You would be forgiven for thinking that South Korean cars are not really serious contenders, playing no more than a supporting role to a global motor industry led by Japan, Europe and the US. But the fact is that the Korean Hyundai-Kia group is the fourth biggest car maker in the world and made more cars in 2010 than Ford or Nissan. Kia’s 12-strong UK range runs from the compact Picanto to the seven-seat Sorento SUV. In the middle lies the second generation of the oddly-named Cee’d, a five-door hatch styled and engineered in Germany and built at Zilina in Slovakia, which went on sale in June.

2012 Kia Cee'dThe company is bullish about its new model, calling it “nothing less than a showcase for everything that Kia knows about design, quality, engineering and technology.” The specification certainly backs up that statement, with such features as a new direct-injection engine, a twin-clutch automatic transmission, stop/start systems and independent rear suspension of a type more often seen on premium saloons than mid-size hatchbacks. That’s all wrapped in a stylish new body with Kia’s signature ‘Tiger Nose’, created under the eye of former Audi and Volkswagen designer Peter Schreyer.

The interior is inviting, too, contrasting high gloss piano-black surfaces with soft-touch plastics and bright metal highlights. There’s more to it than just looks, because the ergonomics of the wraparound Cee’d dashboard have been carefully thought out and the whole interior has a substantial, quality feel. The instruments have clear, attractive graphics and there’s a neat information panel set into the centre of the speedo.

The Cee’d comes with a choice of four engines, two petrols and two diesels. The 1.6-litre GDI petrol version we tried is the most powerful of the lot with 133bhp, more than many rivals with similar-sized engines, but the Cee’d has no great performance advantage – particularly when equipped with the DCT twin-clutch transmission, which blunts acceleration appreciably. Nor is the Cee’d as precise to drive as it might be, with stodgy steering that makes it difficult to exploit the potential of the sophisticated suspension.

On the road, then, the Cee’d doesn’t quite live up to its on-paper promise. But although it’s unexciting to drive, it does have a series of virtues. It’s attractive inside and out, judging by the tight and even panel gaps the Slovaks put them together well, and the Cee’d comes with a seven-year warranty as standard for peace of mind. It needs to be taken seriously.