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