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by John Cadogan

If you said the name ‘Picanto’ to the average Aussie, the most probable response would be ‘Huh?’ – probably in concert with a blank stare.

The fact is, the Kia Picanto is on Kia Australia’s ‘wish’ list. In industry speak the Kia Picanto is an A-segment car (the smallest size category) that – if it gets to Australia – will probably put the squeeze on Suzuki’s Alto and Nissan’s Micra. In some other markets it’s called the Morning, and in Germany it scored the top ranking in the coveted JD Power 2010 Vehicle Ownership Satisfaction Survey.

Strategically, the Kia Picanto also has the capacity to satisfy latent demand in the market: to fill the void, if you like, left by the recent departure of Hyundai’s iconic Getz – only with slicker styling and better ‘everything’.

Of course, the Kia Picanto can do that only if the price is right. Tony Barlow, Kia Motors Australia Chief Operating Officer, says price-point negotiations (together with Australian specifications) are still a long way off. “We’re firmly committed to our plans with Rio,” Mr Barlow says. “Three- and four-door Rio variants are on their way to Australia in January 2012, and we’re quite excited by that. But we also have a general submission in place to secure Picanto for Australia. I’m not suggesting it would ever be a runaway best-seller for us in Australia – but I’m sure there is a healthy niche for the Picanto in the Australian market.”

My drive in the Kia Picanto was a consummate ‘fish out water’ experience. Together with a colleague, we drove the diminutive Picanto almost 200km from the east coast of South Korea across the mountains (and in many cases through those mountains – South Koreans give good ‘tunnel’) to Seoul, on the western side of the country. It was almost exclusively a motorway drive, at 100km/h to 120km/h – although we did battle Seoul’s extremely dense afternoon rush hour traffic in the evening.

It’s not what the Picanto was designed primarily to do.

Despite this, the Kia Picanto had no difficulty keeping up with proceedings on the motorway. The 1.25-litre ‘Kappa’ four-cylinder petrol engine has continuously variable valve timing, but with peak outputs of just 51kW and 94Nm, don’t expect it to blow your hair back any time soon. (It’s a significant step up on the Suzuki Alto’s three-cylinder, however.) Fuel economy ranges from high fours to low sixes in the litres per 100km scale.

The standard transmission is a five-speed manual, and the optional auto is a four-speed. We drove only the auto, and having just four available forward ratios makes for big shunts in revs when shifting just one cog – not ideal, and not as refined as a five- or six-speed alternative – but here, price is obviously a consideration. Shunting back on downshifts to overtake is hardly a seamless experience. At least the engine accommodates the gearbox’s requirements for extra revs when changing back to overtake, for example, but it’s not an especially quiet nor refined experience.

The upshot of all this is that the Kia Picanto is quite impressive. Provided, that is, you remember what its potential competitors are, and you don’t go comparing it to cars costing $10k more.

Fit and finish is first-rate – in general. The rear cargo area could do with a better floor, and the door pockets in the front are little more than an afterthought. But the panel fit overall is better than in some cars costing three times the price (ballpark estimate).

The front seats are quite comfortable, too – no need to call the chiropractor after 200km across the South Korean peninsula. (Rear seats appear to offer few concessions to either comfort or legroom, however, which is typical in the ‘cheap, cheerful’ set.) The steering wheel is thick, padded and ergonomically sculpted – including a flat bottom and Kia grille-inspired highlight sculpting in the lower half. There are also plenty of on-wheel controls, plus air conditioning and full iPod integration (provided you purchase the optional accessory cable that’s also common to Hyundai).

Intruments are clear and concise, contained in Kia’s trademark ‘three cylinder’ instrument binnacle. The options bin comprises a smorgasboard including UV-reducing solar windscreen glass, full automatic air-conditioning, electric folding door mirrors, automatic light control with ‘welcome and escort’ modes, passenger seat storage tray, under-floor trunk storage box, retractable dual cup holders with mood lighting, sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors and a ‘gear shift indicator’ to encourage an economical driving style.

From a ‘product planning’ perspective, however, not all options are available individually. In other words Kia’s product planning people can’t tick boxes individually and specify a truly and ideally Aussie-spec Picanto. Specifications are bundled into packages to simplify building the car on a production line designed to cater to the world stage. In practise, Australian specifications will flow from a complex set of negotiations, with price and manufacturing complexity being the two digest determinants. About the only certainty is that the ‘maybe’ Aussie Kia Picanto will not be a bare-bones stripper.

Dynamically, the Picanto does very little wrong – nor very little to inspire. It’s a ‘bread & butter’ car designed to get from A to B with minimal fuss, and minimal driver engagement. It’s also quite noisy on the highway. Road and driveline noise rises steadily with speed, and the car could obviously benefit from additional acoustic insulation … which would doubtless add weight and cost, and hurt economy. Impressively, however, wind noise is a non-issue, even at highway speeds. That’s clearly a testament to KMC’s engineers getting better at tweaking their cars in the company’s massive wind tunnel in its Namyang R&D facility.

