KIA Picanto 2011

Over the last few years Kia has transformed itself from a Korean-focussed car maker to a global manufacturer of some of the coolest affordable cars around. Pieter Kotze drives the vibrant little Picanto to see if it will keep Kia on the path of success.



It all started with the exterior design overhaul. Design attractive looking cars and the people will stream into the dealerships. Kia want to pull in all those fashionistas and to accomplish such they have given the Picanto a discerning, fun and modern style. The result is that those who think themselves cool enough will probably think the Picanto`s image measures up to them. It hasn`t always been this way of course, the original Picanto wasn’t much to look at, but its honest and simple message certainly impacted the subcompact segment. After that it got sent to the over-tanned Brazilian plastic surgeon and got back looking all sorry for itself. Then a certain mr. Peter Schreyer got hold of it and morphed it into one of the most attractive city cars around.

It’s a car with attitude, and the front section with those massive headlights and chunky bumper can even be slightly intimidating when it’s lurking in your rearview mirror. As with other new Kia’s it uses the new ‘tiger nose’ grille design, and if you squint you can probably imagine the Picanto as a tiger puppy. Schreyer also took a leaf out of Chris Bangle’s book and applied his own version of ‘flame surfacing’ (or ‘sculptured dents’ to me and you) which adds to the Picanto’s forward leaning stance. I won’t go as far as saying that the little Kia looks like it’s moving when standing still, but the strong shoulder line does give it some extra aggression. The rear is dominated by large tail lights seemingly based on boomerangs, while more curves maintain the cheeky look. Thumbs up then, but can the interior match this?

In short, not quite, but there are some interesting touches. Kia went for the ‘black on black’ colour scheme, but this is nicely offset by the faux metal inserts in the steering wheel (is that a clown smiling back at me?) and underlining the dashboard. The dash plastics are hard, but don’t feel cheap and the feel of the buttons and knobs will put some more expensive cars to shame. The steering wheel is only adjustable for height, but doesn’t prevent you from finding a comfortable driving position. It actually feels quite roomy inside, especially with the dashboard stretching out for miles in front of you, and even rear legroom is not bad for a car in this class. You get two cup holders up front, but only one for rear passengers, and even with a large glovebox and door pockets you feel there could’ve been more covered storage areas.

Standard equipment includes auxiliary, I-pod and USB connectivity, air conditioner, trip computer (with a slightly small and overeager gear indicator), auto lights and electric windows for the front doors. Unfortunately the list does not include auto locking doors, while the radio display almost disappears in sunlight. You can probably only fit Tom and Jerry in the boot (as with any car in this class), but the 200 litres of storage space can be increased up to a very useful 605 litres when you fold the rear seats down. The Picanto also has a clever ‘hidden’ storage area underneath the boot floor to store your valuables. So you get a roomy, good quality interior, but it lacks that extra touch of excitement which the exterior has in abundance.

Our ‘1 Air’ test model was powered by a tiny 998cc three cylinder engine mated to five speed gearbox. This little unit delivers 68bhp at a noisy 6200rpm, while maximum torque (95Nm) only kicks in at 3500rpm. These are not staggering figures and you’ll have to wait 13.9 seconds for the 62mph mark to appear, but gives you enough poke to play with around town. The engine is not extremely torquey, so you have to keep it around 4000rpm to keep things moving, but gear changes happen without fuss thanks to a light clutch pedal and fairly slick gearbox. The lack of torque becomes more evident as you venture out on the motorway. Be prepared to change down a gear or two when tackling a steep hill or when passing an ice-cream van. I do however love the growl from the engine as you press on, as it reminds me of the sound of a flat-six Porsche engine, if you have a good imagination that is …

The Picanto’s party trick is its absolute discipline when it comes to using fuel. A vicar would struggle to drink less than 67.3mpg in the combined cycle, and even with one of the smallest fuel tanks in the business (35 litres), you can drive for days before topping up.

Drivers who regularly carry passengers or those who do lots of motorway driving will be well advised to spend a few extra pounds upfront to buy the ‘2 Ecodynamics’ model with a 1.25 litre engine. This four cylinder mill produces 16bhp more power and 25Nm more torque than the one litre engine, while mpg figures are only slightly lower (60.1mpg), but still extremely frugal. It will be interesting to see if Kia will fit a small diesel engine into the Picanto as it should have a better torque spread and good fuel consumption figures.

The steering is light around town, and even though it lacks accuracy and feedback on the open road you always feel in control. The little Picanto also rides very well and takes most bumps, man-hole covers and pot holes in its stride. Even mid-corner bumps are soaked up with ease as the suspension setup (McPherson struts up front, Torsion beam at the rear) give you the feeling of driving a funky marshmallow. Just don’t go putting your foot on the brake pedal mid-corner, as it will put the Picanto off balance and lead to a spontaneous sweating session.

The Picanto fairs well in the handling stakes and is quite a fun car to drive, especially if the road contains multiple roundabouts. It grips more than you would expect and feels quite composed through the bends. Noise levels are also very impressive, except for the engine which can get a bit buzzy at high revs. There is minor sideways movement in crosswinds, but no dramatic movements to catch you off guard.

Given the quality interior, funky looks and good spec, the ‘1 Air’ model is one of the bargains of the century. £7 745 is a very competitive price, and compares well with the Fiat Panda 1.2 Active (around £8 000), Chev Spark +1.0 (£8 820) and Nissan Micra Visia (£9 650). The trouble is that sister company Hyundai sells the i10 1.2 Classic for £7 716. The i10’s 1.2 litre engine pushes out 85bhp and 121Nm while still only sipping 61.4mpg. The jump to the 1.25litre Picanto is a massive £3 300, which in these tough times is not petty cash for a city car. The fact that the i10 is conservatively styled shows that it is perhaps focused on a different market, whereas the Picanto is squarely aimed at the ‘I-pod and sushi’ generation.

The Picanto`s cool styling should get the punters through the doors but Kia have done much more than give this book a new cover and expect people to read the same story. The mechanics are pretty decent and driving satisfaction follows suit. In fact there is no doubt that the Picanto is strengthening Kia’s surge towards world domination.