Kia may have been a late arrival to the Australian micro car segment but it now has it all sewn up. And why shouldn’t it?
The Kia Picanto is a well-equipped little car that’s devoid of any nasty surprises, backed by one of the best warranties in the business.
Corporate sibling Hyundai is retiring from the Australian light car segment and never opted to enter the micro car segment, but Kia decided to introduce the Picanto in 2017.
Just three years later, Kia outsells the next best-selling car in the segment – the Mitsubishi Mirage – by more than five-to-one.
It’s largely selling to the same types of buyers who bought $13,990 drive-away Hyundai Excels and Getzes back in the day – often the types of buyers who want the cheapest new car with the longest warranty.
Fortunately, Kia isn’t just slapping a sharp price tag on a subpar car.
There was a time when the most equipment you could expect from a car in this segment was a cassette player and perhaps power mirrors.
Times change, however, and the Picanto features a robust equipment list for something costing $14,190 before on-road costs, or $15,790 before on-road costs for the four-speed automatic version we tested.
Kia regularly does drive-away deals and is currently offering the S auto for $16,990 drive-away.
The equipment list includes power windows, cruise control, a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth audio streaming, automatic headlights, and rear parking sensors with a reversing camera.
Besides the automatic, the only option on our tester was the Pop Orange metallic paint, costing $520.
Kia hasn’t skimped on the safety front. Even in lowly S trim, the Picanto has six airbags, stability control and, most impressively, standard autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with forward-collision alert.
That’s not quite enough to score it five stars with ANCAP, though the Picanto did receive a four-star rating when the independent crash authority assessed it in 2017.
Inside the cabin of the Kia Picanto S, hard plastics abound and the steering wheel is a urethane affair. At this price point, that’s not surprising.
Fortunately, the graining of the plastics is reminiscent of more expensive Kias and the interior is well screwed together overall.
Only one quality niggle was apparent – a slight creak in the steering column that appeared after a few days. Otherwise, the Picanto impresses with its assembly quality, down to the confident thunk of the doors.
The seats are also trimmed in what seems to be hard-wearing but comfortable cloth upholstery.
The cabin feels light and airy despite a relatively high belt line. As it’s been designed in the classic tallboy micro car style – a la the Holden Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage – there’s no shortage of headroom front and rear.
A nice simple interior with a terrific infotainment system
The dashboard is simple and understated, with clear, legible gauges in the instrument cluster and solid-feeling switchgear. That includes the physical buttons surrounding the 7.0-inch touchscreen, situated atop the dash and easily viewable by the driver.
Screens are clear and legible and, crucially for a car targeting younger buyers, there’s standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. For many buyers, these smartphone mirroring systems will mean they’ll virtually never access the other functions of the Kia’s infotainment system.
Alas, there’s no centre console bin, always an excellent place to shove things out of sight or rest one’s elbow. Instead, there’s a shallow tray destined to accumulate junk.
The flimsy cupholders at the base of the centre stack are poorly designed, small water bottles flying out when you take a corner too quickly. Better to shove your bottles in the front door pockets instead.
One glaring omission is the lack of a digital speedometer. Though you’re unlikely to be hooning in a Picanto S, the authorities are giving less and less leeway before sending you a fine. This makes a digital speedometer an important bit of kit.
With the driver’s seat adjusted to make a 180 centimetre-tall driver comfortable, the rear seats become a place you’d only put similarly-sized passengers if you wanted to extract information from them.
The front seatbacks are helpfully scooped out but it’s not enough to make a similarly-sized person comfortable back there. It’s hard to imagine many Picantos being driven around with five tall occupants though, let alone four.
Kia doesn’t seem to encourage rear-seat passengers – the rear doors have no pockets while a sad, solitary cupholder sits at the back of the centre console area. Unsurprisingly, there are no rear air-conditioning vents or power outlets.
The back seat is fine for children, though bulky car seats could prove an issue. There are, however, two ISOFIX child seat mounts and three top tether points.
