The first prerequisite for a great car is for it to better your expectations, and nowhere is that more relevant than the smallest class of cars you can buy. The city car class is flooded with cars that aren’t quite as good as they should be, but Kia has come up with the goods with the new Picanto.
It’s been sharpened as part of Kia’s move to separate itself from its sister company Hyundai. Kia is moving slightly more towards sportiness and driver engagement while Hyundai tackles comfort and refinement. Both offer practicality, though, and as such the Picanto now has the biggest boot in the class (albeit by a single litre) and is built only as a five-door.
You have a choice of five trim levels and two engines; a charming 1.0-litre three-cylinder with 66bhp or a flatter-sounding 1.25-litre four-cylinder with 83bhp. It’s the latter you should go for if outright acceleration is important, but it needs to be worked quite hard to access the power. The three-cylinder felt incredibly tight with just 100 miles on the clock, but Kia tells us that it loosens up a lot after a few thousand miles. That makes it the one to buy, and it’s cheaper, too.
The trim levels are bunched into two lines of three and two. The familiar ‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’ badges are joined by GT Line and GT Line S, which sit above ‘2’ and ‘3’ respectively and add a sportier flavour with a different front bumper, bigger wheels and extra trim accents. It’s a good-looking car anyway but in either of the GT Line models it’s a cracker. Equipment is pretty generous all round and is reflected in the pricing, but it’s a shame that wireless phone charging is restricted to the GT Line S. Kia’s young target buyers would jump at that if it were fitted on cheaper versions. Sat-nav and the larger interface screen is only yours on ‘3’ and GT Line S grades.
It’s the Korean brand’s fifth new car launch in the last 16 months and brings the dinky Picanto into line with the latest, and impressively high, build quality standards. Start poking around the hard surfaces and you’ll find that creaks, flex and general cheapness are conspicuous by their absence. Shiny, easily-scratched plastics are kept to a modest minimum and the overall sense of solidity matches the very best in the class. Not even the broken, subsiding roads of the test route brought out any rattles.
But despite impressive sturdiness that only the Volkswagen Group’s Up/Citigo/Mii platform can compete with, it’s the suspension that takes the biscuit overall. No city car can touch the Picanto’s outstanding damping and progressive spring rates, tuned to perfection in the Kia’s Frankfurt facility – and on UK roads. Despite some horrific road surfaces during the test, the Picanto, with its new, stiffer body and new rear suspension, proved astonishingly stable without compromising genuine feel for the road surface. Kia has done an amazing job.
Not so good is fuel economy, which on test fell well short of expectations, but we’d expect better once the engines have covered some miles. Officially, the 1.0-litre car returns a sub-average 64.2mpg and 101g/km. The Picanto is a bit heavier than the likes of the Volkswagen Up, which will always count against it, but overall the Picanto could be a new class leader.
Words & photography © Matt Kimberley