With sales of micro cars falling through the floor in Australia for a few years running, it takes a bold car brand to launch a contender. Even more so when the offering is five years into its life cycle.
But that’s precisely what Kia Australia did this week with the launch of the 'new' Kia Picanto, a European-designed and Korean-made five-door to rival the Holden Spark, Mitsubishi Mirage, Suzuki Celerio and Nissan Micra.
The 2016 Kia Picanto launches with rather bold expectations. The company expects it to become the top-seller in its class, eclipsing the Mirage, with 3600 units per annum. But its job goes a little beyond just sales.
Simply put, Kia knows it needs offerings in diverse segments to get the cut-through it still lacks. It needs an entry car beneath the Rio to attract P-platers and retirees alike — projected respectively to account for 70 per cent and 30 per cent of private sales. Are you over 20-years-old and under 60? Move along, you’re not the target.
As you can read in detail in our pricing and specifications story, Kia Australia has kept its Picanto story simple and to the point. One spec, one drivetrain, one body-style and most importantly, one price.
The cost of entry is $14,990, but unlike most rivals, this is not just RRP, but instead is the drive-away price. Unusually for such a price-sensitive segment, the Picanto doesn’t come with the option of a cost-saving manual gearbox. Kia reckons most Picanto buyers would have opted for an automatic transmission anyway, and so a four-speed auto is standard.
At this point, the $14,990 drive-away price seems okay. An auto Holden Spark costs $16,790 drive-away, an auto Celerio is just $12,990 on the same basis, and the auto Nissan Micra is currently on offer for $14,690 drive-away. So, competitive.
That said, as is always an issue with micro cars in Australia, there are a number of larger cars with automatic transmissions on offer for $2000 or so more — cars such as Kia’s own Rio, the Suzuki Swift, and the Hyundai Accent.
The ace in the Picanto’s deck is cost of ownership. You get Kia's industry-topping seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty with roadside assistance and capped-price servicing (intervals are every 15,000km, costing $2345 total over seven years) for the term, fully transferrable to the next owner. That'll help resale.
So, does the Kia Picanto belie its age? And does it shape up as a viable top-seller in a contracting segment? It has its work cut out, considering the pricier new Holden Spark certainly earns its cost premium.
There’s little doubt the pint-sized Picanto looks the part. It’s signature grille and rear bumper bookend a wedge-like shape with a prominent side character line. It’s sharp yet not too cutesy, and well-proportioned to boot. We really like the low-cut tailgate glass, and the front halogen daytime running lights.
Inside has promise as well. The cabin up front is spacious, with plenty of headroom thanks to a tall body similar to the Spark and Celerio, and a feeling of airiness provided by big side windows. This also gives you a good view of the road from behind the novel two-spoke steering wheel.
You also get a relatively ergonomic fascia, with simple controls that fall to hand easily enough, though, the lack of telescopic steering wheel adjustment is a tick in the negative column. Small elements, such as one-touch indictors and four power windows, are more upmarket than some offerings in this class.
The plastic materials are hard-wearing and well screwed together, and offset by nice silvery bits on the wheel and across the dash. It all feels commendably solid and not at all cheap. Built to a price, yes, but without cutting corners. Ditto the hard-wearing and acceptably comfortable cloth seats.
The equipment list covers the bare basics. You get a four-speaker stereo that works well enough, you have Bluetooth phone and USB connectivity, steering wheel audio controls and a trip computer.
Missing, though, is the modern infotainment system offered by the new Spark. The simple red-lit head unit falls well short of the Holden’s touchscreen with standard Apple CarPlay and various app connectivity options. Here the Kia feels its age. Late to the party, and far from fashionably so. Still, the Bluetooth pairs and re-pairs rapidly, even if the audio quality is tinny.
You also miss out on cruise control (something the Micra ST offers) and alloy wheels are only an option, though the Picanto’s 14-inch steel wheels are actually good for inner-city living, because who cares if you ‘kerb’ them.
You also don’t get a rear-view camera, though that’s normal for the class, but the fitment of standard rear sensors, that low-slung rear window, the tiny 3.6-metre length (standard for the class) and the super-light electric-assisted steering make the Picanto one of the easiest cars on the market to park. It operates on a figurative dime, with a 9.6-metre turning circle.
The rear seats offer three lap-sash seatbelts and two ISOFIX anchors, and acceptable space for kids, or even two adults over shorter trips. Headroom and knee-room is okay, though perhaps marginally behind the Spark (which has anachronistic but somehow charming manual winding windows).
You also get six airbags and a newly minted five-star ANCAP safety rating (with a 2013 test year, since the car has been in New Zealand for a while now).
Cargo space is claimed as 200 litres, which is small-ish even for the Micro class, expanding to more than 600L with the rear 60:40 seats folded forwards. In English, this means you can fit in some overnight bags with the back seats in use, or a few suitcases without. You get a standard rigid cargo cover, while under the floor you get a space-saver spare wheel.
Clearly, the inner-city is the Picanto’s natural habitat. Under the bonnet is a 1.25-litre four-cylinder engine from Kia’s 'Kappa' family. It’s an ageing engine, but is also proven. Power is a modest 63kW at 6000rpm and torque an even lower 120Nm at 4000rpm. On launch, we averaged about 6.0 litres of fuel per 100km, with the Picanto's tank offering you 35 litres to play with.
For comparison, this is 10kW and 8Nm less than a Spark four-pot but 13kW and 30Nm more than a Celerio three-cylinder. The standard four-speed auto matches that of the Micra, but not the CVTs of some other rivals.
Around town, the drivetrain is responsive enough, with a linear torque delivery and acceptable refinement. But at higher speeds, engine speeds climb a little past the point of ideal refinement, while up hills the kick-down from fourth gear to third, to find more revs, is a step beyond intrusive. An extra ratio would help. The powertrain is certainly happiest around town.
Helping things along is the Kia’s tiny 885kg tare weight, which bisects the Suzuki and Holden. Belying this featherweight mass, the Kia also feels quite solid and stable at highway speeds, with only the excess tyre noise intrusion detracting. Wind noise and big bumps are dispatched easily.
The electric-assisted steering is direct if vague (as well as super-light around town), and the nose is eager to point and turn-in on demand if you’re having a crack. The Picanto happily darts into corners, and the body control is better than its tall body might imply. It’s quite fun to throw into a roundabout.
Because the Picanto arrives late in its life cycle, it is the only Kia not given Australian-specific suspension tuning, unlike the Spark, which got substantial Holden engineer-led tweaking in Victoria. But Kia’s European tune will be more than adequate for most owners.
The general ride compliance is fine, with moderate bumps and potholes rounded off well enough. It’s on the firm side, more so than the loping Holden, but it’s an amiable little number nevertheless.
The all-round disc brakes (some rivals still use rear drums) are effective, though the pedal — with its high take-up point and very sharp response — takes a moment to adjust to. It’s good once you’re acclimatised.
So that’s our first crack in the 2016 Kia Picanto. At $14,990 drive-away with an automatic gearbox and that long warranty, it’s an understandable first car, better than the top-selling Mirage and the Micra, and showing more polish than the charming Celerio. It’s also $1700 cheaper than an auto Holden Spark.
More importantly, it’s a good alternative to a larger used car. It should be a bulletproof ownership prospect, and will be a serviceable and safe runabout. Don’t look to it for inspiration, but as a fit-for-purpose micro car offering, it ticks the boxes effectively.
Stay tuned over the coming weeks for our micro car segment comparison test.