ALPINE HALL PASS SMALL BUT PER­FECTLY FORMED

In­wood finds the hills are very much alive while ham­mer­ing an AMG A35 over five Alpine passes in two days Three pint-sized tear­abouts prove there’s plenty of pep below $20K

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS BY­RON MATHIOUDAK­IS PHO­TOS ALASTAIR BROOK

OH! WON’T SOME­BODY please think of the chil­dren!” Or at least the teens.

Over the past few years, more than a hand­ful of sub-$20,000 su­per­mi­nis have van­ished from Aussie roads, as im­porters di­vert re­sources to­wards larger and more prof­itable SUVS and dual-cab utes.

The list of the bar­gain-base­ment dearly de­parted reads like the In Me­mo­riam at the Os­cars: Holden Ba­rina (af­ter 33 years!), Hyundai i20 (and soon Ac­cent), Nis­san Mi­cra, Ford Fi­esta, Volk­swa­gen Up… The car­nage is scan­dalous for lovers of com­pact, tal­ented minia­tures.

Thank­fully, some brands still see the sense in tak­ing a punt on a peppy pint-sized run­about, lur­ing buy­ers of all ages with the hope of nur­tur­ing life­long loy­alty. Af­ter all, a re­la­tion­ship has to start some­where, right? So, we’ve cor­ralled a trio of the re­main­ing favourites (in their pre­ferred man­u­al­gear­box guises, nat­u­rally) to see which is best and bright­est, be­gin­ning with the pro­gres­sive, far-sighted Kia.

Sure, at 3.6 me­tres long and 1.6m wide, the pert Pi­canto is a sub-b (or in­ac­cu­rately named ‘Mi­cro’) class con­tender, rather than a proper, full-sized su­per­mini. The thing is, though, the Korean/ger­man co-de­vel­oped five-seater, five­door hatch has hit top form since the lat­est, third-gen model sur­faced in 2017, com­mand­ing 80 per­cent of a (ad­mit­tedly shrink­ing) seg­ment most other im­porters have aban­doned. The les­son, kids? If the pric­ing, pack­ag­ing, spec­i­fi­ca­tion and panache are right, cus­tomers will come.

From $17,990, the GT, launched only last Jan­uary, is the costli­est car here (as well as the heav­i­est, at 1026kg), but that’s prob­a­bly be­cause the chic Kia’s stats reads like a ju­nior GTI’S; 74kw/172nm from a 1.0-litre, three-cylin­der turbo, quicker steer­ing, re­tuned dampers, stiffer spring rates, four­wheel discs, a bodykit and twin ex­hausts. Saucy!

Other top­pings in­clude AEB with for­ward col­li­sion warn­ing, hill-hold con­trol, six airbags, Blue­tooth stream­ing, cruise con­trol with speed lim­iter, Ap­ple Carplay/an­droid Auto, dusk-sens­ing head­lights, elec­tric/heated fold­ing mir­rors, al­loy wheels and the group’s only seven-year war­ranty (versus five for the oth­ers). The thing is heav­ing with gear.

Next on the docket is Suzuki’s Swift, a Ja­panese su­per­mini with built-in speed and swag­ger to match the badge – cer­tainly since the ‘mod­ern era’ model’s 2005 re­vival of a mid80s stal­wart. Two re­designs later, the lat­est ver­sion (launched two years ago now) in­tro­duces a sig­nif­i­cantly larger, stronger, roomier and qui­eter struc­ture than be­fore. At just 870kg, it weighs in 156kg lighter than the Kia.

From $16,990, the GL Nav­i­ga­tor isn’t pre­tend­ing to be any­thing other than base, so there are no overtly sporty flour­ishes as per Pi­canto. How­ever, while the manual vari­ant lacks AEB, auto head­lights and fold­ing mir­rors and has rear drum brakes only, the Swift is use­fully longer (by 245mm) and wider (by 140mm). It also in­cludes most of the other gear, as well as GPS, and is pow­ered by the three­some’s big­gest (if not gut­si­est) en­gine – a 66kw/120nm, 1.2-litre nat­u­rally as­pi­rated four-cylin­der unit.

