Your flexible friend

The new Kia Cerato SX
The new Kia Cerato SX
The new Kia Cerato SX
The new Kia Cerato SX
The new Kia Cerato SX
The new Kia Cerato SX
The new Kia Cerato SX
The new Kia Cerato SX

One of the appealing features of Kia's Cerato SX hatchback is a little button on its steering wheel.

The button controls a function called Flex Steer, which is now aboard some Kia and Hyundai vehicles sold in New Zealand.

What it does is customise the weight of the vehicle's steering to suit the driver's style and needs. Normal is for ordinary day-to-day driving and provides reasonably light power steering. Comfort is very light and is intended for effortless around-town driving. And Sport firms up the steering to make it more suitable for motoring on the open road.

It works rather well - and what I like about the system for a vehicle such as the Cerato is that it helps make the easy-to-drive hatch even easier to drive.

Need to whip around tight corners and into difficult parking spaces in town? Easy - just select Comfort. Want the more solid feel of heavier steering while belting around the countryside? Punch in Sport.

Actually there's a lot to like about the Cerato hatch.

The model we've just been driving is the top SX version, a 2-litre five-door that retails for $40,490 and comes loaded with appointments that include leather upholstery, 10-way power-assisted drivers seat with memory, power sunroof that slides and tilts, rear- view camera, and satellite navigation with the SUNA live traffic update technology, which provides real-time traffic volume information for drivers in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The hatch was introduced to the New Zealand new-vehicle market during the second half of last year, thus ending a four- month hiatus during which Kia didn't have one to sell. It had the Cerato sedan, launched several months earlier, but it didn't have a hatch - and that was a big problem, considering that 73 per cent of all small-car sales in New Zealand are five-door hatchbacks.

But it's here now, and Kia NZ is happier. I bet quite a few owners of the SX version are happy too, because not only is it well specified, but it also goes well.

Under its bonnet is a 2-litre direct-injected four-cylinder petrol engine that develops 129 kilowatts of power and 209 newton-metres of torque, which is sufficient to give the Cerato rather good performance. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic with sequential sportshifts that can be operated via paddles on the steering wheel.

So there's all the potential for some energetic driving there - especially with the Flex Steer set to Sport, which combines well with the car's specially calibrated slightly firmer "Anzac" suspension and larger 17-inch wheels and tyres.

It's by no means the best- handling hatch on the market, and the ride is slightly too firm for my liking, but it is a very appealing drive all the same.

Cerato hatch is identical to the sedan in all ways apart from one obvious difference - it has the lift- up back while the sedan has the boot. This means the two models are twins up until the B pillar, and from that point the hatch's rear-door glass is different, the roofline is slightly higher, and the vehicle length is 210mm shorter.

There's also less cargo room in the back with all seats in use, with the hatch offering 385 litres while the sedan has 482 litres. But the rear seats of both model types do split and fold 60-40, and obviously it is easier to load a hatchback than a sedan.

This new model is larger than the hatch it replaces. It is 10mm longer, 5mm wider and the wheelbase has been extended 50mm to 2700mm, which makes the wheelbase the same as the Sorento R SUV.

While the new Cerato hatchback doesn't have the same swept bodyshell as the sedan, it is an attractive vehicle with a European look to it - which makes sense, considering it is Europe where the hatchback is king.

And it might just be that this year, the hatchback becomes king in New Zealand too.

Whereas the small car ran second to the SUV last year with 19 per cent of all passenger vehicle sales compared to 27 per cent for the SUV style, in January this jumped to 26 per cent - just one percentage point behind SUVs. January was also the strong first month of year for new vehicle sales since the Motor Industry Association started taking records - a massive 10,258 vehicles were sold. And playing a major role in that increase were the five-door hatchbacks. There's no reason why the Cerato can't be a significant part of this, so long as adequate supplies can be sourced from Korea.

Taranaki Daily News