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Japan on guard as South Korea tries to overtake the old master

IT'S not often you see a carmaker's test track in such regular use. On the odd occasions that manufacturers offer a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, their tracks are usually reserved for, at best, a couple of vehicles at any one time.

That's not the case at Kia's Namyang research and development facility, situated just outside the South Korean capital of Seoul. The cold, dusty air around the test track rings out with the sound of countless cars tearing up and down.

Petrol and diesel engines bark and clatter, hybrid and electric vehicles glide away with little more than a subdued hum, while tyres shriek with punishment from the adjacent skid pan.

It looks and sounds more like a motorway at rush hour than a hi-tech test facility, which goes some way to illustrating the intensity of Kia's onslaught. Known for its reliable but innocuous cars, it seems there's something in the water in Seoul. The company's next batch of cars boasts far bolder styling, ultra clean engines and even a bit of sporting credibility.

I got the chance to sample a couple at the Namyang facility, first of which was the new Rio. Though the test car was heavily clad in the black camouflage that manufacturers use to disguise their forthcoming models, the new Rio is, in fact, a very sharp-suited car. Gone are the bland looks of the outgoing model in favour of a shapely nose, a wide rump and deeply concave flanks. It's a far cry from the lacklustre looks of the outgoing model.

The test car had a 1.1-litre three-cylinder turbodiesel engine -- big on economy but not on power. It musters a mere 69bhp and takes 16.4 seconds to reach 100km/h, so it needs a good thrash to get moving. The engine's saving grace is the fact that it's capable of an astonishing 3.2 litres/100km and emits just 85g/km of CO2.

There is also enough room in the rear to shame family-sized hatchbacks. The Rio isn't as much fun to drive as, say, a Ford Fiesta, but with those low figures, improved build quality and an estimated price of less than €15,000, it'll give more established hatchbacks cause for concern.

Next up was the Optima -- a four-door saloon likely to go on sale at the end of 2011. At over 4.8 metres long it's a hefty thing and features a similarly sharp exterior to that of the Rio. We'll probably end up with just the 1.7-litre diesel engine and possibly a 2.0-litre petrol -- but there's also a hybrid version in the offing, as yet unconfirmed for Ireland.

Again, the Optima isn't as engaging as class leaders like the Ford Mondeo from behind the wheel, but its mix of value and a plentiful stock of equipment should give it the edge.

Though it wasn't available to drive at Namyang, the new Picanto is worth a mention. Unveiled at last month's Geneva Motor Show, it's also wearing a more flamboyant exterior and comes with a choice of three and four-cylinder petrol engines emitting as little as 90g/km.

In a break from tradition, Kia also fancies itself as a performance carmaker. The firm's executives hinted that a sporty rear-wheel drive concept car (probably a coupe) will appear at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September of this year. That's unlikely to make production; what is, though, is a convertible version of the Soul. More of a swanky cabriolet than a hard-edged, sporty drop-top, Kia is hoping that the convertible will give sales of the not-so-popular Soul a shot in the arm.

Also tipped for production is a warmed-up version of the cee'd -- effectively Kia's first crack at a hot hatchback. The standard cee'd has been well received and Kia is no doubt hoping to take on the big boys of the hot hatch world like the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Power will come from the company's 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, currently fitted to a number of its cars overseas.

Such a gaggle of hot motors in the pipeline marks a seismic shift for a cheap 'n' cheerful car manufacturer -- especially one with no motorsport history to speak of (even Kia's parent company Hyundai has a bit of World Rally Championship heritage to shout about).

The ace up Kia's sleeve is its design. Where Hyundai plays it safe with soft, easy-going curves, Kia's cars are jagged, razor-edged things, courtesy of chief designer Peter Schreyer. A former designer at Audi and Volkswagen, Schreyer knows a thing or two about what makes a car stand out, so if anyone can pull off a sporting concept, it's him.

So what's next for Kia aside from all the new model launches? Have the Koreans got the clout to match the might of the established Japanese manufacturers and gain more ground overseas? It's not unfeasible.

With purse strings tighter than the proverbial fowl's behind in the chillier months, carmakers are going to ever greater lengths to reel in the punters. The fact is that Japanese manufacturers can no longer lean as heavily on their strong reliability reputations -- especially now that the Koreans are just as dependable and offer five (Hyundai) and seven-year (Kia) warranties compared to the industry norm of three years.

Factor in snazzier styling, improved build quality and, crucially, the lower prices, and Korean cars just make more sense. The only thing that can stand in their way is badge snobbery, something we're learning to forget.

Sunday Independent Supplement