A FRUITY THRUM AT IDLE IM­ME­DI­ATELY INFORMS THE DRIVER THAT THIS AIN’T NO PLEBEIAN PI­CANTO

The small­est pow­er­train, mean­while, be­longs to the Renault Clio Life (also $16,990) and its 66kw/135nm, 0.9-litre three-pot turbo. Added a cou­ple of years back to the ageing se­ries, which scored a mem­o­rable sec­ond in the 2013 Wheels Car of the Year contest, the Turk­ish-built, 1017kg Frenchie cer­tainly doesn’t look that old, ev­i­denced by the fact that the all-new, yet-to-ar­rive Mk5 ver­sion looks very sim­i­lar. That car is due in Oz later in 2020.

Be­ing en­try level, the good­ies AWOL from the Swift also ap­ply to the Life, more or less, and there’s no GPS, ei­ther. But the coolly mus­cu­lar Clio fea­tures dusk-sens­ing head­lights and is alone with re­mote en­try/push-but­ton start, stop/start, dig­i­tal ra­dio, walk-away auto lock­ing, a tele­scopic as well as tilt-adjustable steer­ing wheel and rain-sens­ing wipers. Note, though, that no rear cur­tain airbags ex­ist, as Renault reck­ons ex­tra body brac­ing pro­vides bet­ter crash protection. Nor are Ap­ple Carplay or An­droid Auto present.

Still, al­most every­body ex­pected its pric­ing to be com­fort­ably over $20K. The Clio just seems like a much more ex­pen­sive car. That sense is am­pli­fied by how much more up­mar­ket the Clio’s thought­fully pre­sented cabin seems, thanks to com­par­a­tively ef­fec­tive sound-dead­en­ing, big, squishy front seats and fea­tures like the fully adjustable steer­ing wheel, glossy black trim, dig­i­tal in­stru­men­ta­tion, DAB+ ra­dio and the fact that one need not ever touch the key.

There’s am­ple space up front, too, although the sweep­ing roofline lim­its head­room out back for taller folk and the rear cush­ion, while long, is a tad flat. The dash design is feel­ing its age, too, un­der­lined by the dated small screen.

In con­trast, the Swift is a ver­i­ta­ble Tardis in­side, mak­ing the most of its boxy di­men­sions with clever use of space (which is most ap­par­ent in the roomy rear), ex­cel­lent all-round vision and a com­mand­ing driv­ing po­si­tion.

The lovely thin-rimmed (though tilt-only) wheel, racy-red-tinged di­als and colour­ful mul­ti­me­dia touch­screen en­hance the ath­letic am­bi­ence, but the tight speedo mark­ings cry out for a sec­ondary dig­i­tal read­out. The cush­ions can feel quite numb­ing af­ter a few hours, de­spite front-seat bol­ster­ing, there’s plenty of road and sus­pen­sion noise in­tru­sion au­di­ble from the back, and the Suzuki’s lack of over­head grab han­dles smacks of penny pinch­ing.

If girth is your thing, the Pi­canto’s city-friendly nar­row­ness will be the over­rid­ing cabin char­ac­ter­is­tic (es­pe­cially if you’re try­ing to squeeze three adults in the back), fol­lowed by just how damned stylish and sen­si­bly placed ev­ery­thing is.

Like a shrunken Hyundai i30’s, the dash im­parts a ma­tu­rity beyond its sta­tion, with classy ana­logue di­als (again, no dig­i­tal speedo) and Audi R8-es­que cli­mate switchgear.

A big, hand­some wheel (lack­ing reach ad­justa­bil­ity), firm but sup­port­ive seat­ing, am­ple vision and the group’s only centre bin­with-slid­ing-arm­rest combo, un­der­line the pleas­ing thor­ough­ness that’s gone into the cute lit­tle Kia.

