Kia Picanto: good things come in small packages

Posted on: 04 May 2012 by Gareth Hargreaves

Adrian Foster road tests the new Kia Picanto 1.25 Equinox

Kian Picanto EquinoxYou probably remember the Kia Picanto as a tiny, inexpensive city car that did rather well out of the scrappage scheme, whereby people traded in their old nails in order to get into a new car with minimal outlay. The original version launched in 2004 and its face lifted successor both did a solid job in the design department and with improved material and build quality. Unsurprisingly, Kia managed to sell over 77,000 of them in the UK.

The Picanto's design values look set to change with the launch of the latest car. Based on the same chassis as the nondescript Hyundai i10, here's a city car that represents anything but lowest common denominator motoring. Even with the scrappage scheme a fading memory, the Picanto looks set for far bigger things.

Feisty little pocket rocket 

The Picanto has nothing that identifies it as Korean either outside or inside - no unnecessary bits of chrome or gaudy add-ons. Indeed, regular readers will recall that I am a fan of Kia, but initial impressions left me struggling for positive things to say about the gummy, red rimmed smile of the radiator grill, the too-small wheels and the Jimmy Hill-esque chin spoiler and bumper of the Equinox version I tested.  But, like the fictional town of Gasforth in The Thin Blue Line, it’s better than you think and Kia’s feisty little pocket rocket doesn’t take long to impress with its seriously thought-out handling and packaging contrasting with its ‘must be mad’ value for money.

Equinox interior4Electronic Stability Control

One characteristic that Kia was keen to carry over from the previous Picanto is that car's cheeky feel. Although the old Picanto was never quick, it handled reasonably crisply and the steering was geared such that it felt almost criminally good fun to punt around city streets, even if your speed never exceeded 30mph. The good news for those looking for a grin behind the wheel is that much of the outgoing Picanto's suspension architecture has been carried over, albeit evolved subtly. The front suspension has been tuned for better straight line stability and Kia reckons it has not only improved the ride 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 100 km/h (62 mph) are among the class best at 41.0 metres.

Equinox exteriorSporty feel three-door version

At first sight the Kia Picanto Equinox is slightly on the dumpy side, not helped by the small, albeit elegant, five-hole alloy wheels on the three-door version we tested. But Kia has given it a cosmetic make-over that includes subtle red edging to the familiar ‘bow tie’ radiator grill, a deeper front air scoop, sculpted headlamps, deep-set fog lights, body coloured wing mirrors and twin chromium tailpipes. The sporty feel continues inside with high quality red leather seats, leather trimmed sports steering wheel, a rest for the clutch foot on the left and classy red detailing on the five-speed gear knob. There is lashings of kit and goodies and the quality of the interior is well up to normal Kia standards, with nothing apparently second rate or ‘built down to a price’.  However, the CD / radio is let down by its poor tone.

The rear seats fold down to create a usefully sized rear loading platform.  However, the front passenger seat headrest tilted forward at an awkward angle, resulting in neck ache for almost everybody that rode in the front.

Equinox interior 5Low gearing and firm suspension 

Around town the Equinox didn’t impress us as much as we’d hoped. Its darty throttle response, low gearing and firm suspension making for a fidgety, restless driving experience. But out on the open road, the Picanto comes into its own and suddenly everything makes sense. The faster you go the more settled the Picanto feels. The little engine revs freely, the gear change is viceless, the variable weight steering that seemed over-light in town firms up to provide just the right amount of weight and feel and the suspension and handling cope even better than on some larger, more expensive performance hatches I’ve driven. The output from the headlights is more than adequate when driving at such speeds.

The 1.25-litre engine in the Equinox has a very eager character and makes a nice sporty sound when revved hard. It has to be worked hard on the open road, but is so smooth that it comes as a real surprise to look down at the rev counter when accelerating and find the engine is spinning at 4500 rpm. Acceleration from 0-60 mph comes in a respectable 11 seconds and maximum speed is 106 mph. Either Kia is telling porkies here or I’m irredeemably smitten, because the Picanto seems very much quicker than those modest figures suggest. The combined fuel consumption figure of 53.3 mpg isn’t bad either for such a potent little performance hatch.

Equinox hatchbackConclusion

Kia's Picanto has already earned a reputation as a no-frills city car, but the latest model feels a far better finished item than its predecessor. The new Picanto offers a little more of everything: it's bigger than its predecessor, hugely superior in terms of poise and finish and gets more from a gallon of fuel.

Manufacturer’s recommended On The Road price: from £11,695               
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