Not that long ago the South African notion of an entry-level car was based on old-generation design using old-generation technology, all presented in a dated styling package – think VW Citi Golf or Toyota Tazz. But South Africans have become more demanding about their budget car purchases – which is where the Kia Picanto comes in. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
For what used to be a big-car country, South Africa has seen the arrival of a steady stream of keenly priced A-segment cars of late. The tiny Peugeot 107 was a pioneer in this regard, soon followed by its close sibling, the Citroën C1. Since then, we’ve also seen the launch of the Suzuki Alto, the Hyundai i10 and, of course, the Kia Picanto.
The Picanto used to be more of a comic-book car than a serious contender, but the latest-generation model changes all that. It has a clean and contemporary design that’s much more grown-up than its predecessor and displays the edgy, urban design language created for Kia by German styling ace Peter Schreyer.
There’s no longer anything generic about the latest Picanto. It proudly exudes an individual character that may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but reflects Kia’s bold and unequivocal character.
The metalwork seems tightly stretched over the hatchback’s compact frame, with short overhangs, a comparatively long wheelbase and decent front and rear tracks all contributing to a planted, confident stance.
The detailing is impressive. This top-spec 1.4 EXi model gets alloy wheels, chromed metal door handles and the tiger snout grille which has become a consistent expression of the Kia identity under Schreyer’s design reign.
But an attractive shape and pretty details are only one facet of the new Picanto. In this league, dynamic appeal usually takes a back seat in favour of more pragmatic considerations. Well, this car is different.
The new Picanto comes with a choice of two petrol engines – a one-litre three-cylinder unit and a 1.25-litre four-pot pump. Our test car was powered by the latter, and is likely to be the preferred choice at Reef altitudes, where the thinner air demands a bit more oomph.
The 1,248cc 16-valve engine is Kia’s own design, and is credited with 65kW of maximum power, together with 120Nm of torque. Interestingly, Kia offers both engines with either five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic gearbox, confirming that the demand for entry-level automatic cars is growing.
Indeed, Kia says it expects up to 30% of Picanto buyers to opt for the auto box, and while it’s only a four-speed unit, it matches the engine’s urge to a tee.
The electric power steering offers too much assistance for decent feedback, but the Kia turns in willingly enough. Ride quality is good for a tiny hatchback, offering decent damping without feeling soggy and generally displaying a confident attitude, even when pressing on.
The cabin of the new Picanto is arguably the biggest revelation of all. It really is a step up from the previous model, which is pokey and cramped. The new car is larger, allowing a more spacious cabin with better legroom front and rear. But the packaging is also much better, the finishes are more appealing and it all feels very solid, and very European.
Given that this is a budget car, the high standard specification comes as a surprise. Admittedly, the EXi is the most expensive version in the Picanto line-up, but even so-called base models get USB/iPod music connectivity, a sound system, air-con and central locking. The EXi is fitted with dual front airbags, and ABS brakes, but the latter really should be standard across the range, which they aren’t.
At 200-litres, boot capacity is limited, but the split bench can be folded flat to create a useful cargo area. The spare wheel is a space saver – another disappointing detail, given our potholed roads, and the high incidence of punctures
On a more positive note, the frisky dynamics of this Picanto come as a pleasant surprise, despite its relatively small engine and the presence of that four-speed auto gearbox.
Frankly, I don ‘t particularly like small-engined cars with automatic transmissions, because the drivetrain usually doesn’t have enough pep to cope with the gearbox’s torque converter. As a result, performance is blunted and the gearbox ends up hunting between gears.
But having said that, the Picanto’s drivetrain rarely suffers from those vagaries. It easily cruises at the legal limit on the highway and always feels as if there’s more in reserve. Cog swaps are smooth and the gearbox makes full use of the engine’s powerband.
As a result, the Picanto’s performance is zestier than expected, with a 0-to-100km/h acceleration time of around 12 seconds, and a claimed top speed of 165km/h. The manual version is even peppier and arguably more involving to drive.
Frugal fuel consumption should be one of the little Kia’s foremost attractions, and that’s indeed the case. The combined-cycle consumption figure comes to 6.0-litres/100km, and into the low fives on the open road. However, the CO? emissions rating of 144g/km is higher than expected – perhaps that auto ‘box is to blame.
The Picanto’s road manners are competent, but not sporty. The chassis is well-mannered enough, with a suspension tuned for comfort rather than taut control. At speed, the steering can become a bit vague, and generally feels overassisted, but it does make for great manoeuvrability in parking lots.
The brakes feel positive and confidence-inspiring, with ABS only triggered under extreme duress. The narrow wheels and tyres always felt grippy enough and body lean was well contained, even when the car was driven with some gusto.
The rolling hills and tricky country roads of rural KZN couldn’t subdue the enthusiasm of the little Kia, and that alone made driving the newcomer a grin-inducing and enjoyable experience.
The Kia brand has come a long way since it first started marketing cars in South Africa, and no car illustrates that better than the new Picanto. It really is a very impressive little car that compares favourably with the European competition. It looks good, feels solid and ultimately convinces.
Unless you’re too old (or too young) to cope with a manual gearbox, or spend a lot of time in stop/start city traffic, I’d still recommend the manual-transmission model, rather than the auto. It just allows the driver to extract the optimum performance from the Kia and allows a greater level of involvement, too.
Pricing is keen, if not dirt cheap. The entry-level 1.0 Manual slips in at just under the R100,000 mark, which is a good deal, given the specifications included. But by the time you get to the flagship 1.2 EX Auto, the price tag reflects a somewhat steeper R124,995.
At five years or 150,000 km, the warranty is one of the best in the business, but none of the Picanto models offers a service plan as standard – a shortcoming sure to be picked out by thrifty buyers.
Still, the Kia Picanto is proof that small, new-generation cars are superior to the Citi Golfs and Tazz’s of yesteryear. DM
Kia Picanto 1.2 EX
In-line four-cylinder, 1,284cc, DOHC
65kW @ 6,000rpm
120Nm @ 4,000rpm
6.0 l/100km (combined cycle)
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.
Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé are our contribution to this unshakeable mission. It is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.
Join our mission to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Defend Truth.
When threatened the Central African Horror Frog will break the bones in its toes and force them through its skin Wolverine-style to create makeshift claws.