Manoeuverability is great. At just 3.6 metres long the Kia Picanto can fit between big city parking spaces that are already occupied – almost. Tight spots are no problem, nor are back-lane multi-point turns. There’s not much cargo space, but hey, what were you expecting: Dr Who’s Tardis?

The Picanto’s steering feels dead on the highway. There’s typical motor driven power steering confusion between straight ahead and just off-centre – which are exactly the kinds of steering inputs required on the highway. Around town it’s less of an issue.

If – and hopefully when – the Picanto gets to Australia (don’t hold your breath before 2013) it would represent a new entry point into the Kia stable. Kia Rio kicks off just over $16k, and the three-door due early in 2012 will undercut that by an as-yet unspecified amount. You’d have to factor in a significant downward divide between Picanto’s ‘maybe’ likely pricepoint and Rio’s. For many people who can’t stretch to $16k it would be an alternative to a used car or a new Chinese-made Chery – and probably a safer alternative to boot.

The Kia Picanto could easily become a safe first car for a young driver, a young family’s cheap, cheerful second car or a low-cost retirement proposition with the security of a five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty. There is probably a healthy chunk of fleet interest to be exploited as well.

What do you think? Should Kia Australia bite the bullet and import the Picanto? Could the Picanto be as successful for Kia as the Getz was for Hyundai? (Kia Oz is doing market research on this right now – so your feedback below could go a long way towards whether the company decides to import it or not.


33 Responses to “Kia Picanto Review”

  1. I think they should bring it here. The Rio has gone up in price and they need something to fill the 12-16k gap that they’re missing. If the reviews for this are anything to go by, it’s a decent little car. Top Gear even gave it 14/20. Placing it slightly above the Ka and Panda, but below the 500. So really, it can’t be all bad.

    • As long as they have enough of them. And they line up the release along with (at the same time as) all media reports and advertising.
      Also please have the full line up in dealers showrooms before official launch.

    • Funny, considering the Ford Ka and Fiat 500 are practically the same car..

  2. Have driven an Alto and by the sounds of it, this thing is leaps and bounds ahead.

    I think Kia may be a little worried about confusion in their small car lineup and may for now, just focus on pushing the Rio.

    We have to remember that this is Kia and they are still building a reputation with the every day aussie.

  3. The steering wheel is annoyingly happy . . .

  4. They have been talking about bringing this car to Australia since about 2008.

  5. We had one in Spain, it was perhaps a bit too small and the motor did struggle in the hills, but it took us everywhere and did a fine job.

    Did you drive it into NorthKorea John?

    I think KiaAustralia should import the hybrid-lpg Forte model, thats genius i tell ya

    Agree with the above dude, the SMILING lower part of the steering-wheel is doing my head in!

    • Hybrid-LPG Forte is a terrible car, Kia attempted to sell that rubbish to korean buyers, and failed miserably, because fuel efficiency isn’t as good as other hybrid cars, power output is absolute downer and its more expensive than standard Forte(cerato). if its hybrid car that you are after, just buy honda insight and toyota prius

  6. Just as many peoples typical daily motoring requirements would be met by electric cars with limited range (if you can believe the research plus comments in places like CA), so too they would be met by using a car the size of the Picanto.

    People can talk about the big country all they want, but for the daily commute a car this size would suffice.

    By the way, John, how does driving in South Korea compare to driving in our over-regulated nany state?

  7. Greasy Hopkins says:

    CA, why would having a four speed auto in this car be a negative? Surely you werent expecting a 6 speed DSG or something?

  8. Jonno Smith says:

    Despite the rave reviews & accolades by the Car reporting media and various car testing authorities regarding KIA’s tremendous leaps in car design and mechanics – I don’t think that KIA are selling in BIG numbers in Australia. By comparison, Hyundai does a better job in shifting cars off the showroom like i20, i30, i45, new Accent & Elantra etc. For Korean-made cars, currently there is a 3-corner fight among Holden (GM Korea), Hyundai and KIA. KIA looks like a mouse caught between Holden and Hyundai elephants. In the small car category for example, the KIA Cerato lags behind in sales numbers against both the Holden Cruze (although the Cruze is now assemble in Australia) & Hyundai i30 & new Elantra. One possible reason is KIA has a very small & limited dealer network in Australia. The other issue probably is the old stigma in KIA’s history – Carnival engine issues – they didn’t handle the actual & subsequent PR issues well. Also, pricing is a wee bit aggressive considering about 3-4 years old, the KIA brand image was poor and their styling pretty ugly across the range.
    Back to the KIA Picanto, it will be a 4-corner fight amongst the Holden Barina Spark, Nissan Micra ST & Suzuki Alto (excluding the PRC entrants & Proton Savvy). The 3 sub-light cars are selling well but not in great numbers. There is always ample stock in dealerships where ever you go. Pricing point will be a great determinant in shifting stock off the showroom. If I’m not mistaken, the Suzuki Alto is the cheapest, followed by the Micra and Spark. The Picanto’s price point should be closest to the Micra & Spark if they want to be realistic. Anything beyond that, they will be wasting their time.

