In 1976 a car entered the automotive landscape and changed the world. Okay, not the whole world, and not overnight, but in the world of performance motoring, things would never be the same again.
It produced 81kW and 140Nm from a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, started out with a four-speed manual but later picked up a five-cog 'box, weighed 830kg, and could bolt to 100km/h in a reported 9.2 seconds.
That car was the Volkswagen Mk1 Golf GTI.
This story is not about that car. This is about a Kia. A Kia Picanto.
Now, I’m not saying the Picanto GT is 2019’s successor to the original Golf GTI, but a quick glance at the numbers puts it pretty close. The Picanto GT’s 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder engine is down a touch on power, with 74kW but pushes out a superior 172Nm of torque.
There’s a five-speed manual transmission, and like the GTI power runs to the front wheels. It’s a tad more porky at 1020kg and as a result takes a wee bit longer to reach 100km/h with a reported 10.0-second dash.
Both share the same 2400mm wheelbase, a GTI is 3.7-metres long, the Picanto GT 3.6m. I could run these numbers all day. Point is, the Picanto GT is, conceptually, much closer to the original Golf GTI than a current Golf GTI (larger, heavier, more powerful… surely you’re done with numbers by now).
So, the Golf GTI helped create the hot hatch segment as we know it today, and it did so by turning up the wick on what was an otherwise pretty humble little family hatchback. The Golf wasn’t the first, but it fast became the most popular and earned itself icon status along the way.
Given its small size in a modern context, the Picanto isn’t really a family car. It seems heretic to stuff a family into a micro car, even one with five doors, though technically you could.
In its most basic form, it’s certainly mainstream. Safe, reliable, predictable, focussed on utility and lauded for its value, not its excitement.
With a 1.2-litre atmo engine spinning away under the bonnet to achieve 62kW and 122Nm, a regular Picanto is adequate. A Picanto GT isn’t searing, scalding, or blistering and by a contemporary yardstick isn’t even hot, really.
That doesn’t matter too much though, because it’s still a ridiculously big dose of fun.
Fun comes in all shapes and sizes. Some people get their kicks shaving hundredths of a second from quarter-mile fly-bys, others revel in the art the perfect lap, honing inputs, outputs and throughputs to the nth degree.
Some people are puerile and really dig the idea that a vibey little three pot under the bonnet – packing barely enough herbs and spices to terrorise the front tyres, in a tall and narrow body that looks all the world like it could be Nan’s bus, a holiday rental car or a P-plate express – is its own kind of silly fun.
The sad truth is, in some states of Australia at least, travelling bare nanometres per second over the speed limit is enough to get you hauled over by the boys in blue. In something like an AMG C63 you can blink and get yourself into trouble.
This is a different kind of fun. There’s an ebullient cry from under the bonnet as the energetic little three-pot works its way up the rev range, and if you time it just right you can even elicit a tiny little ‘chuff’ on upshift. It's no dual-clutch hot hatch brrrp, but it is a signature unto itself.
As you grip the five-speed shifter you’re aware it’s a little notchy. It isn’t Honda-precise, but it's positive. There’s a fluent weight to it and a quirky propensity to head from second to fifth, bypassing third means you have to have your head in the game – no slacking off.
The suspension has been given a touch-up by Australian engineers, so there’s that kind of secure and grippy feel local audiences like with enough forgiveness to deal with the never ending parade of urban speed humps.
It doesn’t have the tackle-all-surfaces-ride-height of the barely lifted Picanto X-Line, but the suspension sits the body over the shiny 16-inch alloys with a bit of intent, while not completely forgetting that Australia’s roads are often just patches of dissolving tarmac joined together by, well, other patches of dissolving tarmac.
As a result you can fling the Picanto into a roundabout, the front end follows exactly where you point it, the rear gives a strong sense of purpose and you don’t even have to drive fast to get a sense of speed.
If you can do things at a faster clip on the right roads out of town, there’s even more reward. Because it isn’t ‘fast’ in the way high-powered hot hatches are, you need to keep speed up.
Momentum lost is momentum hard to get back. Come in hot, flick into the bend, thrash your way out as the high roll centre defies its natural propensity to lean in a surprising fashion.
The steering is keen, but not as road-readingly clear as the bigger league of hot hatches. That’s okay though, the Picanto can get by without absolute clarity given it isn’t bounding ahead at the same rate of knots.
If there were a downside, it can be found in the interior.
Not the quality, or the fit and finish mind you, but for a sporty flagship focussed on fun, black leather and a sea of hard black plastics falls short on the fun factor.
Imagine tall bolsters gripping your torso via bright red cloth and quilted Alcantara, faux suede inserts on the steering wheel and a very purposeful 12 o’clock marker to go with the sporty and well finished gloss black and red-striped details already in place.
Something that screams fun factor and maybe even suggests the Picanto GT is getting a little big for its boots. I mean, dress for the job you want, not the job you have… right?
Look past the tiny little details you don’t get (after all, there’s a world of aftermarket mods and custom bits you could throw at it to dress it up if you wanted) and focus on the bits you do.
They are honest, hard-working, down-to-earth mechanical elements set to a funky beat. In a market segment most brands have deserted, Kia deserves to swallow the micro car segment whole.
It has not only persevered, but thrived. Throwing a sporty and affordable cat amongst the pigeons (sorry, how much for an Abarth 595?) along the way.
With a frenetic, people-pleasing attitude, spunky dynamics and a look that doesn’t take itself too seriously, the Picanto GT is 2020’s version of what made the 1976 hot hatch genesis great.