Driven exclusively reveals the new Kia two-door at New York motor show
The form of the car has been given a thorough going-over, and now boasts a more aggressive front, with a larger bumper, bigger grills with glossy black inserts, and carbon fiber look trim pieces at each end, with chromed-up dual exhaust outlets at the rear.
The last time Kia rolled out a two-door version of its Cerato in New Zealand, it underwent a bit of a brand transformation - despite the fact that the car, called Koup, was an awkward spec that didn't entirely deliver on its promises.
The first-gen Koup had the engine, the interior and definitely the body to do the business, but featured a four-speed auto that did nothing to match those racy looks. Later versions added a six-speed auto to the mix, and made the Cerato Koup what it always should have been.
Kia pulled the covers off the Koup's replacement this week at the New York motor show, and while it's not going to be seen in right hand drive form until later this year, possibly early next, the newbie certainly won't be making that same mistake.
Sold in the United States as the Forte, the two-door has come of age, with a higher level of refinement, more drop-dead looks and no rickety old four-speed to hold it back.
Kia New Zealand boss Todd McDonald told Driven that the original Koup really was a game changer for the company here - a high profile toe-dip into the sportier side of the market as Kia pushed its range to a more youthful audience than its Hyundai brethren. It worked. Kia's core market is now 35-years-old-plus - then it was more like 55-plus.
And the new Koup is only likely to continue that trend, especially if the company's aspirations match those of would-be buyers.
McDonald told Driven that the 2009 Koup launch helped to renew interest in the sports segment, which has sparked a resurgence most recently underlined by the introduction of Toyota 86 and its twin, the Subaru BRZ, both critically acclaimed and selling beyond expectation.
The new Koup builds on the success of the final spec of its last iteration, but this time packs in a less modest power output, a more svelte form and a specification that's far beyond that last version.
It's now pushing a solid 150kW from its direct injected four-cylinder petrol-fed 1600cc engine with variable valve timing, courtesy of an intercooled turbocharger which helps markedly in a far more respectable 264Nm of torque. It is the gruntiest Koup yet, and provides a worthy, sporty, flagship for a range that includes the Cerato hatch and sedan, both imminently due in Kiwi showrooms.
There were two equipment levels announced in New York - EX and SX - and the the EX will be released with a two-litre GDI (petrol direct injection, said with a drawling American accent) and the SX with the aforementioned 1.6. The EX is auto-only, and the SX will ship with a six-speed auto complete with paddle shifters.
Which versions are likely to land on our shores haven't been confirmed yet. The Koup will hit New Zealand with the auto, but those who prefer 'real' gearboxes will be able to make a special request from their Kia dealer, according to McDonald, making the SX a given.
The combination of a slick six-speed manual with 150kW of right foot fun promises to be a solid package, although with New Zealand's taste for autos, arguably due to the Japanese used car trade, it's understandable why the auto has become the default choice for manufacturers.
The form of the car has been given a thorough going-over, and now boasts a more aggressive front, with a larger bumper, bigger grills with glossy black inserts, and carbon fibre look trim pieces at each end, with Cover Storychromed-up dual exhaust outlets at the rear. It sits - in SX trim - on standard 18-inch wheels, covering significantly larger front brakes, obviously to cope with the car's dose of extra grunt. LED running lights and tail lights certainly help convey a more modern stance, with HID headlights available as an option.
Kia's new machine doesn't stop at new engines and refined design - the standard equipment list has grown with the car. Although the American spec won't offer a complete picture of what we'll see on New Zealand roads, it's a solid indicator of what we can expect.
The front seats have reformed into comfortable, deeper leather-trimmed buckets, with carbon-styled accents to further underline the Cerato's sportscar aspirations. The driver's seat gets 10-way power adjustment and a heating/cooling option and the passenger seat gets the heat treatment. Dual-zone automatic climate control air, a push-button start SmartKey system and an electro chromatic rear view mirror.
Interior materials have also been improved significantly, with leather seat inserts, carbon fibre-look accents, soft-touch plastics and other rubberised materials combining to create a far more premium-feeling product, something that Kia's US design head Tom Kearns said was extremely important to the next generation of the Forte, which was designed almost exclusively in Kia's American studio.
"We really worked hard to make the interior feel better - more refined and a nicer feel," he told Driven straight after the presentation of the new Koup, a facelifted version of the Optima and an all-new Soul, which had American media turning backflips.
"With this interior, and the Soul, we wanted the perception of quality - obviously we can't use top premium materials or spend as much money as some of the luxury brands but if we can create the perception of high quality, and not use hard plastics anywhere, we've done our job."
He agreed that the quality of the vehicles had to grow alongside the brand, and believed that the new vehicles achieved that.
Kia NZ boss Todd McDonald says that this lift in quality, which is echoed by the hatch and sedan versions of the Cerato - due on sale soon in New Zealand - will help his brand continue its upward climb.
"It will help us with our volume aspirations," he said earlier this week, "and brand value is extremely important to us, and has helped attract buyers to give us our fourth consecutive year of growth.
"It started with the Soul and Cerato in '09, and was reinforced with the Sportage. Those vehicles gave the brand a reason to be bold - since then it has been all about design."
The design element of Kia, which undeniably has gone from strength to strength in the last five years, has been helped by the likes of Kearns and the clever poaching of former VW group design head Peter Schreyer, whose influence on the range has helped take it from a Korean curiosity brand of dubious quality to an absolute contender in the new car sales charts.
Even lease machines, which are traditionally tied up by the larger, more established badges like Toyota and Ford, haven't escaped Kia's ever-extending reach.
"We have lease companies coming to us now," says McDonald, "when it comes to user-chooser leases, we're definitely on the list."
With the latest Sportage an undeniable success, the seven-seater Sorento on the radar for family shoppers, a new Cerato in sight, and the facelifted Optima due in the near future - and to a lesser extent the funky, but low-selling Soul - Kia's future in New Zealand, and globally, is looking very bright indeed.