  9. I think there’s a market for this car in Australia. In this segment i think it’s style and kit that ultimately wins over buyers, hence why you see so many Barina Sparks around, the way it drives isnt that improtant. I don’t think a four speed auto would hamper it too much as a lot of cars this size are sold as manuals anyway. Although if i were Kia i’d be moving out of the bargain basement segment and focus on removing the whole cheap and cheerful brand perception, focussing on B segment cars and upwards.

  10. The only issue I have with the car is that it would cost $10 to make the window outline black rather than body coloured and make it look better.

    CA what is wrong with a stripper model. If I’m spending 12k I expect a funky car thats it.

  11. The only problems will be the price.. Knowing Kia they will un doubtly charge much more then the competition..

  12. If they charge more than Nissan Micra and Suzuki Alto, no-one will buy it here.

  13. looks better than the yaris

  14. Drove one in Bali about a month ago, cool black one, looked really good… I drove the manual was fun, and for anyone who has been to bali, they know that the traffic can be ummm interesting.. anyways, this thing whizzed around quite happily in the traffic and up to ubud for the day… I would compare it to the Micra 1.2L here, and I have to say I prefer the Kia, its less Toy like than the Micra – just my opinion…overall fun little runabout – if they get the price right.

  15. I think it has potential be popular for young city people, provided it is decked out with all the ‘funky’ necessaties like iPod, bluetooth, mags (possibly sunroofs?) and cool colours. So long as the price is right (as many above have also said). Not sure how people feel about Kia though, that would be the challenge. They should advertise the unlimited km 5 year warranty to put people’s minds at ease, and if they get it right it will help build their reputation.

  16. KIA should not import this vehicle as it is not suitable for Australia. We will not buy these crappy segment A cars. They are too small and too weak for our needs in this big country.

    The Kia Rio is the smallest car they should be selling here and KIA is far too greedy in the pricing. If they want to succeed in Australia, they should immediately reduce the Australian prices of all KIA Rio cars. The Rio SLi should be $17K driveaway, the Rio Si $16K driveaway and the Rio S around $14K driveaway.

    KIA should be concentrating on making the Rio a success first rather than wasting their time on the Picanto.

    Perhaps KIA should also sort out their weakness and get a good supply of cars into the country. The pathetically slow and delayed introduction of the new Rio is not doing KIA any good at all with it being months behind schedule.

    • When the world economy moves forward again and petrol locally hits 2 bucks a litre (not as far away as you might think) these types of vehicle will become quite normal transport in our cities. Infact our governments will no doubt offer incentive to people who drive smaller cars into our CBD’s. It’s only a matter of time.

      Many parts of the world already provide parking bays that only these micros can use in their cbd’s.

      I agree with the comment re-supply though. It is actually damaging to the brand.

      However saying it should be $17k driveaway for the SLi with all the safety features and advanced engine/transmission smacks of a badge snob comment to me.

  17. Exchange Student says:

    I drove it’s cousin, the i10 (with the same 1.2L engine but manual gearbox), in South Africa earlier this year. No problems with the ZA speed limits of 120km/h, it just took a while to get there – but what would you expect from such a little car? Great little city car too.

    Just do it, Kia.

  18. If anybody at KIA is reading this column. Please bring in a commercial stripper e.g base model with a flat rear floor and no seats. Domino’s, inner-city couriers, sandwich shops and florists need a small, cheap and cheerful runabout.

    • PhantomHamster says:

      yeah Agreed Woodduck we would kill to have a couple of them atm using 2 door hatch with back seats folded down, heaps annoying but there is nothing else for in city drop offs/pick ups of small packages.

  19. This car is great!!!I LOVE ITTTT!!!
    It willgo head to head with the Aston Martin Cygnet, probs more luxurious too. KIA FTW!!!1!!

  20. Professor Garnaut might say, Pissanto.

  21. What’s all the fuss about bringing it to Australia? Just bring it! And any concern about what specification you’ll get, just look at New Zealand’s version. You’ll probably get what we get… Simple! just look up kia.co.nz

  22. Re the meaning of the name, I though Picanto was Portuguese slang for penis.

  23. Kia make an LPG engine that can be used in Picanto thats the car that I want.