Tested: Kia Picanto 1.2 EX
BIGGER, BETTER, DEFINITELY MORE FUN: The latest Picanto might be more grown up, but hasn't lost any of its innocent spunk.
Author: Hailey Philander
There was a time I could not understand South Africans’ continued fascination with the (thankfully) erstwhile VW Citi Golf and Toyota Tazz. Back then already, the Picanto was a more modern alternative with the promise of some safety equipment – and I love cheering on an underdog.
Of course, fast forward to 2011 (when the new Picanto was launched in South Africa) and it’s no longer an underdog. The Citi Golf and Tazz have been relegated to the history books and there’s “new” competition from Chery (QQ3) and Geely (LC).
This time around, the Picanto also had the luxury of the new, very capable i10 from sister company Hyundai (launched here in 2010) to pave the way, drawing attention to just how much the products from South Korea have improved over the last few years. It’s useful, too, that the two share a platform.
The all-new Picanto is visibly bigger – longer, taller and wider with a longer wheelbase – than the car it replaces, which means there’s generally more space in the cabin (for people, knees and elbows). And yes, beefier guys need not get too panicked about brushing their equally-beefy passengers’ knees when shifting gears – there’s room for everyone.
The coup de grace, though, is Peter Schreyer’s masterful application of the new Kia family face to its littlest model. The Picanto is undoubtedly still cute (it can probably be attributed to the car’s dimensions) but there’s a definite bite to it that was missing. Wider wheel arches, a dramatic grille, bulkier bumpers and sharper light clusters are key contributors, along with a strong shoulder line bringing a sense of tension and dynamism to the styling.
Inside the all-black cabin, the Picanto has definitely raised the bar as far as refinement and sophistication go. We had the use of the top-spec 1.2 EX that was stocked with just about every creature comfort one might expect in a car of at least one tier up. I thought the sunroof was wasted (good thing it’s optional – the Picanto is sunny enough on its own), but the standard connection of iPods and USBs, steering-wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth functionality and auto lights (with a useful “follow me home” function) did not go unwanted.
It’s comfortable too, with the steering wheel having a nice chunky feel to it and the tidy instrument panel just helps to bring the cabin together without making it feel cramped.
Manual models also come standard with the de rigeur bleeping gearshift indicator - along with an Eco mode - to help keep your fuel consumption respectable.
Although, given the Picanto’s fun-loving ride and handling characteristics and the willingness of the 1.2-litre powerplant in the flagship model, keeping the fuel consumption in the “reasonable” range, was a job in itself. Kia claims a figure between 5 and 6 litres/100km, but it was quite difficult to contain the energetic hatchback with its punchy engine seemingly unperturbed by the Gauteng elevation. The easy-shifting five-speed transmission and gentle clutch operation helped, too, especially in tight traffic conditions.
Included in the safety equipment column are anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and an emergency stop signal.
The Picanto is evidently most comfortable in urban environments with bumper-to-bumper traffic, it’s comfortable enough for longer journeys too. Provided you don’t expect to take four adults and their luggage on a two week-long break. The two-tiered boot is handy, particularly since you can store valuables and unmentionables out of sight, but the space remains predictably tight.
Beavering away in the Picanto also highlighted its refinement, which Kia attributes to a stiffer bodyshell and larger hydraulic engine mountings, a sound-deadening panel within the dashboard and door-sealing strips to mute noises creeping into the cabin.
The new Picanto is the perfect starter car (or ender car, for those downsizing) and, now that it looks more purposeful, no longer runs the risk of automatically being branded a “girl’s car”. It continues to represent good value, but is also fun to drive and shows a level of refinement often lacking in this market segment.
Another plus, perhaps, is that it is more engaging than its Hyundai sibling. More notably, perhaps, park it alongside the car it replaces and it serves as a reminder (as if we still need any more of those) to just how much the Korean nameplate’s cachet grown in the last few years.