IAIN ROBERTSON – BCingU – CARS – 4.11.2015

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Every now and then, something truly exciting happens in the motor industry, which sets fresh precedents that start a technological ball rolling for successive years and Iain Robertson believes that Kia holds the key.

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My fascination for the latest crop of 1.0-litre, three-cylinder petrol engines is not without foundations. While the big-banger brigade will continue with their ever-faster, ever more potent, ever more expensive niche follies, the mass market realists of the automotive scene develop some of the most remarkable technological advances quietly and often without fanfare.

 

However, I believe that the time has come to put reality to the test. Yet, surely a sub-1,000cc engine in a surprisingly weighty, modern car body cannot be expected to deliver the requisite amount of punch? When I was a lot younger but totally spellbound by motorcars, the new car scene was populated by an array of one-litre power units, from Ford Anglias to Austin-Morris Minis and Standard-Triumphs to Wartburgs, several of which names you will scarcely recognise these days.

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Some of them, in the case of the Wartburg, an East German product, were also two-stroke, rather than the less smoky and less raucous four-stroke combustion cycle alternatives, with which we are most familiar today. In fact, with an average power output of around 32bhp, they were hardly the spine-tingling, 300-400% more potent motive units of today’s growing range of engines. It was guaranteed that, unless an Abarth badge was attached to a Fiat, or an Alfa Romeo, or John Cooper had not breathed on the original Mini of the day, higher performance from a 1.0-litre unit was little more than a pipe dream.

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Of significant benefit to car tuners of that period was the fact that most volume production small cars weighed only marginally more than half-a-ton and some speciality makers, such as Lotus, could deliver 120mph performance from a mere 1,219cc Lotus Elite sportscar. As demands for increased safety arrived, so did the bulking up of the typical family car and larger engines were important components. Pretty soon, a Ford Mondeo weighed almost twice as much as its progenitor, the Ford Cortina. Yet, that original and immensely popular Cortina was powered by a mere 1.2-litre engine, in standard form, a factor that drew into question the recent announcement by Ford that the firm’s 1.0-litre ‘triple’ would soon power the latest and largest Mondeo model!

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However, it is not just safety standards that have risen, as consumer equipment expectations have also escalated at the same time, adding further weight penalties to vehicles that need to meet growing exhaust pollution and MPG demands. Therefore, it is still surprising to me that the recent crop of 1.0-litre engines, while producing on-paper performance figures that are often no less than astonishing, have the highest possible demands placed upon them. Arising from this is the simple arithmetical and physical fact that a small capacity engine has to overcome an immense amount of inertia, before it can perform its star turn.

 

Therefore, in delayed response to my earlier and unanswered question, yes, a modern 1.0-litre lump CAN deliver sparkling performance. However, there are several examples, not least Ford’s much-vaunted 1.0-litre unit that can sit comfortably on a single sheet of A4-paper, so compact is its remarkable construction, that do not add up in real-time tests. In fact, Ford needs to get back to its drawing-board very soon, if it is to make reparation for the abysmally poor fuel economy of that unit. Yes. It delivers in laboratory tests but that is not quite the same as participating in the daily grind and there are enough motoring titles in the UK and Europe that have raised complaints about its poor showing. While I have not, as yet (very soon though) tested the Mondeo 1.0-litre, I am concerned that it will not meet hoped for expectations.

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Vauxhall, on the other hand, has developed its similar unit and it is proving to be well received on all counts. I drive a sub-compact Skoda Citigo, powered by a 1.0-litre, normally-aspirated ‘triple’ that develops a decent 75bhp. However, the car you see here is a Kia Cee’d, the compact, Focus-sized model from South Korea…although it was designed in Germany and is built not far from Bratislava. This is the model (and its sister i30 product from Hyundai) that has caused more European and Japanese carmakers to sit up and take note than ever before. No longer is Kia playing ‘catch-up’ with its rivals. Instead, the Cee’d is a worthy competitor to any other car in the class, complete with up-market kit and aspirations.

 

Make no mistake, the sheer brilliance of the latest Vauxhall Astra lies squarely in the remit delivered by Kia. Vauxhall recognised that it could no longer sell ‘acceptable’ motorcars and hope to earn profits from them. Kia had established a production, styling and engineering model that it and other carmakers were desperate to better. While the Astra succeeds on almost every count, the Ford Focus is now trailing the market. Peugeot has proved that weight reduction has to be central to its stance and the latest 308 model presents the case comprehensively, as does the Mazda3. In all instances, Kia has been the influencing factor….but you will not hear it declared publicly, of course.

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There is another fly in the ointment though, in that modern car users will not be drawn to a small capacity engine, if the performance is somewhat lower than their former, or existing 1.6 and 2.0-litre alternatives. The VW-developed ‘triple’ in my Citigo is a case in point. While a vRS (Skoda-speak for its performance derivatives) version of the car would be wonderful, it remains unavailable and VW Group has been notoriously sluggish at getting a turbocharged version of the unit into the public domain. Yet, Vauxhall has proven beyond any doubt that it can produce such an engine, which powers its latest Corsa, new Astra and spec-laden Adam models.

 

Kia worked feverishly to get its new engine into the right model. In fact, two power outputs are available, 98 and 118bhp, the punchier of which powers the coupe version of the car, also known as Pro-Cee’d and the GT version of which you see here. While there is a 201bhp, 1.6-litre, four-cylinder version, for those buyers still incapable of believing the small capacity proposition, and there is a significant performance difference, it is not as major a divide as you might think.

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In fact, Kia is playing very cleverly here. You see, a lot of consumers are affected by what they read and hear in the news about environmental damage and, worse, their pockets are invaded by government on both taxation and fuel consumption fronts. Small has always been beautiful, it is just that its relevance is somewhat greater today, than it was in post-WW2 Britain and its true austerity years.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).