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James' thoughts on the Kia vs VW debate

Somehow, we all feel a slight aversion to the idea of a Kia hot hatch, but why? To large parts of the world, “Kia” means modern, reliable and affordable cars.But in the wealthy West, it still stands for slightly cut-price motoring in the second division, right on the cusp of someone saying “for getting from A to B”.

But why wouldn’t Kia do a hot version? The established school of thought says it needs to in order to be taken seriously, in the way a comedy club warm-up act wants to be the main billing. And if Kia can do cut-price cars, it must be able to do a cut-price performance car.

I’ll tell you now that this one isn’t as good as a Golf GTI, but it is around £6,000 cheaper. So that would seem to be fair enough. Is there anything more to say? Let’s have a closer look. It looks OK; there are hints of hot Renault and Honda in the shape, and that’s not bad, in the way that looking “a bit like Brad Pitt” would be welcome. Nice alloys.

The seats are good and the dash is faintly juvenile, which is right for a fast car. There are many buttons on the steering wheel, so you can pretend to be, variously, a fighter pilot, an F1 driver or any number of other things you’re never going to be. One button turns the main speedo display into a combined turbo boost gauge and torque-o-meter: in truth, irrelevant yet strangely fascinating, like David Icke.

Keys still in/lights left on/door open (which you know, because you opened it) produces the usual range of chimes and bongs, but here they are pleasantly mellifluous, like the sound of falling water playing upon an echoic contrivance I once heard in a ceremonial Japanese tea garden. Makes a change. This sort of thing usually sounds like a robot belching.

The cabin plastics are not quite up to VW standards, but they’re not far off, and don’t forget it costs £6k less. They’re only the plastic surfaces in your car. You could buy a very nice artwork for £6k and look at that when you get home instead.

What will the neighbours think? Will they think you are poor? Or a bit tight? If you’re worried about that, your life is bereft of meaning and purpose, so let’s see how it goes instead.

I have two complaints: small but important in a so-called driver’s car. The engine hangs on to its revs a bit too long during an upchange (an emissions fix, I reckon) and it can bog down quite easily at the get-away. But you don’t have to think about your six-grand windfall long to be able to live with this.

The ride is good - firmish but sophisticated. So is the steering. It’s quiet, too, with just enough combustion action making itself heard if you give it the beans. It doesn’t feel as quick as the Golf, and there are no flappy paddles to cement your sense of modernity, but it’s a good car. It’s good to drive and feels well made. I like the name ‘Kia’. It’s sort of cheerful.

Look; when we tested our three budget supercars on the telly recently, we concluded the McLaren 12C was the best car, the Audi R8 was the best budget supercar, and the Ferrari 458 was the one we wanted. But I’ve since revised my view on all this, and decided that the Ferrari is the best on all counts.

They were all budget supercars, after all, and the Ferrari was the best. The McLaren was faster in all respects, but the Ferrari was better at the emotional and cerebral part of the man/machine interface, which is the most important bit. Cars are not spreadsheets, which is why TopGear exists. Otherwise we could reach verdicts by comparing brochures.

This is my only problem with the Kia. You buy a hot hatch because you’re interested in driving, rather than because you’re merely dependant on a car. The Kia is good; very good, even. But it isn’t quite as good as a Golf GTI. But then again, it is £6,000 cheaper. As I said.

Words: James May

This feature first appeared in TopGear magazine

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