Kia Picanto: Small car, big hitter
It might be small, but the Kia Picanto has big ambitions, says William Scholes
SMALL cars are big business even if, like children's waistlines, they have been getting larger, writes William Scholes.
Consider something like the Ford Fiesta or Volkswagen Polo. Compare the cars wearing those badges today to those which wore the same nameplates 30 years ago, and you will find they are now the size that a Golf or Escort - remember them? - used to be.
That's because a Golf is bigger than it used to be, which is why Volkswagen had to make the Passat bigger... and so it goes.
As the models which used to be a manufacturer's smallest offering have got bulkier and heavier, it has created space for new, so-called city cars.
So, where the Polo used to ply its trade, Volkswagen now offers the Up, along with its VW Group siblings the Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo.
Every serious volume car company has one - sometimes more - on its books, which helps demonstrate their importance and enduring popularity.
To the VW Group trio can be added the Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 108/Citroen C1 triplets, the Fiat 500, Ford Ka, Hyundai i10, Renault Twingo and a host of others.
It used to be the case that city cars were miserly, cheap-feeling little things that catered for those with smaller budgets and limited aspirations, but things have moved on considerably.
Small cars remain important to the car companies as a sort of gateway purchase to hook young drivers and inculcate brand loyalty that will encourage them behind the wheel of larger, more profitable vehicles in the future.
But today's more mature customers are also more amenable to going from a larger car to a smaller one than before - a move made easier if the city car is respectably built and trimmed as well as nice to drive.
This is harder than you might imagine. In a lot of ways it is easier to engineer and build a large saloon or SUV; making a physically small car and packing it with the sort of safety equipment electronic bells and whistles that buyers demand today and still having space for passengers and some luggage is a big engineering challenge.
One of the very best small cars you can buy is the Kia Picanto.
A new version arrived this year, improving on its predecessor in every way possible. In particular, the Picanto feels more matured and refined than before - all the better to woo potential downsizers.
It is a little larger than before, but this is still a small, narrow car.
The Picanto isn't as tall as the Hyundai i10 - a sister model - and consequently it is one of the better looking cars in the sector.
At 255 litres, the boot is a decent size and has an adjustable floor; with the seats folded its volume is a best-in-class 1,010 litres.
Space up-front is fine even for taller passengers, and the back seat is perhaps more generous than you might imagine; it is certainly adequate for two adults, though perhaps not on longer journeys...
All Picantos are now five-door, and you have the choice of two petrol engines, a manual or automatic gearbox and five trim levels.
Prices start at £9,450 for a base '1' model with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine.
It is reasonably well kitted out - hill start assist, automatic headlamps, electric front windows and a radio with USB and AUX connections are on board - but the '2' trim, as tested, looks to be the best balance between price and equipment.
There is great enjoyment to be had in thrashing the Picanto's 1.0-litre engine, helped in no small part by its smooth, free-revving nature
The '2' gains air conditioning, rear electric windows, Bluetooth, heated mirrors, 14-inch alloys and body coloured exterior trim.
Step up to a '3' and you get 15-inch alloys, autonomous emergency braking, door-mounted LED indicators, electric folding mirrors, a seven-inch touchscreen sat-nav with DAB and smartphone mirroring, a six-speaker audio system and a rear parking camera.
The sporty GT-Line drops the touchscreen but gets a bodykit, black and red 'faux leather' upholstery and larger 16-inch alloys.
At £13,950, the range-topping GT-Line S regains the touchscreen and gets some big car appointments such as heated seats and steering wheel, automatic air conditioning, cruise control, an electric sunroof and wireless phone charging.
The '1' can be had only with the 66bhp, 71lb.ft 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, while the '3' and GT-Line S are only available with the 1.25-litre four-cylinder 83bhp, 90lb.ft unit; the '2' and GT-Line can be had with either.
A five-speed manual is the standard gearbox, though a four-speed automatic can be had on the '2' and '3' with the 1.25-litre engine.
The Picanto is solidly built with materials that are nicer than you might expect for a car of its price. It certainly feels a cut above the likes of the Toyota Aygo and is the match of the Hyundai i10 and the Volkswagen Group cars.
With its little three-pot engine, you would be right in thinking that a Picanto 1.0-litre isn't going to pull your socks off.
It is, however, a lot more fun than its modest power output suggests. There is great enjoyment to be had in thrashing it, helped in no small part by its smooth, free-revving nature.
Driven thus, and it makes a cheery thrum. It isn't raucous, however, and settles down to a quiet cruise on the motorway.
Zipping up to around 50mph is easily within the Picanto's range; more patience is needed above that, but once wound up it cruises happily at motorway speeds.
Darting about town is the Picanto's natural habitat, where its pliant and comfortable ride stands out as one of its outstanding characteristics.
That composure fades a little on the motorway or during more exuberant back road manoeuvres, perhaps amplified by steering that is over-light and lacks much feel.
There is lots of grip and the handling is safely predictable, meaning that decent fun can be had punting the Picanto along a favourite B road.
Its diminutive size means the Picanto is easy and fear-free to park.
Kia's seven-year warranty is another big plus point in the Picanto's favour.
All Picantos are now five-door, and you have the choice of two petrol engines, a manual or automatic gearbox and five trim levels
Less thrilling is the fuel consumption. Even driven enthusiastically, I would have hoped that a small car would have achieved more than the test figure of 37.2mpg, which is some way adrift of the official combined figure of 64.2mpg.
It isn't enough to take the gloss off what is otherwise a very competent offering from Kia.
The Picanto is well built, good to drive, practical, nicely equipped and pleasingly refined.
There is much to recommend it; it's a small car that deserves to do big business for Kia.
AT A GLANCE
Kia Picanto ‘2’
Price: £10,750. As tested £11,245, with metallic paint £495
Engine and transmission: 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol, five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 66bhp, 71lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 100mph, 0-60mph in 13.8 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 64.2mpg (EU combined), 37.2mpg (real world), 101g/km
Car tax: £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 19 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Dual-rated, 2017: Three stars (79/64/54/25) as standard, Four stars (87/64/54/47) with safety pack