Like the Swift, though, there’s some road and me­chan­i­cal noise find­ing its way in­side, yet that’s not nec­es­sar­ily such a bad thing in a frisky hatch wear­ing a GT badge.

Fire up that 74kw, 1.0-litre turbo triple, and there’s a fruity thrum at idle, en­demic of the breed, that im­me­di­ately informs the driver this ain’t no plebeian Pi­canto. Tip­ping in the throt­tle even slightly elic­its a hasty burst of ac­cel­er­a­tion, aided by a weighty yet well-oiled and pos­i­tive shift action that rates as one of Kia’s best.

While the GT’S power-to-weight ra­tio trails that of the feath­er­weight Swift’s, a torque-fu­elled tor­rent of mid-range mus­cle

en­sures there’s a yawn­ing gap be­tween the two as the scenery starts to blur past faster – half a sec­ond at 60km/h (4.4sec vs 4.9sec) be­comes nearly 1.5sec at 100 (9.4sec vs 10.8sec) and al­most 5.5sec at 140 (19sec vs a leisurely 24.4sec). In the telling 80-120km/h times, the Kia lunged ahead by 1.2sec. There’s still plenty of poke left well past 150km/h, ex­pos­ing this Pi­canto for what it really is – a fiery and feisty lit­tle fid­get spin­ner of a thing. And it’s smooth, too.

The overly touchy brakes do take some get­ting used to, how­ever. And, as you might ex­pect from a GT, full Esc-off is pos­si­ble, but not rec­om­mended in the wet, un­less un­ruly wheel­spin from the low-grip Nex­ens, plus co­pi­ous axle tramp­ing in the first three gears are what float your boat.

No such ail­ments af­flict the sweet-spin­ning 66kw 1.2-litre Swift, mainly be­cause the tacho needs to be swing­ing past at least 3000rpm be­fore any mean­ing­ful torque is de­tected.

That said, thanks to a healthy 73kw/tonne, the Suzuki feels spir­ited off the line and pulls long and hard all the way to the 6400rpm cut-out. A huge part of the fun also lies in the slick, quick gearshift mech­a­nism, which makes cog-swap­ping a de­light. Few cars cry out for a can­ing so wil­fully. Rous­ing and re­ward­ing, a more con­vinc­ing poster boy for manual gear­boxes would be hard to find.

Even with just 271km on the odo, our tight black Clio and its tiny 66kw 0.9-litre blown triple is yet another fine ex­am­ple of an in­volv­ing, sat­is­fy­ing pow­er­train pair­ing. Also matched with a five-speeder, in­tel­li­gently spaced ra­tios and a high-boost turbo de­liver prompt re­sponses from take-off speeds, although it runs out of puff by 6000rpm. The Renault feels rorty and fight­ing-fit ready for the cut-and-thrust of fast-mov­ing traf­fic, de­spite falling far off the pace against the stop­watch. The Kia is 1.1sec ahead at 60, 2.7sec at 100 and 8.4sec at 140. Yet, as its 18.3sec sprint over 400m proves, the Life is still in the race against the GL’S 17.6sec and GT’S 16.8sec. Short, sharp stabs of thrust is what the Clio’s all about.

So, a con­vinc­ing per­for­mance win for the perky Pi­canto for sure, but as these are still fun-on-a-bud­get buys, it’s worth not­ing that wring­ing all three right out to the red line re­sulted in some in­ter­est­ing fuel con­sump­tion out­comes: 7.3L/100km apiece for the tur­bos and a com­mend­able 6.5L for the Swift. Clearly, there’s still no sub­sti­tute for cu­bic inches.

Separat­ing all three dy­nam­i­cally comes down to how you want your su­per­mini to be­have, since all earned their spot here due to their zeal­ous han­dling and road­hold­ing. Yet their per­son­al­i­ties are as dif­fer­ent as their pre­sen­ta­tions.

