Kia's Picanto has earned a reputation as a no frills city scoot but the second generation model feels a far better finished item. Jonathan Crouch reports on the improved range.
Ten Second Review
In second generation form, Kia's Picanto is a little citycar that's big in importance for its Korean maker. Stylish, frugal and practical, so much better is it than the cheap and cheerful original version that it may just redefine the way many people think about this smallest category of car. In recent times, the trim structure has been revised in order to give buyers extra value.
Here's how we used to understand small car categorisation and the difference between Fiesta-sized superminis and their smaller, cheaper citycar counterparts. You paid extra for a supermini because it was slightly bigger, because it was better finished and more stylish and because it had more refined engines that made possible longer journeys. So where does that kind of thinking leave us with a product like this, the improved second generation Kia Picanto? It competes with the kinds of models we'd see as citycars, yet like many of them now, it boasts the kind of interior space a supposedly bigger Fiesta or a Corsa had until quite recently. It's very nicely built and acceptably stylish. And yes, it's quite at home attempting longer journeys. Here is the citycar, all grown-up. Where that leaves today's supermini sector is something we don't have to worry about here. Suffice it to say that most of what you'd pay up to £15,000 or more for in that class of car is delivered by this Kia. Other urban runabouts that have previously advanced that argument have either been expensive and/or three-door only, like say a Fiat 500, or have felt too cheap and noisy to really justify themselves as only-car transport, like a Suzuki Celerio or, I suppose, a Hyundai i10. I mention the Hyundai because that essentially is what this Picanto is underneath. Kia has used the underpinnings from this best-selling design, then refined them, improved the build quality and added a sharp new suit of clothes on top. On paper, a pretty effective route to creating a class-leading contender. Let's see if it's worked.
One characteristic that Kia is keen for this car to have is a perky feel. It does. Under the bonnet, buyers choose between a 69bhp entry-level 1.0-litre engine or a 1.25-litre 84bhp unit. It's a petrol-only range of course, as you'd expect from a citycar. The 1.0-litre manages 0-62mph in 14.4s en route to 95mph, while the 1.25-litre variant improves that to 11.5s and 109mph. The good news for those looking for a grin behind the wheel is that much of the previous generation Picanto model's suspension architecture was carried over to this second generation car, albeit evolved subtly. The front suspension has been tuned for better straight line stability and Kia reckons it has not only improved the ride of the MK2 model with softer springs but made the handling a little keener with a much stiffer rear axle that helps quell understeer. The Picanto's all-disc braking system, which is standard on all models fitted with Electronic Stability Control, is backed up with standard ABS anti-lock, electronic brake force distribution and emergency 'brake assist' systems. Stopping distances from 62mph are among the class best at 41.0 metres.
Design and Build
It's hard to believe Kia today is the same company that launched the original Picanto. It's now one of the most progressive car manufacturers in terms of design and much of the credit for this goes to Peter Schreyer, the man who designed the original TT and now works as Chief Design Officer. Under his direction, Kia is turning out some seriously handsome cars and this second generation Picanto is no exception. It features the now trademark 'tiger nose' front grille, but it also exhibits deeply scalloped flanks with the door handles sitting atop a sharp, longitudinal crease. Available in both three and five door bodystyles, this little Kia offers a different look for each body shape, the three-door car featuring a more aggressive frontal treatment. Both look a little under-wheeled, but that tends to be the nature of city cars in general. Go for the 15-inch alloy wheels and it looks much better balanced. The cabin is cleanly styled and again it's clear that Kia is forging its own personality and brand identity on its cars. The 'three cylinder' instrument panel design is spread across the Kia range while the centre console brings the air conditioning and stereo controls within easy reach with big, easy to operate buttons. Metallic finishes lift the feel of the fascia and while some of the plastics are a little hard to the touch, the overall effect is an interior that punches well above its price point. There's a 200-litre boot.
Market and Model
There's now a three-grade trim level hierachy for the Picanto, with a choice of '1 Air', 'SE' and 'Sport' options. Prices start at around £8,500 and all models now include air conditioning. All variants have five doors and the base derivatives feature the 1.0-litre engine. You'll need to stretch to 'Sport' grade to get the pokier 1.25-litre petrol unit - and an asking price of just under £12,500. Equipment on most models includes electronic and heated folding door mirrors with side repeaters, automatic light control with 'escort' and 'welcome' modes, steering wheel mounted audio controls and retractable dual cup holders. Other features available include smart-key entry system with engine start/stop button, AUX-IN, iPod and USB connections for the RDS radio CD player with MP3 compatibility, Bluetooth hands-free with voice recognition and heated front seats. The days when you counted yourself lucky if you came away with a radio and a set of mats and flaps when purchasing a small Kia now seem a very long way distant. At the top of the range, the Picanto 'Sport' variant gets smarter front and rear bumpers and a twin-tipped exhaust tailpipe. There are also additional side sill mouldings painted to match the body colour. The 'Sport' models are finished in exclusive red, black or white paintwork. Sporty-looking five-barrel 15-inch alloy wheels shod with 175/50 tyres are the final finishing touch.
Cost of Ownership
No car in this class has a sniff of a chance unless it can guarantee tiny day to day running costs and the Picanto certainly answers that particular call. Both engines have been designed to offer maximum efficiency, from their continuously variable valve timing to their low-friction valve springs. The net result is that the 1.0-litre engine emits just 105g/km of carbon dioxide in standard trim. Kia goes one stage further with its suite of EcoDynamics technologies (automatic stop-start - ISG, advanced alternator control, upgraded starter motor and low-rolling resistance tyres), cutting emissions even further - to between 102g/km. Combined fuel economy for the 1.0-litre model teamed with the EcoDynamics gear is 68.9mpg. Couple the titchy fuel bills with free road tax and cheap insurance and you have a car that makes all kinds of sense for city drivers. It's exactly because it stacks up so well on the balance sheet that residual values look set to be very healthy.
It's not uncommon to assess a vehicle and wonder why it has been launched. Some manufacturers get their product design cycles out of phase with economic conditions, while others launch into a once fashionable market that's gone cold. Then there are those that arrive plum square with the right product at the right time; the Picanto has certainly fulfilled that role for Kia. It doesn't do anything that's particularly fresh or radical but its blend of affordability coupled with solid engineering, impressive build quality, generous equipment and clean styling build upon its tiny ongoing running costs to form a convincing buying proposition. Back that up with a great warranty and the Kia Picanto emerges as one of the very best citycars we've seen in quite some time.