The Kia Picanto has rightly been credited with revitalising the so-called 'micro car' segment, as its remarkable 69 per cent market share in 2018 shows.
While rival brands such as Nissan (Micra), Holden (Spark) and Suzuki (Celerio) have all been compelled to axe their pint-sized competitors due to paltry sales, Kia has found a way to make its smallest car compelling to local buyers.
Now the fast-growing company has expanded the range with a slightly higher-riding Picanto X-Line derivative, in the guise of a kitschy 'AO Edition' (Australian Open, reflecting its tennis sponsorship). It would stretch the bounds of credulity to call it a crossover SUV, but the gist is clear…
The general Picanto automatic-equipped range kicks off at a suitably small $15,990 drive-away, however the AO Edition with extra stuff that we will detail wears a drive-away price of $17,990. That nudges it up into contention with larger vehicles like Kia’s own Rio, and the Mazda 2, but then again there are plenty of urbanites who want their car to be as small as possible.
The days of little cars like this being stripped-out basic transport are truly over. Standard fare includes a reversing camera, cruise control and speed-limiter, all-round electric windows, air-conditioning, Bluetooth/USB, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring, dusk-sensing headlights, 16-inch alloy wheels, auto-folding and heated side mirrors, and LED daytime running lights.
Safety-wise, there are six airbags, and even city autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and forward-collision alert – systems that warn you of an impending low-speed collision and then brake the car automatically if you’re not paying attention.
Crash tester ANCAP only awarded the Picanto four stars, though the adult occupant protection score is 87 per cent. It was instead downrated for its 54 per cent score in the Pedestrian Detection test, and 47 per cent for Safety Assist tech, despite having AEB unlike many competitors.
Despite the faux tough looks, the Picanto X-Line is raised by only 15mm over the regular versions, and has a ground clearance of 156mm. Nevertheless, this fact, along with the high roof line and big front windows, means you get a very good driving position with ideal outward vision, though the lack of a reach-adjustable steering wheel is a shame.
The Kia has crisp analogue dials albeit with no digital speedo, a slick leather-trimmed steering wheel with buttons for the audio and cruise-control functions, and nice touches like red highlights on the easy-to-clean fake leather seats (I’d personally prefer cloth), and ‘sporty’ aluminium pedals.
Storage options include a small centre console, generous door bins, a two-tiered open area under the fascia, two cup holders and a glovebox.
The centre screen is of high quality, and it shares its software with much more expensive Kias. The presence of CarPlay/Android Auto is essential, and gives you access to phone-based Google Maps and Waze, while the clarity of the reversing camera is better than many cars twice the price. It also has moving guidelines.
While most of the plastics used are hard to the touch, they feel of a higher grade than the rival Suzuki Ignis’s, to cite one example. The Picanto's build quality is indeed very tough to fault, being every bit as good as the Cerato.
Belying its dimensions, the Kia has surprising back seats for two regular-sized adults, with two ISOFIX-enabled child-seat anchors points, rear side airbags and electric back windows. The Kia is technically a five-seater, but no. Just no.
The narrow-but-deep boot goes from 255L with the back seats in use to 1010L with them folded down. There’s a space-saving temporary spare wheel under the floor, which is fine considering most of these will live in the city.
What about the engine? Well, it’s not exactly gutsy, but I suppose it’s important to consider what’s required for darting around town. The 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is as basic as it gets with modest outputs of 62kW of power and 122Nm of torque, though given the car only weighs 999kg, its vital power-to-weight ratio isn’t atrocious.
Matched to this engine is a cheap and frankly outdated archaic four-speed automatic gearbox, but then again, the mere fact that it’s not a manual will be enough for many buyers. Sales prove this.
Punching into gaps is fine, given the initial pick-up, but then you hit a proverbial wall and the progress isn't exactly going to pin you in your seat. Of course, this might be music to the ears of parents to L-platers!
Under heavy throttle it becomes a bit harsh and thrash-prone, while at 110km/h the lack of a taller fifth or sixth gear means the engine will be spinning above 3000rpm, hurting noise suppression and fuel use.
If you want more ‘guts’, by the way, the little turbocharged Picanto GT is always worth considering, especially if you desire a throwback pocket rocket that prioritises lightness and price over outright performance.
Kia claims a combined-cycle fuel use figure of 5.8L/100km compared to which we averaged 6.5L/100km. It'll happily run on basic 91RON fuel.
In terms of driving dynamics, Kia Australia has permission from its head office to tweak the springs and dampers for our market, meaning its cars usually strike a good dynamic balance between ride comfort and decent body control and handling. Translated to English, its cars are usually relatively comfortable with a slightly sporty feel.
The Picanto does well at this, and its extra ground clearance also comes in handy. The electric-assisted steering is very direct yet light, noise suppression is okay for the class, though naturally wind and tyre roar are factors, outward visibility is excellent, and stability on a highway is better than you might think.
One of the major drawcards for the Picanto, and Kia in general given its substantial sales growth over the past few years, is its after-sales care. For one thing, it has an equal market-leading seven-year warranty with no distance limit, maximising resale values and peace of mind.
You also get roadside assistance and a capped-price servicing plan, the latter at intervals of 12 months or 15,000km (whichever comes first) priced per visit at $248, $429, $302, $470 and $280 at current rates.
So, the verdict. It's a likeable little thing, the Picanto. Though whether the X-Line version with its faux tough design, slightly raised riding height and extra mod cons is the pick of the range is less clear. I'd be inclined to call it a novelty.
Where it works is for those who regularly drive past tiny parking spots in their current transport, who want something well equipped, and who aren't in much of a hurry to get where they're going.
What we will say is that Kia is being sensible in expanding the Picanto range with versions like the AO Edition and GT, and deserves credit for keeping the micro car segment active at all.