The new Kia Picanto is as cheap as chips – literally – but is it tasty enough to survive in a fiercely competitive market? Ben Whitworth reports…
The Picanto may sound like a hot chilli sauce, but Kia believes its first foray into the supermini segment is going to burn its rivals especially as you’ll be able to buy one for £1. To do that, and meet Kia’s expectations of 6,000 sales within its first year, the Picanto will have to be pretty damn good, because it enters a fiercely fought market sector filled with talented rivals. Look no further than the award-winning Fiat Panda. In turbo-diesel guise, it’s the pick of the Panda line-up and current supermini king.
And that’s without mentioning the surprisingly entertaining Daihatsu Charade and the dynamic Ford Ka. All wear wallet-friendly price tags, are well equipped with safety and luxury goodies and – crucially – all possess effervescent and lively characters.
Banish any thoughts of the truly awful Pride – the Picanto makes a good first impression. The little Kia sits on the same platform as the Hyundai Getz (on page 48), with automotive partners, Hyundai and Kai shortening and narrowing the Kia to give the Picanto its small urbanfriendly footprint. When it hits showrooms at the end of May, the engine line-up will be restricted to two petrol engines – a 60bhp 1.0 and a 65bhp 1.1-litre. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until the second half of next year for the diesel to finally arrive.
It’s a long wait but Kia assures us it will be well worth it. The 1.1-litre threecylinder engine will be bang up-to-date and feature second generation common rail 1600b bar high pressure fuel injection, a double overhead four-valve per cylinder cam arrangement and a variable geometry turbo-charger. Kia’s engineers were tight-lipped about further details but our inside sources claim that the Euro IV compliant engine will deliver around 70bhp, with a robust torque figure near the 130 lb ft mark. “We’re so pleased with the outputs of this new engine,” said one senior engineer, “that we will probably market the diesel Kia as the sporty flagship.” With its pert rear end, creased flanks and bold headlamps, the Picanto certainly looks the supermini part. It was designed and engineered at Kia’s new research and development at Russelsheim in Germany, because Kia was insistent that the Picanto must have as much of a European feel as possible.
GIVEN A GRILLING
What a pity then, that its well proportioned lines are spoiled by that ghastly grille. Every time I looked at it, I thought it looked like it had just been kicked in the crotch. Not good. Things improve when you open the driver’s door. While the cabin isn’t going to win any style awards, it’s well screwed together, airy and the driver-angled dash is evenly and clearly laid out. The high-mounted driving position and large glasshouse make for good all-round visibility, and accommodation – there are four and five-seat variants – is reasonable given the car’s pocket-sized dimensions. It’s also well equipped. All models will come with twin front airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and a radio/CD player as standard.
The Kia is a doddle to drive too. The light clutch, smooth-shifting gearlever and finger-light steering let the driver chivvy the Picanto along with ease. With virtually no front or rear overhangs, parking is easy too. But there’s something amiss here. You see, the Picanto never really puts a smile on your face. There’s little real pleasure to be derived in actually travelling in the Picanto, for both driver and passenger alike.
On the move, there’s little of the sparkle the Picanto’s styling promises. The petrol engines seem to lack real enthusiasm, a problem the torquehappy diesel engine is sure to address. While able to maintain an easy motorway gait, overtaking manoeuvres and inclines call for some rather advanced planning. Try and pass slower traffic at the wrong point on a hill, and you involuntarily find yourself leaning forward to assist the Picanto’s forward progress. The rack and pinion steering is light but feels oddly disconnected and although the all-disc brakes bite early and firmly, they send an odd-sounding rumble through the car when in use.
But it’s the ride quality that disappoints the most. It lacks consistency. It floats over undulations and wallows around corners but then jolts and jars when dealing with smaller ruts and ripples. Which, given its urban remit and the kind of craggy broken tarmac that entails, is a bit of a short-coming. And while the Panda’s ride quality also suffers from a touch of low-speed brittleness, it’s still better than the Picanto’s. It also looses packaging points. The cabin is dotted with handy storage compartments, and while the rear seat bench can be flipped forward and the split backrest almost folded almost flat to swallow bigger items, the rear seats themselves don’t slide back and forth to alter the amount of boot and rear leg room.
Viewed in isolation, the Picanto makes a decent fist of things and, by and large, fulfils its supermini brief. Avert your eyes from that stomach-churning grille, and the styling is commendably neat and tidy. Its engine and slick gearbox combo provides decent enough pep, strong economy and decent levels of refinement. And no doubt the diesel’s arrival will improve things further. The cabin is spacious, relatively flexible and well equipped. And Kia will also include the Picanto in its successful ‘buy one for £1’ promotion.
On sale: May // Price: £6295 (est) //
Main rivals: Fiat Panda, Nissan Micra, Corsa