Good evening, and welcome to another episode of Up All Night with The Autopian, where we like to take a philosophical look at car culture, asking the intellectual questions such as, what is a car? Where have all the small cars gone? And, how much car do you actually need? Joining me on the sofa tonight is a car I think answers all these questions and more, the Kia Picanto.
Time was, say up to about twenty-five years or so ago, most new car purchases involved some sort of compromise. You wanted a road scalpel or million-mile build quality? You paid out the ass for something German and got stiffed on the standard equipment. Exquisite engineering with a dash of style? You bought French or Italian and kept your local specialist on speed dial for the inevitable breakdowns. Buy a car for economy and you were forever reminded of the shallowness of your checking account by rows of switch blanks and gimcrack mechanicals. Japanese cars were turnkey dependable and sent you to sleep. Most domestic cars you just hoped wouldn’t fall apart until after you’d made the last payment.
Cars Get Good
Somewhere around the mid-nineties this began to change. Mainstream cars suddenly became mostly good at most things. Refinement, roadholding, reliability was no longer a case of ‘pick any two’. Manufacturers had to start looking outside of their established lanes to move more metal because their USPs were no longer enough. Premium German OEMs started offering compact hatches. Ford tried to convince us a Contour was a credible euro sports sedan alternative. Jaguar dropped 1960s sheet metal over a Mondeo and took on the three series. Fuck that last degree of steering feel, or fighter jet cockpit inspired ergonomic excellence. What was your car saying about you as a person? What particular marketing message were you buying into to express yourself? And if you bought a VW Phaeton over an A8 or an S Class, were you dropped on your head as a baby?
As OEMs contorted their brands Stretch Armstrong style in all manner of lifestyle directions, it left a gaping hole in the middle of the market for the unpretentious car as a simply transport. Enter stage left Kia, which since its rebirth and introduction to the American market in 1992, has made great hay in simply getting people where they need to go with a minimum of fuss. They got their start by building various small Fords under license, but it all went tits up in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Facing bankruptcy, Hyundai outbid Ford for the wreckage. Kia’s own first-generation offerings offered spectacular value for money, a longer than normal warranty and not a lot else; the epitome of the drowsily designed anon-o-box.
Catch a Tiger by the Nose
Selling cars to the terminally stingy is always a limiting strategy – by their very nature they don’t buy cars that often. Recognizing this Kia wanted to jazz their range up a bit to expand their customer base; in 2006 they hired in professional funky glasses wearer and ex-Audi chief crayon wielder Peter Schreyer (also a graduate of the Royal College of Art, like me) to be their new head of design. He introduced the ‘tiger nose’ as a visual brand identifier and has since ushered in a range of reasonably handsome, consistently designed vehicles that have helped the Hyundai/Kia megacorp to become by volume one of the five largest car companies in the world.
But this review isn’t concerned with large, it’s about small, and the Kia Picanto is very small indeed at about 3.6 meters long (about 142”). In Europe it falls into what’s known as the Euro NCAP ‘sub-B’ class. The EPA equivalent would put it below the mini-compact category. For comparison, it’s about 400mm (about 16”) shorter than a Ford Fiesta (RIP). Some OEMs would have you believe that due to the razor thin margins on small cars it isn’t economically feasible to stuff them with expensive hybrid hardware to meet upcoming Euro 7 emissions legislation; there’s been a mass culling of small cars across the Euro market. The Skoda Citigo and Seat Mii (badge engineered versions of the VW Up!), the Citroen C1, Peugeot 108, the aforementioned Ford Fiesta, all these and countless others have gone to the great scrap yard in the sky. But OEMs with a broader worldwide footprint encompassing non-western markets have shown that up for the nonsense it is. Suzuki will still sell you a Swift or an Ignis, Hyundai the i10, Toyota the nattily styled Aygo X and there’s still the evergreen Fiat 500.
I Thought You Said There Were No Cheap Cars Anymore
The Picanto, starting at £13.5k (about $17k) at the bottom of the range in ‘1’ trim is nominally cheaper than all the above options, but at no point do you feel you’re being short changed. I actually wanted to drive that version, because we’re all about base model brilliance here at the Autopian, but press fleets being the way they are the nice people at Kia UK only had a rich Corinthian leather spec GT Line S to lend me, which costs £17k (about $22k). Pay attention to that ‘S’ suffix, because it’s important.
