With its “all-new” rejuvenation boasting a “bold, new design and cabin” and “more youthful character” it’s easy to presume the third-generation 2017 Kia Picanto would arrive as a Korean micro hatch reinvented. Truth is, it’s very much more of the same, with less emphasis on ‘more’ if a helluva lot of ‘same’.
That’s not necessarily bad news. The Johnny Come Lately outgoing Picanto, which arrived fashionably late to the pint-sized Australian hatchback segment last year and half a decade into its lifecycle, managed to swoon many in the CarAdvice offices with its stylish flair, all-round polish, surprising dynamism and tempting value pitch. And if initial impressions from what appears, on paper at least, to be a decent all-round shake-up are to be believed, that same goodness hasn’t been lost in translation in this 2017 reboot.
Problem is, it just doesn’t make many great leaps forward in many areas where an “all new” generation perhaps should.
For now, like the outgoing ‘range’, one variant fits all. However, somewhat curiously, it’s called the Picanto S. Why the ‘S’ suffix? Simple. It demarcates this particular version’s trim level should Kia Australia decides to expand to a proper range, as is available in overseas markets, somewhere down the track.
Let’s face it: at the fiscally frugal end of the new car market where Picanto S plays – $15,690 driveaway for the familiar four-speed automatic version and $14,190 for the newly introduced five-speed manual option – there’s not much wriggle room to pile in more stuff, be it added tech, features or equipment.
So the new Picanto introduces a lot of core changes not easily felt in the driving experience, in a package sprinkled with a selection of updates in spec that are quite conspicuous, if few and far between.
Those core updates? Construction, most notably: higher strength steels in more places, a stronger and stiffer bodyshell, more comprehensive sound deadening and other details such as lower windshield wiper to reduce wind noise, and stiff engine mounts to reduce vibration. It's quite a re-engineered car. Some effort has gone into making this cheap and cheerful five-door quieter and more refined, if subtly so in areas such as environmental and road noise penetration into the cabin.
Outside and in, remodeling is hardly the “bold” departure promised. The angry looking front fascia certainly imparts purpose – in micro car context at least – but the third-gen is a little more slab-sided and loses the curvaceous body creases that made its forebear more distinctive among the micro car set.
Sat on 14-inch steel wheels like the old car, garnished with humdrum hub caps, this doesn’t appear to be a Picanto benefitting from a six-year-fresher design. In fact, to our eyes, it’s exterior styling is a little drabber.
Inside, changes are more noticeable and more favourable. Gone is the lop-sized dash fascia, its low-rent infotainment, the strange ‘clown grin’ steering wheel and centre-speedo-style instrumentation seeming lifted from the book of Porsche design. In its place is a simpler, cleaner presentation, featuring a classier if patently ‘tacked-on’ floating 7.0-inch full-colour touchscreen, a more conventional driver’s instrument cluster and a steering wheel that, if you squint, looks more than a little inspired by the unit in Porsche's Macan.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, both with voice recognition, are the highlight additions and big buyer lures, though the suite of features is quite solid for this circa-$15k prospect.
Hill-start assist control, dusk-sensing halogen headlights, six airbags, alarm and immobiliser, keyless entry, electric windows, heated and electric wing mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity with wheel-mounted controls, rear parking sensors and rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines. For a full rundown on specifications, read here.
We found CarPlay worked quickly and seamlessly, the Bluetooth paired and functioned without hassle and the camera system is easily as good as some cars four times the Picanto’s price. The lack of a digital speedo in the rudimentary monochromatic driver’s screen, though, is a letdown.
Kia claims a larger cabin space but if it is, it’s roomier by shades. There's 15mm of extra wheelbase its maker reckons translates directly into more generous accommodation though it's barely, if at all, noticeable.
The pedal and wheel placement is excellent and with a decent amount of (six-way) adjustment it’s easy to dial-in a sporty seating position for a nice hot hatch-type vibe from the driver's seat. The seats themselves are shapely and supportive, though the trim is what you’d call ‘hardy’ and typical of its segment, if benefitting in appearance from some clean contrasting stitching.
Outward visibility is excellent, too, and it’s an easy car to place on the road or to park in tight spaces. The near-black interior colour scheme favoured by the Korean carmaker in many of its model lines does a decent job of masking some fairly rudimentary plastics and textures.
