios that don't require much attention. “

The suspension is carried over from the previous model, but with new gas-charged dampers, while the front Macpherson struts are mounted on a new, stronger sub-frame with larger-diameter bushes.

The geometry has been revised for improved on-centre steering feel from the electric motor driven power steering system thant's now standard on all Kia models.

Adams, however, says Kia hasn't got it right yet.

“The new Cerato's ride quality is good but unfortunately the Koreans still haven't perfected their electric power steering systems.

“Even with Flex Steer (that allows the driver to choose between three sensitivity settings) the wheel's a bit numb at its dead ahead position, and it has a tendency to wander with the slant of the road.

“I wouldn't say it's in any way unacceptable, but it's a bugbear that Kia will have to shake if it really wants to challenge rivals like Jetta and Focus in quality perception.”

THREEDOM OF CHOICE

The new Cerato is available in three trim levels across two engines - the 1.6-litre EX, two-litre EX and two-litre SX - with three different types of instrument cluster designs.

The 1.6 EX has a segment-type LCD cluster, the two-litre EX a dot-matrix LCD cluster displaying a broader range of information, while the two-litre SX comes with a high-tech TFT colour LCD cluster on a 105mm screen and high-intensity white lighting.

Even the base 1.6 EX boasts air-con, automatic headlights, Bluetooth connectivity, steering wheel-mounted cruise control, electric windows all round, LED daytime running lights, and an MP3/iPod/USB compatible radio with CD front-loader, six speakers and steering wheel-mounted remote controls.

In addition to the more comprehensive dashboard display, the more powerful two-litre EX model adds leather seats as well as the option of a sunroof, and a three-way setting for the power steering - Normal, Sport and Comfort.

The top of the range 2.0 SX model also comes with high-intensity discharge xenon headlights, a smart welcome lighting system, front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera, a smart key with stop/start button and, of course, that upmarket colour cashboard display.

Adams was suitably impressed:

“The interior is very good and the colour TFT screen in the instrument cluster of the top 2.0 SX is a nice touch that aforementioned rivals are lacking. The new touchscreen infotainment system will also go down a treat with younger buyers, and as usual with Kia, standard items are plentiful.

“With the top SX cleverly priced only R30 000 away from the lower spec EX, I'd advise dishing out the extra cash if possible. The extra features, such as stability control, xenon lights, rear-view camera, and keyless entry/start are well worth the seemingly small price difference.

“The lowest spec 1.6 EX is priced well at R220 000, but it's quite stripped down in terms of spec, with no leather, trip computer or sunroof. In the industry, we call this 'rental spec'.”

All Ceratos have antilock braking, active head restraints and six airbags; the SX also comes electronic stability control, hill hold, and vehicle stability management that provides 'corrective' steering inputs to help the driver avoid loss of control, especially on asymmetric (wet and dry) road surfaces.

PRICES

1.6 EX - R219 995

1.6 EX a/t - R239 995

2.0 EX - R249 995

2.0 EX a/t R259 995

2.0 SX - R279 995

2.0 SX a/t R289 995

Prices include a five-year or 100 000km warrany, a five-year or 90 000km service plan and three years' roadside assistance.

*There was a young lady from Niger

Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.

They returned from the ride

With the lady inside

And the smile on the face of the tiger.

William Cosmo Monkhouse (1840-1901)