Kia Picanto GT-Line S might have only 99bhp but packs a fun-sized punch

The Kia Picanto GT-Line S is a little rubber ball of rowdy fun

IT'S not that long ago that our mainstream car market was dominated by three behemoths: Ford, Vauxhall and the various collapsing iterations of British Leyland, writes William Scholes.

BL is long gone, with its constituent parts either imploding into oblivion (Austin, Rover) or scattered to the four winds (MG is now a Chinese EV specialist; Jaguar and Land Rover are owned by Indian conglomerate Tata; Mini is wildly successful under BMW stewardship).

Vauxhall, now part of the same group that includes Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat and a bunch of others, is holding its own ­- the Corsa was the second most popular new car in the UK last year and is the best seller so far in 2023, while the little Mokka SUV is also a strong seller.

Ford was once the definitive mainstream car brand and comfortably the bestselling, but now feels like it needs a shot in the arm. Sure, the Fiesta still sells well - it's the most popular new model registered in Northern Ireland so far this year, narrowly ahead of the Nissan Juke - but it's going out of production soon. And  the cheapest model is now £19,330. Ford's Ecosport, which is a pretty horrible contraption, somehow starts at £23,435. When people talk about cars getting more expensive, this is what they mean...

They've called time on the Focus - they'll stop building those by 2025 - and the Mondeo is long gone. The elderly Galaxy and S-Max get the heave-ho in a few weeks. Take them out of the equation and Ford has just seven models (Fiesta, Focus, Ecosport, Puma, Kuga, Mustang Mach-E and full-fat Mustang) jostling for space in the showrooms.

All of this came to mind while thinking, once again, about just how impressive Kia's offering is these days. Kia is arguably the epitome of the modern mainstream car-maker in 2023.

Where Ford and Vauxhall have dwindling model lines, Kia have 12 (add in plug-in and high performance models and you can get that to 16…). The cars are sensibly priced, well built and pleasant to drive. They are nice to look at and come with a reassuring seven-year warranty. What's not to like? Importantly, given the shifts in the motor industry, Kia is, along with sister company Hyundai, a step ahead of its rivals in electric cars.

Kia's heartland is the popular Sportage SUV, with a line-up bookended at one extreme by the stonking EV6 GT - a 577bhp electric rocket ship - and at the other by the humble little Picanto city car. The boss EV6 GT will cost you more than £62k. That would get you more than four entry-level Picantos (is the plural Picanti?).



We'll look at some other Kia models in coming weeks but for now I want to sing the praises of the Picanto, specifically the range-topping hot hatch-bothering GT-Line S I got to buzz about in recently.

I love cars like this; small, light and energetic, the best of the breed are fun to drive and let you feel like you're going fast when in fact you're well within both the speed limit and your own limits.

The Picanto is a small car by any measure - just under 3.6 metres long and 1.6m wide - but it has five doors and is as spacious inside as you could reasonably expect from something the size of a stack of tubs of Celebrations. It's a basic car - frugal 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, front-wheel-drive, five-speed gearbox - and starts at £13,400 in Spartan '1' trim.

The lower trims make do with just 66bhp, which is firmly in the glacial category when it comes to performance. If you grit your teeth and find a long enough runway pointing down a steep hill, you might just about hit 100mph. The 0-60mph time is 14 seconds, or almost 17 seconds if you tick the auto gearbox option.

My advice is to skip those versions and go straight to the 99bhp GT-Line S. As well as being a whole 50 per cent more potent, it has all the pocket rocket cues: go-faster red pinstripes, a twin exhaust, little bucket seats and funky alloy wheels. The GT-Line S is also rather well finished - how does a heated steering wheel, to go with the heated front seats, and cruise control, air conditioning, keyless entry and smartphone mirroring sound? All this can be yours for £17,450…

Press the start button and the little three-cylinder engine throbs into life. It's a characterful unit, as this configuration often is, and it revs cleanly and freely. Its vibrancy is key to the sporty Picanto's appeal. It weighs just over a tonne, so it gets the car moving far more briskly than the on-paper figures (0-60mph in 9.9 seconds, top speed 112mph) might suggest.

The gearbox isn't the sweetest - Mazda have nothing to worry about - but the pedals are nicely weighted and the steering light and accurate. Get the Picanto GT-Line S on to a favourite back road and it fairly dashes along and engages you in the craft of driving, sucking you into thinking about when to brake, when to accelerate… that this level of fun is available at safe, sensible speeds is the icing on the cake. And when you don't want to drive like your trousers are on fire, the Picanto settles down to become a calmer companion.

To spend time with the Picanto is to be reminded that modern cars all too often isolate us from the interactivity and enjoyment of driving. Pint-sized cars simply don't suit everyone - many of us simply need something larger - but if you want to put a small bit of sensible fun into your daily motoring, you could do worse than investigate the smallest car offered by contemporary mainstream champ, Kia.