The second row does lack a bit of care: there are no door bins, no air vents, no USB or power outlets, no central foldable armrest and just single cupholder in the rear of the centre console that’d be difficult for small children to reach. With reasonable head and shoulder room there’s space enough for two adults, though knee room is still a bit cramped. It’s a well-packaged cabin space, if squeezed into a body ostensibly no larger than the old generation.
Bootspace, too, is modest – that’s the nature of the micro hatch beast – though it has grown around 25 per cent (to 255 litres) generation to generation and the 60:40 split-fold rear seating slows almost flat to produce a highly useable 1010 litres. Whether you’d get a bicycle in there without disassembly is debatable but the Picanto does double as a neat surrogate mini-van if desired.
You mightn’t want to load Picanto up with too much gear because the 1.25-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder works hard and loud for its keep. “All new” is hardly accurate given the powertrain, specifically, is a carryover from the old version. Again, more of the same, and disappointingly so given there’s a more powerful 74kW/172Nm turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine on the global Picanto menu which Kia Australia says isn’t currently certified for local ADRs.
The Picanto makes do with 62kW at 6000rpm, but it’s the modest 122Nm of torque, way up at 4000rpm, that doesn’t provide the pint-sized Korean many favours. With two adults on board and a small amount of luggage, it can struggle to increase speed uphill, overtake, or pull out from a side street into traffic. Thankfully, the boisterous little four has a pleasing note, which is loud and ever present in any driving situation where you want to push on beyond a leisurely cruise.
The four-speed feels old hat, though it does keep engine revs up in search of the four cylinder’s 4000rpm sweet spot. At 110km/h on the highway, the engine hums along at a high 3000rpm in top gear, yet the reading from the onboard computer claims impressive sub-five-litre-per-hundred frugality. Even wringing the Picanto’s neck, which we did often at the local launch, thirst rarely rose into the sixes. Impressive.
Of the two transmission types, the more affordable five-speed manual version is vastly more satisfying to drive, particularly along back roads. The shift action isn’t terribly slick, the clutch pedal a bit vague and tricky to judge, but rowing through the gears while keeping the four-cylinder between 4000-6000rpm can be an absolute hoot.
In fact, the Picanto S is at its most satisfying when treated somewhat differently to its primary role as a cheap grocery getter for young and old and very few demographics in-between. Dare to dig in hard and there are shades of old-school hot hatch character in what’s (roughly) one tonne of surprising Korean fun.
Why? Where the Picanto S punches above its weigh is its chassis, specifically the Aussie-developed ride and handling package. There’s an impressive amount of depth and resolve in the suspension tuning for such a price-busting device. Then there’s the inclusion of torque vectoring-by-braking smarts, which is neat in its own right though there’s so little torque on tap it’s difficult to discern what tangible benefit this system brings to the dynamic experience.
Not only is the five door amazingly agile and well balanced when chucked through twisty corners, it’s also rock solid and stable on the highways. The steering, which now boasts a quicker-ratio rack, has decent accuracy and quite genuine communication and feel (regardless of whether many owners will notice... or even care).
Bar a lack of a speed indicator for the newly introduced cruise control, the five-door is a delightful driving experience, if one begging for the kinds of output improvements the as-yet-unavailable 1.0-litre ‘turbo triple’ would undoubtedly deliver.
The absence of this three-banger – and the lack of autonomous emergency braking in the local Picanto S – is disappointing. The quiet word is both are coming, perhaps next year, as options or possibly featured in a more highly specified variant. Maybe then the Picanto might finally get alloy wheels…
No, evidence suggests this new-generation Picanto S is carefully specified to a pair of sharp, competitive price points and once you bundle in seven full years of warranty, capped-price servicing and roadside assist, it’s a compelling pitch for affordable long-term ownership surety and value. That's even if the value pitch seems confusing given the auto has driveaway pricing and the manual doesn’t, and the logical assumption is the latter ends up the more expensive option to land in your driveway.
Our advice? The manual is the better drive. And Kia Australia itself recommends negotiating terms with dealers as there’s a high likelihood buyers will easily get a better deal than the $14,190 list pricing suggests.
So why not just drop the advertised price to begin with? Because the importer isn’t keen to “communicate” that Kia is cut-price brand. Strange but true.
Ideal first car? Cheap grocery-getter? Retiree runabout? Even a cheeky little warm hatch as a bottom-dollar fun machine? The new Picanto S now fits all bills equally well, if only marginally better than the car it replaces.