In 1991, Nirvana released their era-defining Nevermind album, Arnold Schwarzenegger was blasting his way through baddies in Terminator 2 and Kia launched its assault on the European city car segment with the Pride.
In 2017 Nirvana are no more, Arnie has served two terms as Governor of California and is busy trolling Donald Trump on Twitter and the basic, boxy budget Pride has long gone. In its place is this, the third-generation Picanto, a city car looking to take on the likes of the VW Up, Citroen C1, Vauxhall Viva and Ford Ka+.
Kia Picanto ‘2’ 1.0
Engine: 1.0-litre, three-cylinder petrol
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Top speed: 100mph
0-62mph: 13.8 seconds
CO2 emissions: 101g/km
While the first two generations of Picanto were very different in styling and quality, this latest model is more obviously connected to its predecessor. It’s a touch taller and the wheelbase has been stretched but it occupies the same space on the road. The styling is clearly evolved from the old model but everything is a bit sharper, a bit tauter and a bit more aggressive.The GT Line in particular looks the part with its bigger bumpers, twin tailpipes and 16-inch alloys. but even more everyday models are more substantial and better looking than rivals such as the Viva and Up.
Thanks to that longer wheelbase there’s more room up front, with decent space for even tall drivers to stretch out and the seats are firm but comfortable, even on long journeys. Passengers in the rear won’t notice any improvement over the old model but average-sized adults will manage fine as long as they’re not crossing continents.
The interior is much as you’d expect from a 10 grand city car. The plastics used aren’t going to worry Audi and aren’t as pleasing to the eye or touch as in bigger Kias but they feel solid and made to last. The styling and layout is, likewise practical and functional rather than exciting but I’d take a decent layout and straightforward controls over a fancy dashboard any day.
Powering the Picanto are revised versions of the previous generation’s 1.0-litre and 1.25-litre petrols. Both have been fettled to improve economy, emissions and refinement. The 1.0-litre now offers an official 64.2mpg on the combined cycle and emissions of 101g/km. The larger unit manages a credible 61.4mpg and 106g/km, although opting for the four-speed auto instead of the five-speed manual gearbox knocks nearly 10mpg off that and pushes CO2 emissions up to 124g/km.
If you rarely venture out of the urban jungle then the 1.0-litre will suit you fine. It’s responsive at lower speeds and remains pretty smooth and quiet even up to motorway pace. If, however, you do a wider mix of urban and extra-urban driving then the larger engine is worth considering. With 83bhp it’s still not going to set the world alight but it has noticeably more grunt while being smoother and quieter than the three-pot.
Those engines will be joined later this year by a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-pot, which will be the most powerful engine fitted to a Picanto. Unlike other “hot” city cars such as the incoming VW Up GTI and the Renault Twingo GT, there won’t be any chassis or suspension revision to go with the extra power.
That won’t necessarily be a problem though, as the standard car is actually a lot of fun to drive. Admittedly, neither of the current engines give the chassis anything to worry about, but the stiffer body and new rear suspension mean it feels stable, copes well with twisty rural roads and is more entertaining than a city car really needs to be.
The steering isn’t hugely communicative but that’s not why you buy a city car. It is, however, quick and nicely weighted. At higher speeds there’s a pleasing and reassuring level of resistance while at low speed it’s light and gives the car the nimble feel you want when trying to carve a path through city-centre gridlock.
As with most city cars, the ride is quite firm but not obtrusively. It handles rough urban surfaces fairly well but can’t soak up bumps quite the way a larger vehicle could.
That said, the Picanto’s overall refinement is remarkable. As well as a settled ride, there’s little vibration around the cabin, even at high speeds and noise intrusion is kept to a level you would usually only expect from far larger cars. Even on a long motorway run there was none of buzzing and buffeting you sometimes find with small cars.
The Picanto range starts at £9,750 but, one suspects, no-one will ever actually opt for the steel-wheeled ‘1’ spec car with its basic two-speaker radio and lack of air con. A jump to ‘2’ adds alloys, air con, Bluetooth and electric windows all round, while GT Line gets you that plus bigger alloys and some aggressive exterior styling, My pick of the trims would be ‘3’, which adds the seven-inch DAB-equipped touchscreen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, autonomous emergency braking, cruise control and sat nav. If you want everything up to and including a heated steering wheel and wireless phone charging then the GT Line S packs in a lot of big-car kit to justify its £13,950 price.
The Picanto again proves how effective Kia’s product plan is. Like its Sportage and Rio stablemates, in the space of three generations it’s gone from a basic budget option to a high-quality mainstream contender that offers substance and value to match, and in many cases beat, its rivals.