Kia Picanto

Cheerful baby takes steps where others fear to tread

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

KIA Australia is diving headfirst into waters where some big names have floundered – the sub-B city car class – with the Picanto, due here around March. VW Up, Smart ForTwo, Fiat Panda… Australia is littered with the still-warm carcasses of cool cars that should have set the segment on fire but instead fizzled out like a first-term PM.

Though the rewards for success are potentially huge (mainly snaring youth loyalty for life), our big open spaces, low fuel prices and irresistibly cheap cars from the next segment above make what are officially called ‘micro’ cars questionable Down Under.

Brave Kia, however, has shown the balls to battle it out against the inexplicably popular Mitsubishi Mirage with the new Picanto, a funky hatch that slots beneath the Rio. To keep things simple, only a single, mid-spec five-door is heading our way, with likely driveaway pricing of $13,490 for the manual and $14,990 in four-speed auto guise (compared with $16K plus on-roads for a base Rio S three-door).

And you’re not getting some flimsy, tinny buzz-box, either.

Having already transformed Kia design in larger models, Peter Schreyer has ensured that the second-generation Picanto transcends the pitfalls of many truncated hatches, with balanced proportions, a friendly face and a striking tail-light treatment.

Despite being just a smidge under 3.6m long and 1.6m wide, the Kia’s lofty 1.5m height and near-2.4m wheelbase liberate enough space for four adults, though the meagre 200-litre luggage capacity (with a spacesaver spare) is an unavoidable city-slicker consequence.

Cabin plastics may be hard, but the dashboard’s elegant and easy layout shames many bigger cars, with the driving position, ventilation, vision and storage uncompromised by the perthatch packaging. Extra marks go to the forward-tipping rear seat cushion, allowing an extralow load area with the backrest folded, effective Bluetooth connectivity and ultra-clear instruments. No wonder the Euros rate this baby so highly.

One area the Picanto should score points with punters is its 1248cc four-cylinder petrol engine, a twin-cam variablevalve unit with an extra cylinder over most rivals.

Fervent yet sweet, with just over 900kg to lug around, it pulls away willingly in our UK test car, sings well past the 6500rpm redline, cruises effortlessly at 120km/h and promises to return exceptional economy using idle-stop tech (though that’s not confirmed for Oz). It’s a far stronger heart than the 51kW/95Nm 1.0-litre triple that Kia Australia rejected, though the official 0-100km/h figure for the four-speed auto (which we didn’t test) is a snoozy 13.7sec.

Kia’s Frankfurt base sorted the chassis – struts up front and a torsion-beam rear – with an emphasis on flowing (electric) steering response, controlled cornering and a comfy ride. If you’re up for some fun, the Picanto feels pleasingly lively, yet grippy.

On the flipside, some road noise is evident and the brake pedal is overly touchy. Still, these are minor blemishes in an otherwise agreeably mature package.

Kia’s plan is a canny one. With no alternatives from big-name players Mazda, Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Ford, there’s every chance the well-specced Picanto will meet its 300 monthly sales target, establishing the brand as a sub-B leader. And that may be an enviable position to be in when fuel prices rise, pollution taxes hit and congestion worsens.

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Kia Picanto 1248cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v 64kW @ 6000rpm 123Nm @ 4000rpm 5-speed manual 930kg 11.5sec (estimated) 4.3L/100km $13,500 driveaway (estimated) March 2016

PLUS & MINUS

Sensitive brakes; flat seats; road noise; auto only has four gears Design; packaging; performance; build quality; agile handling; ride

DOWN FOUR THE COUNT 01

Kia Australia has sensibly opted to take the 64kW/123Nm 1.2-litre four, rather than the limp 51kW/95Nm 1.0-litre triple offered in other markets. Wise move, as the four is eager and well-suited to the Picanto.

GOT YOUR BACK 02

Rear accommodation will accept adults, although the seat cushions are flatter than a Dad Joke, as are the front pair. At least the rear base lifts and flips forward to allow a flat-fold load area, extending capacity from 200 to 870 litres.

TOUCH POINTS 03

Steering wheel has a whiff of Mercedes-Benz S-Class about it; just a shame it doesn’t adjust for reach. On the upside, Picanto’s instruments are beautifully legible and its ventilation system effective.

Kindergarten cop-outs

FIAT’S tragically overpriced Panda is the latest sub-B mini to meet an untimely end in Australia, joining the world’s finest city car (Volkswagen Up) and the Smart ForTwo as recent casualties. The Smart’s death is especially galling because the just-revealed Mk3 finally gets the transmission, refinement and extra seating it needed in the stretched ForFour version. Twinned with Renault’s thirdgeneration rear-drive/ rear-engined Twingo, they would have made for compelling premium baby alternatives in Australia.

Bmini

OR TRY THESE...

Holden Spark $14,000 (estimated)

DUE here in February next year, we’re expecting big things from Holden’s micro contender. It’s an allnew car on a longer wheelbase than the unloved outgoing model, yet with a lower roofline. Local tuning of steering and suspension bodes well.

Suzuki Celerio $12,990 driveaway

DORKY to look at, the Celerio nevertheless ticks all the right city-car boxes with its low pricing, peppy performance, excellent efficiency, eager handling, supple ride, great vision and easy manoeuvrability. We like.