Just like its pow­er­train, the Pi­canto ex­udes a scrappy cando charm, due to fast steer­ing that al­lows for crisp turn-in and pin-point ac­cu­racy, with­out ever be­ing ner­vous or out of its depth. Given how firm the chas­sis set-up is, mid-corner bumps can un­set­tle the cho­sen line of action mo­men­tar­ily, yet

REALLY FLOGGING THE SWIFT QUICKLY THROUGH TIGHT, FAST TURNS RE­VEALS A CRACK­ING CHAS­SIS TUNE THAT BOTH RE­WARDS AND REASSURES

there’s heaps of self-as­sured con­trol for the driver to draw upon. Fur­ther­more, the Kia’s ride re­mains re­mark­ably ab­sorbent.

The Clio, mean­while, is an ab­so­lute smoothie, from the mea­sured action and ful­some feed­back of the helm to the fluid and un­ruf­fled way it glides through cor­ners, dis­play­ing to­tal Gal­lic in­sou­ciance. With a wide-track stance and sup­ple sus­pen­sion smoth­er­ing the rough stuff below, the Life shines as the trio’s most so­phis­ti­cated ground cov­erer. And all with­out sac­ri­fic­ing fun. Renault’s been build­ing cars for 120 years, and it shows.

Some­where in be­tween the Pi­canto and the Clio re­sides the spir­ited, sassy Swift. De­spite hav­ing 3.1 turns lock-to-lock, its steer­ing is de­li­ciously quick, pre­cise and full of wel­come feed­back, in­volv­ing the keen driver while never tir­ing out those who just want to flit about with­out fuss or ef­fort.

Per­haps in sym­pa­thy with its peaky power out­puts, really flogging the Swift quickly through tight, fast turns re­veals a crack­ing chas­sis tune that both re­wards and reassures.

Factor in a soft, set­tled ride that doesn’t come at the cost of pitch or body roll, and it’s clear that the GL Nav­i­ga­tor pos­sesses an in­cred­i­ble breadth of dy­namic talent. And this is the most mun­dane, ev­ery­day ver­sion. We loved the base manual at COTY 2018 and we adore it even more now.

Ul­ti­mately, the Suzuki rep­re­sents the best of both worlds, be­ing ea­ger enough to in­volve and ex­cite, like the Kia, yet comfy and prac­ti­cal enough to tick all the ev­ery­day-prac­ti­cal­ity boxes that should be su­per­mini fun­da­men­tals, a la Renault.

The fact that there’s no AEB availabili­ty for the manual ver­sion is dis­ap­point­ing (it’s stan­dard on all auto vari­ants) and the boot volume isn’t gen­er­ous, but oth­er­wise the Swift five-speeder is an over­achiever that punches well above its weight. It’s a close but con­vinc­ing win for the Suzuki.

If raw, raspy warm-hatch thrills are your pri­or­ity, then the Pi­canto obliges with its own Jack Russell charm to make its own wa­ter-tight case for the crown. Quick, com­posed and con­fi­dent, the GT re­flects ev­ery­thing that’s right about Kia, in con­cen­trated form. We’re so glad it ex­ists.

Fi­nally, there’s the Renault. Old it may be, but the pol­ished Clio will seduce with its classy threads, suave manners and serene sophistica­tion. Bristling with cool­ness and char­ac­ter, it re­mains a com­pelling rea­son why car mak­ers must continue to nurture and evolve the su­per­mini species.

The kinder­garten class of 2019 might be con­tract­ing, but the re­main­ing, ex­pan­sive tal­ented trio on of­fer here clearly aren’t go­ing down with­out a fight. The kids are all right.

OLD IT MAY BE, BUT THE POL­ISHED CLIO WILL SEDUCE WITH ITS CLASSY THREADS, SUAVE MANNERS AND SERENE SOPHISTICA­TION

Swift looks fa­mil­iar, fun and friendly, but grips like Godzilla

It’s not su­per fast, it’s not bal­lis­tic, it’s just... Swift

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