Kia's Venga bus is moving in on Euro rivals

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KOREAN Kia is intent on giving its products a European flavour, and the Venga supermini MPV is one of its more successful efforts to date. A foursquare stance and neat detailing ensures it doesn't fall into the frumpy trap that captures many MPV products, plus there's a good engine range and some clever design touches inside.

In automotive terms, Korean cars came to be known as simple, cheap and somewhat dull alternatives to pricier mainstream models. The Kia of today wants to distance itself from the shaved costs and squeezed margins at the budget end of the car market and compete on level terms with the big players.

To this end, models like the Kia Venga supermini-MPV are about as European as a car from Korea is likely to get. Exactly what constitutes "European" in Kia's eyes is open to conjecture, but the Venga is up against a number of cars from big name brands in the supermini MPV market sector and Kia will be looking for its effort to compete with them on criteria like build quality, driving dynamics and design.

In the past, we'd have expected a car with the Kia badge to be a little below par in these key areas, but to redeem itself with a low price and lots of equipment. That's no longer enough and the Venga will need the quality to stand against Vauxhall's Meriva, Renault's Modus, Nissan's Note, Citron's C3 Picasso and others.

There's a wide choice of engines including a pair of common-rail diesels, each available in two different states of tune. Kia is pinning big hopes on these oil-burners and this optimism is not without justification. The 1.4 and 1.6-litre CRDi units are Kia's "U2" generation of diesel engines utilising particulate filters and exhaust gas recirculation to achieve clean running to go with their punchy performance.

The supermini MPV presents car designers with a difficult problem. Superminis are small and MPVs are practical, but achieving smallness and practicality together in the same car is quite a challenge. To get the maximum from its modest dimensions, the Venga employs a long wheelbase that pushes its four wheels right out to the corners of the vehicle. Despite being only 4,068mm in length, the Venga has a wheelbase that's just 35mm down on the cee'd five-door – a car that's a good 200mm longer in total.

As well as maximising the amount of space the interior designers have to play with, the Venga's wheel-at-each-corner stance helps give the car a purposeful, bottom-heavy look out on the road.

But it's inside where any vehicle touting itself as an MPV will stand or fall.

The Venga's cabin is certainly roomy, with as much legroom as the cee'd five-door and a boot that substantially trumps that car's at 440 litres. Kia has put particular thought into how owners will accommodate their luggage and the boot area can be extended by sliding the rear seat forward or through the two-tier boot floor even before you get involved in folding the rear seats down.

LX, EX and TX trim levels are available on the Venga, with the entry-level LX featuring basics like electric windows, a CD stereo, the Fold & Dive seating system and a centre armrest. The car comes in a single five-door bodystyle with six-speed gearboxes for the more powerful diesels and five-speed versions for the petrol cars. The 1.6-litre petrol is also available with a four-speed automatic.

The safety equipment on the car runs to an ABS braking system with disc brakes on all four wheels, six airbags and active front head restraints. ESC stability control is standard on some models and optional elsewhere. Another handy option is a reversing camera which sends images from behind the car to a 3.5ins LCD display on the dash.

Just matching its mainstream rivals might not be enough for the Venga to persuade more buyers to give Kia a chance, it will have to better them. One of the areas where Kia is hoping to do that is running costs. It will certainly help that all Venga engines are available with the ISG stop-start system. This turns off the engine when the car is stationary and restarts it automatically when it's time to move off. Also counting in the Venga's favour during comparisons with rivals will be Kia's exemplary warranty package which covers the whole car for five years and the drive train for seven years. There's also ten years of anti-corrosion cover.

It's no secret Kia wants to escape from the budget end of the European car market and it's been doing a commendable job. The Venga is attractively styled, cleverly designed and includes some eye-catching features.

It's a car that demands to be taken seriously and its supermini MPV rivals will already be doing just that.