The Picanto 1 comes with steel wheels, two speakers, manual door mirrors and no touchscreen in sight. Moving up through the trim levels adds equipment and flashier trim until you get to the GT line, which gives you sporty looks without the sporty go. Until you add that ‘S’.
The standard engine across the range is 1.0 triple making a heady 66bhp for a 0-60 on the wrong side of 13 seconds. Fine for running around town doing errands but likely to get you swamped on any road where the speed limit is over thirty. The S bolts a turbo onto the motor cranking up the power to 99bhp [Editor’s Note: Is this the only case where adding a turbo just flips the HP number 180°? – JT] and the torque to 126lbs ft. In a car that weighs 1030kg (2270lbs). Suddenly Mother’s grocery getter has turned into the baby GTi you’ve all been sleeping on. You can’t buy a VW Up! GTi anymore (Euro emissions legislation again), and the Suzuki Swift Sport. although similarly sized, is a lot more expensive. If you want a budget pocket rocket, the Picanto GT Line S is where it’s at.
It’s Kia Hot Rod
The 0-60 is quoted as 9.9 seconds, but one up it feels much faster than that. Key to this is the engine – I can’t use the “it sounds like half a 911 motor” cliché because I’ve not driven a 911. But it has a characterful growl and is super eager to please, kinda like a Japanese sports bike (or a Ferrari Mondial) – it just wants to GO. Stop pissing about and get your foot in. There’s only five speeds, but all that torque in a light body means that’s all it needs; there’s still plenty left in top gear to blow past semis butting up against their 56mph limiter on a dual carriageway. Away from the lights and on slip roads this thing absolutely shifts. And it’s not one of those boosty installations where you get nothing and wait for a noticeable step in the power as the turbo comes in; it pulls right through the rev range.
Keeping it shiny side up are 16” alloys generously shod with juicy 195 tires. Useful because this is the kind of car that positively encourages you to drive it flat out all the time. The steering is go-kart fast at 2.8 turns lock to lock, plenty accurate but a bit light; more weight would be useful when you’ve got it leaned over on the doorhandles. For a small car, it’s nicely stable at high speeds. The price you pay is you do feel the wheels dropping into road imperfections and potholes a bit around town, but this is a relatively tall car with a wheel at each corner, so that’s to be expected. I’ll take a little low speed stiffness rather than being blown all over the place on the motorway.
It’s this ability to function both in town and on the open road that elevates the Picanto GT Line S above the normal small car norm. Again, how much car do you really need? This car had absolutely everything as standard equipment and more; along with the usual safety systems (forward collision avoidance, lane departure warning rear view camera) it has hill start assist, cruise control, heated seats and steering wheel and even wireless phone charging, although actual smartphone connectivity is wired only, which rather defeats the fucking point if you ask me. It was absolutely groaning with toys.
A Big Car Made Small
The more time I spent with this little car, the more I came to realize it didn’t feel like a cheap car tarted up. It felt like a large car scaled down. Try as I might, I couldn’t find where the corners had been cut to get it down to a price. It’s solidly constructed with decent materials, and the trim finishes are well done, particularly on the grill and the red highlight color on the interior. Notice the chrome door handles, and the way the DLO (Daylight Opening, or windows) are blacked out to create a cohesive graphic. You don’t expect this level of attention to detail at this price point, simply because it costs more money to do, and on a small car Bill of Materials is everything. Even the lights look expensive, the fronts containing a four-piece lit element reminiscent of the Porsche headlight graphic and the rears a floating illuminated part, rather than the usual ‘bulb in a reflector’ you get on cheaper cars. The only real design demerit is the rear lower bumper, which has trim indicating a sort of twin tail pipe arrangement, when the actual exhaust exits underneath. There’s quite a lot going visually, but it’s not garish or overdone. It doesn’t quite have the boutique appeal of the Fiat 500, or the spartan Germanic feel of an Up! but it’s chunkily good looking and exceptionally well finished.
Unburdened by not having a specious appeal to ‘lifestyle’ or some other such bullshit, the Picanto is a refreshingly straightforward, easy to understand and use modern little car. There are hard controls for all the major features; only the navigation and infotainment are operated through the touchscreen, which has a nice clean modern look without being flashy. It’s exactly the fuss free experience you want. During its time with me, as well as my normal running around I was looking for excuses to take it for a drive – it’s that much of a hoot. After it went back I emailed Kia PR to thank them and commented on what a little hot rod it was – they replied saying it was by far their favorite out of all the cars on the press fleet. In fact I liked it so much I immediately began doing some man math to figure out if I could buy one.
In black of course.
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