SA’s most popular superminis – Polo Vivo, Sandero, Etios, Figo – are all positively sabre-toothed, maybe not in model year but definitely in underpinnings; drawing on platforms and certain componentry that was doing the rounds in the time of Bartolomeu Diaz. So it’s with excellent timing that Kia introduces the all-new Picanto supermini, featuring a fresh, from-the-ground-up approach. Finally, it’s not some Boxing Day leftovers mash-up of a prehistoric chassis and Bluetooth/USB connectivity. Its design is forward thinking, its styling refined, it doubles down on comfort and, most importantly, it runs off a platform from this century – a two-fingered salute then to the Vivo/Etios ‘you’re not worth it’ hegemony.
First, the looks. That bluff one-piece grille adjoining sweptback headlights has Rio overtones, which, coupled with a wider track, endows the piquant Picanto with grown-up proportions. The lower airdam is larger, too, and mirrored at the rear by a contrasting piece of plastic cladding that gives it style for a city runabout. Kia has taken the opportunity to increase the new range to eleven models, to suit a wider spread of tastes and pocket depths (The 1.0 Start is priced at R134 995), but we’d probably steer clear of those with the small 3.8-inch LCD centre screen, because in our opinion there’s better value to be had from the outgoing Picanto… which is still a superb car. To get the full hi-def Picanto experience you’ll need to at least upgrade to R165 995 1.2 Street trim, but preferably splash another R30 000 to get the best-looking 1.2 Smart like we’re driving.
Two engines are on offer: a 49kW/99Nm 1.0-litre. No, just no. And a peppy 61kW/122Nm 1.2-litre. The omission of a turbocharger in the bigger, heavier Rio really hurts the proposition, but not so in the smaller Picanto. It’s accepted you’ll have valves bouncing along the bonnet in a supermini and long gearing from the five-speed manual (a four-speed auto is also available for the empty-nesters) encourages you to wind it out all the way to redline. There’s a decent midrange punch around 4000rpm for overtaking, but 0-100kph in 12secs isn’t going to win you any Wednesday Robot Races at Killarney. Then again the 1.0-litre takes a glacial 14.5sec to do the same, assuming you’re patient enough.
The primary ride quality feels cushioned, even a little floaty around the front end. Canter over potholes and highway joins and the conventional torsion beam rear suspension that’s been raised and softened ever-so-slightly absorbs deflections easily with the body shell remaining largely settled – a positive adaptation from the bouncier old Picanto. The entire cabin has a more civilised air compared with its predecessor, courtesy of a wheelbase extended to 2400mm (an increase of 15mm), so even tall passengers can find solace in the back as well as the front (also with 15mm more legroom). Tyre roar at 120kph on the motorway is nicely muffled, spongy front and rear seats are super comfy, and a massive upside is a boot that’s grown from 200 to 255 litres – making it the most cavernous of any car in its class.
And we haven’t even got to the best bit yet – our Style spec car gets a 7.0-inch full-colour touchscreen infotainment system. Sat-nav isn’t on the menu but that’s okay, grandpa, because this is the 21st century and it’s got Bluetooth to connect your smartphone and support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. So you can make use of Mensa-levels of cleverness via Siri and Google Maps – and in that respect it’s on par with new Audis and VWs that are only getting the same connectivity on much more expensive cars right now. The high-mounted dashboard as a whole has a stylish yet unpretentious feel about it. Sat behind the steering wheel you could be in any Kia in the range frankly, it’s that sophisticated.
It’s not all sweetness and light though. The clutch action could be more perceptible, and despite claims the Koreans have recalibrated it, the power steering is still too light, spinning like a top at the tip of your pinky finger and slow to self-centre at dawdling speeds. That does make parking and U-turning in the city easier, and it does admittedly weight-up a bit better at speed, but it’s not exactly confidence inspiring and makes for some unexpected trajectories when you’re merely trying to change lanes or merge on/off the highway. This sloppiness probably only feels obvious because it’s so at odds with an otherwise supremely polished package.
Wonky steering aside, we reckon Kia’s onto a sure-fire hit here. The previous Picanto was so good it fashioned a newfound brand allegiance in Kia that no one could’ve really predicted, and the new model is a massive step-up over even that. The enlarged eleven-model range will cater to a wider spread of cash-conscious buyers and thicken Kia’s revenue stream in the process, too. Joy of joys, this is a new car purchase that’s not hard to justify in today’s trying economic climate, and an entry level car you’ll actually want to own.
In a nutshell
It’s grown up along with its target audience, more spacious and practical than before. It could be a Rio.
Stay clear of the 1.0-litre. Thankfully there’s nothing wrong with the fizzy little 1.2.
- Engine: 1197cc, 4-cylinder, petrol
- Power: 61kW@6000rpm, 122Nm@4000rpm
- Performance: 0-100km/h 12secs, top speed 170kph
- Tyres: 15-inch 175/65
- Economy: 5.3l/100km
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- CO2 emissions: 118g/km
- Price: R195 995
Renault Sandero Stepway
Turbo blender three-pot engine has to work hard but torque and economy efficiencies are there for all to see. Better price and value, too. 0-100kph 11.1secs, top speed 169kph, power 66kW/135Nm, Price R174 900
Suzuki Ignis 1.2 GLX
Japanese Kei-car styling and mini-off-roader proportions give it niche appeal. Can’t match the refinement of the Koreans though. 0-100kph 11.6secs, top speed 169kph, power 61kW/113Nm, Price R189 900