With the 60/40 split-fold rear seats up, boot volume is 255 litres. That’s enough to fit one large suitcase and perhaps a duffel bag wedged in there. For extra space, you can fold down the rear seats for a total volume of 1010 litres.
S, GT-Line and X-Line Picantos use a 1.25-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine, producing 62kW at 6,000rpm and 122Nm at 4,000rpm. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual, the four-speed automatic a $1600 option.
If you’re looking for more power, the top-spec GT uses a turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder with 74kW and 172Nm. It’s also almost $4000 more than the S and comes only with a manual transmission, making it a non-starter for many buyers.
On the road, the Kia Picanto feels gutsier than anything with a 62kW four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic ought to, even if it does weigh only 995kg.
With a single occupant, it feels peppy off the line and can easily keep up with traffic, though hills leave the miniscule mill gasping for breath. Tackling large speed bumps in the short-wheelbase Picanto also brings to mind a puppy trying to climb steps.
Calling it fun would be a stretch. Though the adage says it’s fun to drive a slow car fast, the Picanto’s electrically-assisted steering is lacking in feel and undermines the car’s fun factor. Its 175/65 R14 tires afford it decent grip but safe understeer is the word of the day.
That light steering and the Picanto’s diminutive dimensions, however, make inner-city driving and parking a doddle, while road noise is relatively well-contained.
On the open road, however, the little Kia is less comfortable. The small number of gears in its transmission is keenly felt on the highway, the Picanto sitting at 3000rpm and making a racket while doing so.
It’s not just mechanical noise – wind noise is especially prominent at 100km/h, though the Picanto fares reasonably well in crosswinds.
You wouldn’t want to drive this on the highway for too long and, though this is primarily a city car, we all know somebody who’ll take their little car on a big trip.
Faced with a bump or imperfection in the road, the Picanto absorbs the impact with an impressive degree of sophistication. Faced with many simultaneous bumps and imperfections, the little Kia loses its composure. Blame the short 2400mm wheelbase.
Perky city runabout
Great around town but less so on the highway
Kept on the boil and in mostly urban driving, the Picanto managed an average fuel economy of 8.0L/100km.
That’s well above the S auto’s combined rating of 5.8L/100km, though it’s on par with its urban rating of 7.9L/100km – for reference, highway driving is rated at 4.6L/100km. More sedate drivers will no doubt be able to coax better fuel economy out of the Picanto, however.
Though the difference in highway fuel economy between the auto and manual Picanto S is miniscule, there’s a rather large gulf between the two in urban fuel economy. The manual is rated at just 6.3L/100km around the city which, coupled with the $1600 lower price, makes the three-pedal option a smarter option.
The Kia Picanto has a seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty with capped price servicing and 12 months of free roadside assistance. For those first five services, you’ll pay $240, $435, $294, $493 and $271, respectively.
Following Holden and Suzuki’s withdrawal, just three cars occupy the Micro Car segment today: the Picanto, the Mitsubishi Mirage, and the Fiat 500. Against these, the Picanto stacks up well.
Though the Fiat occupies a higher price-point, the Mirage is priced almost identically to the Picanto, starting at $14,990 before on-road costs.
The Mitsubishi, however, has less power and torque (down 5kW and 22Nm).
The Picanto usurped the ageing Mitsubishi and amassed over 70 per cent market share in the segment.
This year it’s received an update, with more power and an updated interior. Now, the Picanto has some tougher competition.
The Kia Picanto S is a cheap, new car. It does everything you would expect from a cheap, new car and will get you from A-to-B with no surprises. If that’s all you need, you can’t go wrong, especially with that seven-year warranty.
For those of us who demand more than mere mechanical competence, however, the Picanto’s transmission will disappoint.
Regardless of whether you’re an enthusiast or just someone who wants the cheapest new car with the longest warranty, pocket the $1600 and buy the manual.