Are you ready to join the “wagon revolution”? Taking its lead from the lofty heights of the likes of Audi’s RS brand, the latest addition to the Kia range - an estate version of the company's Ford Focus-rivaling Cee’d – has been renamed the Sportswagon. It’s because Kia sees an opportunity to reposition the estate car, to reflect the type’s position, increasingly, as the most sporty variant in a typical three-car saloon, hatchback and estate range, like Audi does - the new RS4 is available only as a ’wagon. And given both the average family and the typical fleet buyer’s desire for ever-increasing levels of practicality, Kia believes that two-thirds of Cee’ds it sells might end up being this, the Sportswagon variant.
But as the brand’s stock has risen and become almost German-rivaling in its design qualities under the leadership of former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, so Kia has moved away from its value proposition. To the point where this car is – at best – on par, price-wise with equivalent vehicles from Ford, Vauxhall and Renault. So, should you choose a Cee’d over a Focus? We flew to Slovakia to find out.
If you’ve read our review of the regular hatchback car from earlier in the year, you probably won’t be too surprised at what you find here. A cab-forward shape – the A-pillars blend into the bonnet – which announces itself with a chrome ringed Kia "tiger’s-nose" grille. Unusually for an estate version of a hatch, Kia has designed bespoke rear doors for the Sportswagon, so the window line flows in a continuous upward sweep to the rear of the car. At the back, there are some Audi-like lights and an unusual curved shape to the lower edge of the rear window. There are definite shades of Astra to it (read - less busy than a Focus, not as classy as a Golf).
At just over 4.5m long, the Sportswagon’s shorter than an Astra or Focus estate, but there appears to be no less room inside. The boot’s huge and Kia’s thrown some money at nice lashing hooks, underfloor pockets and trays – and if you want to venture up to the dizzy heights of the 4 Tech model trim - although at £24,795 we’d suggest you don’t - you even get a fancy metal load divider, the sort you usually find only in premium German SUVs.
Inside there are decent seats - which on this model include a height adjuster for the passenger too - and a soft-touch upper dash section, which surrounds a gloss black panel that the main instruments are cowled into. All the control weights are light and consistent, but Kia’s not quite got the knack of beating the Germans at the cabin quality and design game. Our beige plastic test car interior was frankly yuk, while a black car we looked at was better, but showed up the slightly cheap, old-fashioned grain to the plastic much more.
The price might have gone up, but the company’s far from abandoned its value proposition wholesale because this Sportwagon comes with just about everything you’d want - which is a good job, because the only option is metallic paint.
On our upper-middle spec "3" test car - trim levels 3 and 4 get navigation as standard - you’ll get Bluetooth phone and music streaming, a USB port, two 12v ports upfront and one in the boot, steering wheel controls, cruise control, variable-ratio power steering assistance (which isn’t wonderful) but most importantly a graphically clear 7-inch touchscreen with integrated satnav that will accept seven-character UK post code entries, and which also displays images from the full-colour rear-view camera. Phew.
In the centre of the (exceptionally clear) gauges there’s a red digital screen, which manages to look a little cheap because of its colouration, but dishes out info on the trip, steering assistances, eco-driving and so on in a neat way that reminded us a little of the system in a Mercedes-Benz. Its best feature though is a stopwatch which lets you know for how long the stop-start’s been active at the lights: this allows you to feel the halo-effect of your green do-gooding or, alternately, become gently incensed at just how long you truly get held at traffic lights. The steering wheel’s a bit busy to look at, with controls for the trip, radio, phone and steering assistance all on their, but it’s all easy to understand on the move.
We’re going to insert a fairly large caveat here from the get-go, because the cars we were driving had come straight off the production line at Kia’s Slovakian factory and the engines were therefore very new. So the 1.6-litre diesel, with emissions of 116 g/km - which means from year two onwards it will cost only £30 a year to tax - felt a little flat to us. You don’t get the same slug of torque you do from bigger, punchier 2.0 diesels of yore and you need to rev it to get the best from it. But even then we reckon it’s on the margins of acceptability for what the typical business user will expects in terms of performance.
However, the caveat is that these diesel engines are known for loosening up a lot in the first couple of thousand miles, so this may improve. Regardless of that it’s pretty quiet and refined - especially impressive on start up - and it flows along the motorway happily enough, ticking over at 2500rpm at 80mph.
Where Kia’s really got this car spot-on however, is the suspension set-up. The Cee’d benefits from independent rear suspension, like the Golf and Focus, and the ride has been tuned for comfort rather than fake sportiness. The result is that on crumbly and craggy Slovakian roads that aren’t dissimilar to British ones, the ride was calm, composed and smooth rather than hard - which is a really enjoyable change. Just a shame that the adaptive power steering assistance system isn’t great - choose between three levels of (too light) comfort, (best of the bunch) normal, and (unnecessarily firm and gloopy) sport.
We also drove a basic spec 1.4 CRDi and without the fancy steering system it actually steered much more nicely. And while its smaller, 1.4 diesel engine isn’t about performance, another journalist managed to get 85mpg out of it over a 100-mile route. It’s only available in basic “1” spec, but if you can live without the Nav and a few other bits of kit, then as long as you don’t spend a lot of your time on motorways, at £16,895 it might just be the pick of the range.
How ironic that Kia has chosen to name its new estate a "sportswagon" and yet the very thing that impresses us about it is its lack of sporting pretensions. This is a perfectly good car, that five years ago, we’d have been shocked if you’d told us Kia would produce. But we can’t also help feeling that some things have changed since that time - we’re no longer in an age where a Cee’d drives nearly as well as a Focus and undercuts it by three grand. It still drives nearly as well as a Focus, but it’s now the same price.
Perhaps its biggest problem is that there’s no stand-out aspect which gives you a clear case for choosing one over said Focus - or indeed an Astra, Megane, i30 tourer and the rest, bar that seven-year warranty.
That’s not us saying it’s a bad car, more a way of hunting for a reason to justify your splashing the cash on one over the opposition, and failing. In the end, that long warranty, the impressive design, good tech kit count and well set up suspension all make it worth a look if you’re keen on a family sized estate. Whether you’ll buy one probably comes down to what badge you want on the front of your car or how close the dealer is.
Considering where Kia’s come from, that it now stands toe-to-toe with the European mainstream is praise indeed. But whether you would prefer to have a Kia or a Ford on your drive is a decision we’ll leave to you.