Kia has bolstered its top-selling micro car range with a sporty-looking GT-Line variant – but is it more style over substance?
The micro car segment is a very small one, dare we suggest 'micro', in Australia, making up less than 1.0 per cent of all new car sales year to date in 2018.
However, despite most of its competitors largely remaining stagnant or being axed due to low sales volume, the Kia Picanto continues to grow in popularity – in May 2018 it accounted for 62.3 per cent of all micro car sales (460 units), and is up 67.7 per cent year-to-date for that period (2018 v 1203 units).
Like other 'GT-Line' models in the Kia stable, the Picanto gets a raft of visual and equipment upgrades over the base 'S' trim (from $14,190) – though there's no engine upgrade, at least for now.
Key specification highlights include 16-inch alloys, a GT-Line bodykit, LED daytime-running lights, halogen projector headlights, contrasting body accents, and a dual-tip exhaust finisher.
There are also 'premium' leather-look seats with red accents, leather-look steering wheel, alloy sports pedals, and a six-speaker audio system over the standard car.
Carryover kit includes autonomous emergency braking (AEB), a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, rear-view camera with parking sensors, heated power exterior mirrors, manual air-conditioning, cruise control, and dusk-sensing headlights.
The only option available for local versions of the GT-Line is premium paint, limited to Aurora Black, Titanium Silver, and the Signal Red you see here, each asking for $520 extra. As tested, our Signal Red GT-Line is priced at $17,810 plus on-roads or $18,010 drive-away. Kia lists full 'build and price' details here, and the full brochure here (links open in new tabs).
Despite the standard inclusion of AEB, the Picanto wears a 2017-stamped four-star ANCAP safety rating. According to the independent crash-testing body, the little Kia only managed average scores in the areas of child occupant protection and pedestrian protection.
What hasn't changed is what sits under the bonnet – a 62kW/122Nm 1.25-litre four-cylinder 'Kappa' petrol engine mated exclusively to a four-speed automatic in GT-Line trim. Peak power comes in at 6200rpm, while maximum torque is available at 4000rpm.
While those outputs seem rather meagre in an era when turbocharging gives small-capacity engines similar outputs to naturally aspirated units twice their displacement, the Picanto performs adequately in the urban jungle – where it will spend almost all of its time.
It has no issues getting up to city speeds at a decent pace, and the four-speed auto generally shifts smoothly and intuitively considering the limited ratios.
The little 1.25-litre motor is also generally refined, even when you're pushing it, not sounding too thrashy under load. It probably helps that the Picanto GT-Line claims a tare weight of 995kg, meaning there's not a whole lot of heft for the little engine to shift.
While it's adequate 90 per cent of the time, you can be left wanting for more when accelerating up to freeway speeds. Getting to 100km/h, for example, can feel like an eternity, and to get there you have to push your foot further to the floor, so it can be a little noisy.
Once you're there, the Picanto is spinning at 3000rpm in fourth gear at 100km/h. It's a shame that Kia doesn't offer a five-speed auto or a CVT with this engine, because it would make the Picanto an even better all-rounder.
While the engine is humming away at speed, the Picanto's cabin is quite refined for a city car. Road noise is noticeable, but that's to be expected at this end of the market, while wind noise is kept to a minimum.
Despite its little engine, the Picanto isn't the last word in fuel efficiency, however. While Kia officially claims a combined figure of 5.8L/100km, we returned an indicated figure of 7.6L/100km over 440km of mixed driving favouring urban environments.
Sure, it's lower than the 7.9L/100km urban claim, but considering our Volkswagen Polo long-termer is achieving mid- to high-sixes in similar conditions, it's still not a great result.
The tiny 35L fuel tank means you won't have to spend much at the pump, though, further helped by the 91RON rating.
In terms of ride quality, the GT-Line is a little more sensitive to various lumps and bumps thanks to its larger wheels and lower-profile rubber, but it rarely crashes over imperfections and never feels uncomfortable.
Furthermore, it feels nice and stable for such a little car, giving the impression that it's larger on the road than it really is.
