ANYONE WHO’S EVER played Gran Turismo has a soft spot for turbo “Kei” cars like the Suzuki Alto Works or Daihatsu MIRA TR-XX Avanzato R - sub-1000kg ankle-biters that never came to Australia but aroused the fast car imagination regardless.
It was with these cars in mind we learned of the new Kia Picanto GT, a micro-class car with a turbo three-cylinder, direct-injected, twin-cam engine, five-speed manual, front-wheel drive and a dash of styling mongrel.
With a GT badge, we hoped for great things - the GT moniker, is, after all, reserved for properly respectful Kias such as the 272kW twin-turbo V6 reardrive Stinger, or the late, Michelin-shod Proceed GT, one of the most underappreciated hot hatches we’ve driven in recent times.
In giving its pint-sized Picanto the GT treatment, Kia has fitted a 1.0-litre triple with an itty-bitty single-scroll turbo, stiffened the suspension and remapped the electric power steering.
It only comes with a five-speed manual, no auto. Outputs are 74kW and 172Nm, and you might guess that it weighs 900kg, but actually it’s 1007kg, quite portly for its size (a Suzuki Swift Sport is a class of car larger and 970kg). Indeed the Picanto GT’s 73kW/tonne is seriously tepid by MOTOR standards.
But that’s okay. Cult classic fast cars are born when the engineers sneak a cheeky chassis tune past the execs, and it was with this optimism we slid into the Picanto’s compact and neatly laidout interior, rubbing shoulders (literally) with our passenger (who was not helping the power-to-weight ratio).
Let’s get one thing out of the way early, the GT is fun - once you’ve got it moving. It is seriously slow; Kia doesn’t quote a 0-100km/h time and for good reason - you’d need a calendar. We would estimate well over 10 seconds; a Toyota 86, a supposedly underpowered car, will hit 100km/h in about 7.2sec.
There’s a thrummy, characterful three-cylinder engine that sounds great, right? Sort of. There certainly is a nice thrum low in the revs, and a bit of turbo whistle under load, but the Picanto GT shuns any sort of rorty exhaust.
Once the little five-door Picanto has piled on a bit of speed, it’s fun, in a hire car kind of way. The 195/45R16 Nexen N’Blue eco tyres hang on optimistically, but it’s always the fronts that give up first. If you enjoy friendly, easy understeer, you’ll enjoy this car.
And you’ll never wear out the tyres or brakes given how much it weighs. A bit of cheeky oversteer? The torsion beam chassis is designed to do everything but, and besides, the non-killable, hypernannying ESP would never allow it.
Boasting oodles of standard equipment, the Picanto GT would be a good, honest runabout car that fits five people at a pinch. It’s comfortable enough, easy to get into parking spots and gives you a little cackle when hurled through a roundabout. But modern day turbo “Kei” car - future cult classic hot hatch? Unfortunately not.