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Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review

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.”

Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review

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.

Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review

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.

Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review
Kia Picanto Review

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.


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