Chang­ing the baby

It tips the scales at less than a tonne but Kia’s Pi­canto proves a heavy-hitter

Herald Sun - Motoring - - FIRST DRIVE - RICHARD BLACK­BURN CARS­GUIDE EDITOR richard.black­burn@news.com.au

KIA’S Pi­canto is cus­tom made for Eng­land’s tight, twist­ing coun­try roads and im­pos­si­bly nar­row vil­lage lanes.

As we head along the Cornwall coast, the lit­tle Korean is in its el­e­ment, duck­ing and weav­ing like a quick-footed feath­er­weight as trucks and de­liv­ery vans hurtle to­wards us in the early morn­ing driz­zle.

A vil­lage ar­rives, a wrong turn en­sues and the Pi­canto turns on a six­pence (its turn­ing cir­cle is just 9.8 me­tres) and scoots off.

The 1.25-litre en­gine is sur­pris­ingly smooth and happy to rev, which is handy be­cause you need to use all five gears in the man­ual to keep up the mo­men­tum for hill climbs and over­tak­ing. Kia didn’t make an auto avail­able for the test drive.

On the free­way, the Pi­canto feels planted for a car that weighs less than a tonne, although one man in a very large van man­ages to up­set the bal­ance with a too-close for com­fort over­tak­ing ma­noeu­vre.

Steer­ing is ac­cu­rate and gives good feed­back, while the en­gine revs high but doesn’t buzz too much at the lo­cal limit of 70mph (112km/h).

Af­ter three days and more than 1000km be­hind the wheel of Kia’s tiny tot, it’s safe to say that the Pi­canto feels im­pres­sively grown up. Some cars at this price can be a bit spooky on the free­way and less than in­spir­ing through the bends — the Pi­canto feels solid and com­posed.

It’s quite a feat for a car that is just 18 months away from a com­pletely new model. Add an en­tic­ing seven-year, un­lim­ited kilo­me­tre war­ranty and it should get more than its fair share of the pie in the city run­about class.

Un­for­tu­nately, that pie is shrink­ing. Baby cars have failed to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of the Aus­tralian mo­torist, de­spite im­prov­ing small-en­gine tech­nol­ogy, bet­ter safety and im­proved road man­ners.

Fuel prices have eased and, with in­ter­est rates low, buy­ers are stretch­ing the bud­get by a

few dol­lars a week and get­ting into a big­ger car, de­spite grow­ing con­ges­tion in Aus­tralia’s cities.

Sales in the seg­ment are down by al­most a third this year de­spite the ar­rival of up­dated mod­els.

Kia spokesman Kevin Hep­worth ac­knowl­edges that there are bet­ter times to launch the Pi­canto but says the car can still at­tract a fol­low­ing un­til the new model ar­rives in 2017.

“There was a lot of dis­cus­sion in­ter­nally about whether we wait 18 months or bring this car in now. We can see roughly 300 (sales) a month with this … and it will be mostly in­cre­men­tal growth. “

He claims the car is more sub­stan­tial than ri­vals.

“The cars that we have looked at in that seg­ment, very few of them have the en­gi­neer­ing of this car, or the so­lid­ity,” he says. “It feels like a class above in its con­struc­tion, how solid it is and how it sits on the road.

“It’s not a car made to a price, it’s a car made to a seg­ment.”

He’s right, to a de­gree. The Pi­canto is age­ing well and still looks a com­pet­i­tive pack­age. How­ever, four-speed auto and five-speed man­ual trans­mis­sions are hardly cut­ting edge, even at the bud­get end of the mar­ket.

Then there’s the omis­sion of a re­vers­ing cam­era — it may not even get re­vers­ing sen­sors.

Awarded four stars in Euro­pean crash test­ing, it was marked down for hav­ing no sta­bil­ity con­trol.

The lo­cal car will be fit­ted with sta­bil­ity con­trol, which is manda­tory in Aus­tralia.

There is no con­fir­ma­tion as to whether it will get cruise con­trol, which was on one of the three cars we tested. Spec­i­fi­ca­tion is still be­ing sorted in ad­vance of its lo­cal launch early next year.

Hep­worth says there will be only one model avail­able in man­ual and auto, with the man­ual slid­ing in at an es­ti­mated $13,490 drive-away, the auto $14,990.

In­side, the Pi­canto still feels com­pet­i­tive. The seat fab­ric de­signs on all three mod­els are mod­ern and the seats give plenty of sup­port on long free­way drives. Rear knee­room is tight but head­room is good and there is de­cent space un­der­neath the front seats for feet. The rear load area is small — and could get smaller if Kia fits a tem­po­rary spare in lieu of the re­pair kits on our test cars.

For a model reach­ing the end of its life-cy­cle, the Pi­canto holds up very well. But we won’t be able to make a judg­ment as to how it stacks up against the com­pe­ti­tion un­til we see the nitty gritty of the fea­tures list.

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