Kia Picanto: small car, big heart

Forget pink — small is the new black. Compact cars are so fashionable today that even the Americans have been seduced by the smart fortwo. And with the South African petrol price racing towards the R10/litre mark faster than you can say “Bugatti Veyron”, it’s no surprise that tykes like Toyota’s Yaris continue to park near the top of the sales charts.

So what better time for Kia to spice up their little Picanto. Visually it’s always managed to escape the oversized-trolley look of its kissing cousin, the Hyundai Atos, but the face-lifted new arrival certainly looks a lot better than the model it’s replacing. Amazing what new tear-drop shaped headlights and restyled circular taillights can do. The front grille too has been restyled, the previous gaping mouth replaced with a more subtle, more stylish design.

Boosting the cute factor even further, the retooled bumpers are now colour-coded on all models — with available body hues ranging from metallic gold (for fuddy duddys) to the far more appropriate bright yellow. This is billed as a fun car, after all.

And entertaining to drive it certainly is. Powered by the same 1.1 litre SOHC engine, the Picanto might not be built for traffic light showdowns (0-100km/h takes some 15 seconds), but it’s certainly a perky and nippy runabout in city traffic. The manual gearbox could be a little smoother, but negotiating the obstacle course that is Cape Town’s Long Street proved as easy as slipping the car into a parallel parking bay. It goes exactly where you want it, thanks to the compact size, firm suspension and anti-roll bar.

That manoeuvreability came to the fore again as we tackled the narrow, winding Chapman’s Peak, although accelerating up some of the steeper stretches gave the little 98Nm motor a bit of a workout. But turn off the aircon and the 48kW of power (that takes the car to a top speed of 152km/h) is right where it’s needed for comfortable up-hill overtaking.

And speaking of comfort, despite the range starting at under R80k, it’s an area Kia haven’t skimped on. Admittedly the stitching quality on the otherwise relaxing seats isn’t up there with the German luxury marques and the door locks look like they could be damaged by someone with thumbs as big as mine. But the fascia doesn’t have the cheap disposable plastic look we’ve come to expect in this segment, there’s plenty of leg room for a 1.8m lump like me (if only upfront), and headroom is, frankly, impressive. It’s not even as though they’ve lowered the seats — no need to drop in or clamber out; visibility out front is uncompromised — but you’re barely aware of the ceiling, as if you’re inside an MPV.

Unlike MPVs, little cars have little boots. Kia’s baby is no exception. In its normal configuration the luggage compartment measures 157 litres (good for some shopping bags), swelling to 882 with the rear seats (double) folded.

But the Picanto is bigger on luxuries and safety. Both the LX and flagship EX models come with an air-conditioning system as well as electrically adjusted mirrors (only EX) and electric front windows (front and rear for the EX). An MP3 compatible sound system with Auxiliary socket available as dealer-fitted option, while radio and iPod sockets are available on the LX and EX as an option.

All models come standard with remote central locking and an immobilizer — as well as ventilated front discs. The LX adds a driver airbag while the EX ups the ante with dual airbags, anti-lock brakes featuring EBD, and pre-tensioning seatbelts.

It all adds up to a comprehensive package from Kia, who are expecting a quiet year ahead. But the Picanto, billed as “fun, reinvented”, should keep the party going in the meanwhile.

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