It was only a matter of time for the concept of the MPV, translated from “Large Size” of the Renault Espace, to “Medium Size” by the 1996 Renault Scenic would reach “Small Size”. Vehicles like the Vauxhall Meriva, Ford Fusion and Renault Modus, all launched around 8 years ago, proved that there is indeed a market for this type of car among the regular superminis, with many buyers liking all the different attributes from the extra space and versatility to the benefits of a raised driving position, thus ensuring that these small cars appealed both to the family and superannuated buyer alike. It took the Koreans a while to add their offerings to the market, but in the end their tardiness may have been well considered, as one of the most promising offerings, the small Kia Venga, arrived at at time when most of its competitors were headed towards the end of their production life, and one of the best selling ones, the Meriva headed up a size in its second generation. Based on the same platform that underpins the Kia Soul and the Hyundai i20, the Venga made its debut at the Frankfurt IAA in September 2009, going on sale in Europe a matter of weeks later. A very similar looking Hyundai model, the ix20, appeared a year later. The Kia is starting to become a reasonably common sighting our our roads, not least thanks to the fact that Hertz UK has a number of them in their fleet. However, source of my test car was as a courtesy car from Wessex Garages in Bristol, who have a Kia franchise as well as those for Alfa and Abarth. I think the car looks quite neat, and was happy enough to take it out for a day to see what the Venga is like on the road.
Venga is available with both petrol and diesel engines. The former fuel type is offered in 1.4 and 1.6 capacities, whereas at least at present, there is a lone diesel engine on offer in the range. My test car was fitted with the 1.4 litre diesel engine, which develops 89 bhp, and which sports EcoDynamics badges. My most recent comparison point of another derv powered machine is the Mercedes B180 CDI, and if I contrast the two, the Kia is definitely superior. That said, it is probably not the “best” diesel powerplant out there, but by no means is it the worst. Indeed, when I started the car, there was only just enough of the characteristic sound of the diesel to give me the clue that was absent from the paperwork, the labelling on he key fob or even badges on the car, that if I were to refuel, it would be from the black pump. Get underway and your ears tell you that unless this is an unrefined engine, it really must be a diesel, so on refinement alone, it is really not that bad. It is decently torquey, too, which is as much a give-away as anything these days as small petrol engined cars tend to be strangled by emissions-optimising gearing. 89 bhp is only average even for a relatively diminutive car these days, but nevertheless, I did not feel embarrassed by a lack of acceleration and could shoot for short gaps in the Bristol traffic with some confidence. The Venga has a six speed gearbox. The gap between first and second is not great, so you change up almost as soon as you are underway, but all the other gears after that are well spaced. A discrete change up arrow appears in the lower left of the instrument dials, but unlike some systems where the trigger point is less than 2000 rpm, this one seemed to be more realistic. Gear change quality is good, though I was not particularly keen on the shape and size of the top of the knob itself, which was a bit like the rather bulky and square things that Vauxhall/Opel seem to have decided are such a good idea. You get a Stop/Start system as part of the EcoDynamics packaging, and it seems to be as good, or annoying, depending on your point of view, as others of is type. Come to a halt, take it out of gear and the engine cuts out. Foot on the clutch and it fires again, but not quite as quickly as your hand moves the lever into first. I can make no comments on economy levels, as I only drove a relatively short distance, but would surprised if this did not turn out not to be a parsimonious little car. The steering is light and has little feel especially about the straight ahead position, though it was by no means as challenging as in the Audi A3 I sampled the week previously. Whilst this did make it very easy to move the car in and out of parking spaces, I so enjoyed getting back into my Abarth and getting so much more feeling from the wheel. I know that is hardly a fair comparison, as the Venga makes no pretence at sporting prowess and doubtless most of its target customers well welcome the ease and lightness of driving. There were no other surprises associated with driving this car. Handling was tidy, with evidence of moderate understeer, and I am sure that you would have to try very hard to get yourself into trouble. The brakes are light, and there is a proper pull up mechanical handbrake between the seats. The ride was pliant, and apart from the slight diesel-ness of the engine note, the Venga was quiet inside. It is easy to see out of, with a large glass area, and I particularly appreciated the front quarterlights which are so big that they are actually useful rather than the styling feature that they represent on some cars.
The Korean duo have made massive progress in all respects of their product over recent years and the interior trim is one area where this is immediately manifest. Open the door and look inside the Venga and it looks far classier than many of its competitors. Decent quality plastics combine with a restrained design that limits the plasti-chrome to one of providing contrast and variety rather than over the top gawdiness, being limited to rings around the instrument dials, on the steering wheel boss and as the main element of the central aspect of the dashboard. There are three dials, with a central speedometer flanked by a rev counter on one side and fuel gauge on the other. All are clearly marked and easy to read. Warning lights appear for other functions. Column stalks look after most other things, with three minor switches on the right of the dash for rarely used things like the instrument light rheostat. The centre of the dash comprises the audio unit and air conditioning functions. Both proved easy to use, even though neither was perhaps comprised of the conventional collection of different buttons. There are wheel mounted buttons for some of these functions as well.
Given the compact dimensions of the Venga, you might expect it not to be that roomy inside, but you would be wrong. The extra height of the car allows for the seats to be that bit more upright and this means that there is indeed plenty of space for rear seat passengers, although I was half expecting to find the rear seats on sliders to endow the car with even more flexibility. There is a deep and generously proportioned boot, too. The rear seats, asymmetrically split, fold forward by dropping the backrest onto the cushion, creating a much longer load space, which is not level. However, by repositioning the floor of the original boot area, you can address this problem and create a moderate stowage area under the new level of the boot. Inside the cabin, there is plenty of stowage space, with a good sized glovebox, door pockets and lots of cubby areas in the centre console, all of which are easy to access and would be easy to clean, too. This latter attribute is not always something that appears to trouble designers!
Venga is offered in three trim levels, clearly set in a hierarchy as they are 1, 2 and 3. The test car was a 3, which is the top spec model. For your £15,200 you get 16″ alloys, full body coloured trim, front fog lights, heated door mirrors, privacy glass, a fantastic panoramic electric sunroof which covered most of the roof of the car and made it really light inside, full climate control, leather trimmed steering wheel and gearlever, and all round electric windows. The same audio unit features in all three models, but in the 3 you get USB connectivity and wheel mounted controls. The price premium for the 3 over the 2 is £1500, and this means that the Venga is no longer the bargain priced car that used to characterise Kia products, but when you look at the extra features that you get on the 3, it seems like a reasonable deal. When you look at the competition, the Venga also offers decent value for money, even before you take into account the ownership attractions of the 7 year warranty.
In the end, my time with the Venga was short, as within the day when it was in my custody, I had to do some work (!). However, I was well able to draw some conclusions. There were no evident weak points on the car (I am just going to have get used to light steering, I can see!), so if Mr Hertz were to come up with one, as he well might, or indeed if I get another one as a courtesy car, then whilst this is not a car which will generate even a frisson of excitement, it is definitely not something to reject. If I contrast it with those of its competitors that I have experienced – Fusion, old Meriva, Grand Modus – I would say that this is probably better than all of them. There are some other rivals, of course, of which the Honda Jazz is the most notable, and would doubtless impress, although it is not cheap. The biggest competition, for sure, will come from “in house”, in the form of the Hyundai ix20. Which of those you would prefer would probably come down to personal choice and preference for one brand over the other.