(Pocket-lint) - In the car world 2013 was very much the year of the hot hatch, or GTi if you're of a particularly VW persuasion. Every manufacturer had a go at turning the regular family shopping car into a fire-breathing road eater last year, the latest example being Kia's punctuation-challenged Pro_Cee'd GT.
But before we go any further, it's time to throw away any of those Kia preconceptions. Because like an old Jasper Carrott joke about Skodas that's no longer relevant, we shouldn't really be surprised that Kia has stepped up to deliver a full-blooded hot hatch.
Talking about a revolution
It's nearly 10 years since the revolution started at Kia. Its entire range of cars is now so classy, so good looking and such good value that not only would (and in some cases should) you happily pick them over European mainstream brands, but Japanese brands too.
But now the transformation from the "they're not that bad you know" image has been completed, Kia wants to add some pizzazz and polish to its image. To start with, it's hoping to do this by bringing us cars like the Pro_Cee'd GT, to rival the Golf GTi. From this we should expect even more extremes to follow - as in a Kia to rival something such as the Mercedes AMG.
For all its changes though, one thing Kia's not forgotten is the value card. Which is why you can get into a Pro_Cee'd GT for a fiver under twenty grand. Whereas you'll struggle to get much change out of £27k when it comes to the new Golf GTi. Does the Kia really feel like seven grand less of car?
Graphics and details
Looking at the Pro_Cee'd head on, you won't feel short changed. Whereas many models play a so-subtle-you'll-miss-it differentiation game, you'll spot the GT version of the Pro_Cee'd straight away thanks to its distinctive, four-block "ice cube" LED running lights. A flash of red pin-striping is perfectly tasteful while still giving that sporty look, so that the neighbours know you've spent the extra money on the special version. There are nice alloy wheels too.
It's only when you zoom out, and ignore the fancy details and graphics that the Pro_Cee'd loses ground compared to leading models. Aesthetically its proportions are very hatchback, very cab-forward and front wheel drive, and the dipping window line and high hood make it look a bit try hard.
The new Golf, with its more cab-backwards design, lower roofline and level belt line feels like a much more premium car - like it's come from the class above. It's a small point, and many owners won't care, but if you're trying to work out why you'd spend the extra on a Golf, then these things matter.
Haul open the Kia's door - what is it about three door cars and their hugely heavy doors? - and you're greeted by an interior that picks up where the exterior left off. It's all pretty tasteful and sporting, but with a small s - plenty of piano black, leather and some nifty red stitching. The big news though is the Recaro front seats - the first time we've seen them in a Kia - which grip you tight and go a long way towards feeling special when you sit in them.
Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
So far, so normal. But from this point on, the Cee'd gets a bit complicated. Because, without wanting to risk you not reading down to the bottom of the page, whether you view this as a 4 star car or a 3 star one is going to depend entirely on where you approach it from.
Put simply, the Kia is very good value, loaded with kit and pretty zippy in the performance stakes. If that's all you're after, you're going to love the Pro_Cee'd GT. But if you're after a real performance hatch, something to rip up tarmac like a RenaultSport, Ford ST or the new Golf GTi will, you might be disappointed.
All the best hot hatches we drove last year had a certain intent about them that you could feel within 500 yards of setting off down the road. Whether it was the control weights, the engine noise, the sense of wanting to be let off the leash, or the firm but controlled ride - they all felt like they were cut from a different cloth to their donor cars.
Lacking a certain something
Whereas in the Kia, setting off itself is a bit of a challenge. We're a long way out of learning school and don't think we've suddenly lost the ability to modulate a clutch, but the Pro_Cee'd was a car we managed to stall more times in our week with it than every other car we've driven this year put together.
The explanation for this is to do with the weighting of the controls and delivery of the engine. The clutch is light but has a very sharp, springy biting point. And while the engine is turbo charged, it's a bit old school, so it doesn't produce a lot of low down torque in comparison to its rivals and therefore you quite often need more revs than you think to pull away.
Once you're on the move though, there's a firmness to the ride that's befitting of a hot hatch, and on North Yorkshire's craggy B-roads, it gets busy but without running out of ideas like many other cars' suspension setups can.
Yet the Kia never feels that fast, and the engine itself seems a bit breathless. That old school turbo nature shows itself in a lack of urgency low down. You need 3000-4000rpm on board for it to really move along, but there's no great reward for doing that either. There's no great noise, or real rush towards the red line.
"So what?" you might say, as it's still far quicker than the average family hatch. Entirely true, but given its 201bhp it lags behind the Focus ST's 247bhp - and that starts at £21,995. The Kia also lacks the sharpness of response and linearity of the only slightly more powerful Golf GTi, too. The handling is fine enough - as in it won't throw you off the road - yet doesn't grip better than others in the class, ride better or communicate what it's going to do better than the competition.
Ultimately, we think hot hatches should be fun, and engaging. Whereas the Pro_Cee'd GT is merely swift. It does its job of getting you from A to B, but don't expect any reward for getting up early on a Sunday morning simply to go for a drive.
A tech success?
Our view thus far may make us sound like we've come over a bit too Clarkson. So if you're not too fussed about having a car that's worth getting out of bed to drive, does the Pro_Cee'd GT measure up in the tech department? It's a yes and no answer.
In the spec of our car - £22,495 on the road - you get Xenon/LED lamps, the Recaro seats in leather/suede-like material, Bluetooth phone connection with voice recognition, the ability to stream music from your phone, a 7-inch touchscreen display with European satnav mapping and a reversing camera.
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All of which is pretty impressive, especially when you consider that nearly every rival has you paying extra for the Xenon lights and the nav - and that several go without Recaros as standard.
But if you're still looking for something a little more cutting edge you're going to be disappointed. Has the Pro_Cee'd GT got a DAB radio? Nope. Can you have a head-up display? Nowhere to be seen. A stop-start fuel saving system? You don't get one of those either. Want a flappy paddle gearbox? It's manual only. Which, when considered all together, makes us begin to question just how committed Kia is about the idea of really being a leader in the market.
The Kia Pro_Cee'd adds up to a car that's entirely likeable, perfectly competent and good value. But one which we can't think of a major reason for anyone to buy over the formidable opposition, beyond its value proposition and the seven year warranty.
Which probably sounds a little mean-spirited. And it's a shame given where we started this review, about how Kia's come a long way since the days when people bought on the seven year warranty alone.
But as it moves upmarket and meets stiffer competition, we don't think it's quite raised its game enough. For £21,995, a Focus ST is vastly more powerful and entertaining to drive. Notch up to £25,990 and a 265 RenaultSport Megane could be yours - and that's enough to eat up Porsches, let alone this Kia on a British B-road - while the £26,125 Golf GTi is a more entertaining and economical drive. For a certain group of people none of that will matter because in basic form, and at £19,995, the Pro_Cee'd GT represents a likeable, quick hatch that's terrific value and backed up by the best guarantee in the business.
But we look for products that have a certain spark, or which make you feel special or do something new, innovative or better. And having spoilt us over the last decade with huge improvements and vehicles like the impressive Sportage, we're left a little disappointed by this Kia.
It's by far from a bad car but in a market segment that last year gave us an embarrassment of riches it feels merely good. And right now that means its not good enough to challenge the class leaders.