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Tiger Cub


New Rio hatch becomes the last Kia model to get that special Peter Schreyer pixie dust sprinkled on it. And it’s a decent conclusion.

One of our favourite-est ever lines from a celebrity cameo on The Simpsons is when astronaut Buzz Aldrin appears on the show. After being introduced as 'the second man on the moon', Aldrin leaps in over-enthusiastically with 'Second comes right after first!' Well being a part of the b-team might not be viewed as such a bad thing going forward.

We consumers don't think in terms of segments anymore than we might demographics. We buy cars because we weigh up the pros and cons of the ones we can afford (or nearly afford) and decide which one is right for us - and our bank manager. But if you were to dwell on the varying segments of New Zealand's car market for a moment, you'd certainly notice a big spike under 'b'.

The b-segment is currently the third largest in the country and, with 12.4 percent total market share, is growing prodigiously. Of course, the 'b' designation has nothing to do with second-best cars; it's size-related and is where you'll find models like the Honda Jazz, Holden Barina, Ford Fiesta and current segment champ Suzuki Swift residing. You might've already spotted a common theme here: hatchbacks dominate, with 96 percent of models in the b-segment being three- or five-door cars, as opposed to small sedans.

Kia New Zealand is predicting decent growth in the segment (a 37 percent increase in volume by the end of 2011 in fact) and they'll be hoping the newly revised Rio will carry its fair share of this. The current-now-previous generation Rio is sitting in ninth spot in the segment league tables behind the Nissan Micra, so there's everything to play for.

New Rio comes in two grades of specification; base LX and, as tested here, top-shelf EX. Kia provides a small but decently proportioned enough range including three petrol versions (one of which is available with either manual or automatic trannies) and a diesel manual too.

The manual cars all feature Kia's new Idle Stop & Go (ISG) stop/start tech and are six speeders. The automatic transmission - available in both LX and EX guise - only comes with four ratios though. This is a disappointment, especially as our Aussie cousins can buy a 1.6-litre Rio with a six-speed auto in their market (Kia New Zealand think this car will be available here by mid-2012; pity it's not sooner though as the four cog auto 'box is one of the EX spec Rio's few negatives).

Oily bits aside, the Rio is one well-specified b-segment car. Despite its compact stature (the new car is 142mm longer and 25mm wider than the old Rio but still only 4045mm long and 1720mm wide overall) the Rio boasts the longest wheelbase in the segment and there are still plenty of class items packed in as standard.

The EX model features stuff you wouldn't generally expect to find on a $26k car; smart cornering lights that illuminate bends in the road at up to 75km/h, LED daytime running lights and rear lamps, Bluetooth hands-free on all models (fleet-friendly LX included), six airbags and an MP3-capable audio system with easy iPod and USB connectivity that also cheats true surround sound with clever-tech 'phantom' tweeters.

The Rio EX also features Hill Start Assist braking which is the first model in class to offer this, as well as climate air and rain-sensing wipers that hide away out of sight behind the top edge of the bonnet when not needed.

Just in case you think the 288-litre boot capacity is a tad on the small side (you shouldn't - the Mazda2 can only boast 250-litres and the all conquering Swift a mere 213-litres), there's a sedan version coming next year, which will adjust the b-segment hatch/sedan balance of power ever-so-slightly. Doubt it will look as tidy as this though.

On road things are marred by the aforementioned lack of top end due to the four-speed automatic. Holding the car in third (with the manual shifter) on the right road though provides for decent levels of entertainment: the chassis feels surprisingly sorted and the car slingshots solidly through tighter corners. Its mass feels nicely balanced and, perhaps because you're spending your time wishing the EX model came with a six-speed manual (it doesn't), the electric steering doesn't leave you at all cold either.

Kia New Zealand report of their intention to release a 1.6-litre petrol three-door Rio Sport before winter next year. If it's specifiable with a manual gearbox, the ingredients are there for something genuinely fun. For the mean time though, this b-segment hatch looks good and is specified enthusiastically. Ninth to first might seem like a giant leap, but the Rio is as sure-footed a small step as you'll find.

Auto Trader New Zealand