The steering is nicely weighted, offering good feedback so you know what the front wheels are doing. It's a little on the heavier side, but still light enough to make parking and tight manoeuvres easy.
Like the Picanto's road-holding, the steering makes you feel like you're driving a bigger car – in a good way. It's almost sporty. Almost...
Drivers will enjoy the chunky (faux) leather steering wheel, which feels great in the hand and looks great. While there's no reach adjustment for the steering column, it still offers a good amount of movement so you can find a comfortable driving position.
All the requisite controls feature on the tiller, too, for your audio, cruise control, and audio system. There's also a monochrome driver's display that has a trip computer function, and also allows you to adjust settings like the automatic door lock function and the sensitivity of the forward collision-warning system.
However, there's no digital speed readout – a must in speed-conscious Australia – nor is there a speed indicator when cruise control is activated. Little things, but they do come in handy.
The front seat is a nice place to be, too. Despite the 'premium' trim being artificial leather, the Kia's seats feel supple and of a high quality.
Comfort is good thanks to the decent amount of bolstering and support for the back and under the thighs, though the lever-operated backrest adjustment isn't as precise as the dial adjustment often found in European cars.
Some drivers may find their ideal seating position is somewhere between backrest clicks, either leaving you feeling like you're too upright or too far back – that could be nitpicking, though.
The dashboard design may be simple, but everything is logically laid out and feels of a high quality. You won't find any soft-touch plastics here, but that's standard fare for the class, and the Picanto feels solidly built nonetheless.
Classy touches like the gloss-black accent in the door insert, contrasting red stitching on the leatherette surfaces, along with the padded front door armrests, add to the ambience, as does the large 7.0-inch tablet-style central display.
The graphics are clear and attractive, while the system itself responds to inputs quickly enough – you have to remember this is under $18,000 on the road.
It has all the basic functions you need like AM/FM radio, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, along with AUX and USB inputs. Having the option for smartphone mirroring adds app-based navigation services and media streaming, which is great for tech-savvy youngsters.
Speaking of the phone function, though, a couple of callers noted poor sound quality from the Picanto's microphone.
At the base of the centre stack is a dual-tier storage area, great for phones, wallets and keys, along with a cool pair of cupholders with adjustable borders so you can hold your drink or open them up for more space.
The second row is surprisingly accommodating for such a small car, too. This reviewer is a little over 6ft 1in, and was able to fit behind his own driving position – though my knees were nudging the seat in front.
In saying that, micro cars aren't built to be people carriers, though the Picanto has enough space for two adults in the back and should be comfortable enough for most journeys. Parents can also make use of the two ISOFIX mounts on the outer rear seats.
Folding the rear seats down opens that space up to 1010L, though there's a big 'step' from the boot floor to the seat backs. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare wheel.
We put the Picanto to the test over one weekend when a men's tennis team and all their equipment were all shoved in for a 40km return journey. It may have been a slight squeeze, but the Kia got the job done.
Ownership is another area where the Picanto punches above its weight. Like the wider Kia stable, it's covered by a seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty. Kia details its warranty here (opens in new tab).
Additionally, there's seven years of capped-price servicing and roadside assist for added peace of mind, with scheduled maintenance required every 12 months or 15,000km.
For the first five visits, the little Kia will set you back $240, $435, $294, $493 and $271 respectively – making for a total of $1733.
It's not hard to see why the Picanto has struck a chord with Aussie buyers despite competing in a dying segment – it's cheap to buy and own, is cute as a button, and has all the kit you need.
The fact it punches above its weight in terms of interior and luggage space is another plus, and the new GT-Line variant means it doesn't look like an Avis rental either.
From a value perspective, the S may be the smarter buy, but the GT-Line will likely appeal more to youngsters and first-car buyers who want a small car that looks cool and is just about fully equipped for the money.
It's just a shame the punchier 1.0-litre turbo available in Europe, or even just a five-speed manual option, isn't offered locally – at least for now. Make no mistake, though, the Picanto GT-Line is a great micro car and definitely deserves a look.