FIRST DRIVE | New 2021 Kia Sonet hooks in the first stanza
Kia wants a hearty slice of the pulsating compact sport-utility vehicle pie and this ambition rests on the haunches of the new Sonet.
It was officially launched in SA last week and we attended the media introduction, including a driving session through the challenging layouts – tar and gravel – of the Western Cape province.
Three primary rivals were cited in the product presentation. Foremost, the pioneer of the genre, the Ford EcoSport (from R303,400). Then, the Japanese doppelgangers from Suzuki and Toyota: the Vitara Brezza (from R244,900) and Urban Cruiser (from R247,900).
And what of the Volkswagen T-Cross and directly related Venue from the other familial South Korean carmaker?
The German car kicks off at R347,100 while the Hyundai begins at R311,900. This puts them just slightly beyond but not completely off the radar of the Kia, whose sticker ranges upwards of R264,995 in basic LX trim to R305,995 for EX automatic specification. Pricing includes a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and pre-paid four-year/60,000km service plan.
But the kicker is that the rivalling duo packs turbocharged-petrol power, while the Kia fares with a single, normally-aspirated motor: so the automaker says it wants to avoid calling these competitor models out specifically, until their own boosted derivative arrives later this year.
Aside from scooping up market share, Kia also hopes the Sonet will serve as a transition point for customers within the brand. They envisage a buyer who might have started off with a Picanto or Rio, contemplating the next step up, before graduating further to the Seltos and Sportage ranks.
From various angles it clearly apes the aesthetic template of this larger sibling. Dinky but appropriately pumped-up, the Sonet is sufficiently interesting to take in. Its purposeful face and assured stance are par for the course in this category. You may even herald it as a fine maturing point for the aesthetic evolution of Kia at large.
That goes for the interior as well, which mirrors the visual slickness of the exterior. In the tactile quality comparison, it evinces a significantly plusher sense than the three rivals mentioned initially. There are no points of the cabin that blatantly reflect the budget-focussed price tag of the Sonet.
It is Indian-built, like a surprisingly large number of new vehicles on sale in SA are, and imported from the Kia plant in Anantapur.
Standard kit in the entry-level LX is not what you would call scant. An eight-inch infotainment system (Apple Car Play and Android Auto compatible), automatic headlamps and a reverse camera are there, in addition to the basics like air-conditioning, Bluetooth and electric windows front and rear. The EX grade we drove goes a cut above with a steering wheel wrapped in imitation leather, 16-inch alloys over 15-inch steel wheels with covers, roof rails and fog lights.
Safety boxes are ticked with the fitment of electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, dual front airbags and ISOFIX child seat anchorage points. The Sonet is yet to be crash tested in one of the international assessment programmes, but it is inevitable that a Global NCAP review will happen. From the perspective of the driver, it certainly felt like a sturdy thing. At freeway speeds and even when piloted with zeal over dirt sections, the front-wheel drive Sonet proved to be a real little trooper.
The 1.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol unit (85kW and 144Nm) performed fairly at the coast. But a test at Gauteng altitudes with passengers and the 392-litre luggage compartment packed ought to yield a different experience.
Still, the custodians of the brand were adamant the engine would not prove a disservice to the fate of their car. They claimed that from a longevity aspect, its customers are more trusting of the simplicity inherent with natural aspiration.
We drove both the manual and continuously-variable transmission (CVT) offerings. No prizes for guessing that the former, with its six-forward gears, made for the sprightlier pairing. But credit where it is due: the two-pedal choice with seven simulated ratios was not as prone to the yo-yo sensations that tend to beset CVT options. At higher speeds wind intrusion was noticeable from the passenger side. But the Sonet is quite well-behaved when you peg it at around 120km/h.
Great to look at, well-built and competitively-priced, the littlest Kia sport-utility vehicle has a lot going for it.
We should make a note about that name. Sonet has nothing to do with a poetry reference, though we could not let that get in the way of a sharp headline.
It is actually a hybrid of the words “social” and “network”.
Net so, as they say in Afrikaans.