Every now and then, you need a reminder of what it’s like to have some fun behind the wheel. Sure, you could lust after the latest Porsche 911 or anything by Lamborghini, but the reality for most of us is a little more sobering.
It’s that reality that Kia has tapped into with its thimble-sized warm hatch, the Kia Picanto GT.
Kia’s humble Picanto city car, in its dowdiest form, is a good little urban runabout: easy to drive, economical, and cute enough to appeal to a subset of society that values affordability, practicality and thriftiness in equal measure.
But, that hasn’t deterred the Korean carmaker from injecting some fun into its smallest and most affordable model. Make no mistake, the Picanto GT is all about fun.
It’s competitively priced, too, listing at $19,990 plus on-road costs or a very tempting $20,990 drive-away, no matter which state or territory you live in.
There aren’t a lot of rivals for the Picanto GT, certainly not in the mildly warm hatch universe. Small hot hatches, such as the Volkswagen Polo GTi or the Suzuki Swift Turbo, command a big premium over the Kia. But they also offer more power, more torque and more performance.
Instead, the Volkswagen Polo Trendline with a manual gearbox wants for $20,490 drive-away, and while its power and torque figures are similar to the Picanto GT’s, you do miss out on the funky flashes of style that make the GT a GT.
It’s a similar tale with the Skoda Fabia in 70TSI manual trim priced at a svelte $18,490 drive-away with a manual shifter. But again it looks every bit the entry-level hatchback, right down to its 15-inch steel wheels.
And that makes the Picanto GT something of an outlier in the segment, with sporty looks and a performance bent that’s simply hard not to like. To get similar driver enjoyment and satisfaction – if not outright performance numbers – from a similarly sized city hatchback, you have to spend a helluva lot more than the Picanto GT’s $20,990.
|2021 Kia Picanto GT|
|Engine||1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder|
|Power and torque||74kW at 4500rpm, 172Nm at 1500–4000rpm|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||5.2L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||6.1L/100km|
|Boot volume (min/max)||255L/1010L|
|ANCAP rating||Four stars (2017)|
|Warranty||Seven years/unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Volkswagen Polo Trendline, Skoda Fabia 70TSI|
|Price as tested||$20,990 drive-away|
In GT trim, the Picanto is a spunky little city car, with plenty of red flashes to add a sporting vibe. It sits on 16-inch machine-finished alloys shod with 195/45R16 rubber. Our test car was finished in Clear White, one of four choices for the GT, and for mine the standout shade. It’s also the only ‘free’ hue for the GT. Other options include Astro Grey, Aurora Black Pearl and Signal Red, all adding $520 to the bottom line.
In terms of options, though, that’s it for the Picanto GT. Its equipment list is pretty impressive and comprehensive for a car at this pricepoint.
Black seats with red leather accents greet occupants and they’re comfortable and supportive. The Picanto has a nice high hip-point, too, making getting in easy. There are more red accents on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, all the red continuing the race vibe from the GT’s exterior. It’s not overwrought either, and just enough to make you feel like the GT is something a little bit special.
Standard-equipment highlights include an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with AM/FM radio, although no DAB+. There’s Bluetooth streaming, too, although with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on tap, the ability to tap into Bluetooth seems almost redundant.
We encountered no issues with wireless CarPlay, the system quick to boot up within a second or two of turning on the ignition. We’ve used similar wireless tech in cars costing three or four times as much as the Picanto GT and have experienced niggles. Kudos to Kia.
It’s a pretty basic cabin, but satin-silver finishes add some flair. The air-conditioning is of the manual variety, and there’s no stop/start button, instead the GT requiring you to use the key in the old-fashioned way. Quaint.
Alloy sports pedals add a racy touch, and a generous driver’s foot rest is perfectly placed for those times when you’re not using the third pedal.
A single USB point and a solo 12V power outlet keep devices topped up. There are a pair of cupholders forward of the gearstick, as well as a small cubby for odds and ends forward of that. A smallish central storage bin is topped in soft material; a nice place to rest your elbow, if that’s your bent.
The second row is surprisingly generous for such a small car, with decent enough room behind my 173cm driving position. It’s not the last word in comfort, but neither is it overly cramped. The seats fold in 60:40 fashion to free up boot space, which is rated at 255L with the second row in use and 1010L with the second row folded away. That’s about par for the category. A space-saver spare lives under the boot floor.
The Kia Picanto’s real party trick lies under the bonnet, that characterful and thrummy 1.0-litre (998cc to be precise) in-line turbocharged three-cylinder engine simply delightful. With 74kW at 4500rpm and 172Nm from 1500–4000rpm, the Picanto GT isn’t the last word in power and speed. But, it more than makes up for it for a purposeful and engaging time spent behind the wheel.
And the best part? The Picanto GT is only available with a five-speed manual gearbox sending drive to the front wheels. No modern double-clutch autos here, simply the timeless and tried-and-tested third pedal married to a stubby gear lever and a rev-happy engine.
Fire up the little three-banger and there’s an instant moment of joy; a raspy rumble emanating from the engine bay and the pipes. It’s a reminder of why a good triple can be so rewarding. That feeling is only heightened using the manual gearbox, its action precise and notchy, satisfying with every shift.
The GT isn’t actually that fast. Kia doesn’t quote a 0–100km/h time for the Picanto GT, and frankly, once on the move listening to the revs climb inside the 998cc engine, you don’t actually care. Because every single moment is simply delightful, the GT the type of car that feels like you’re going quickly, even if you’re not.
The sweet spot for the Picanto GT is definitely third gear. Driving around town at the posted limits elicits smiles like few cars can. The fat torque band makes it easy to slow down and speed up without changing out of third gear. Instead, let the marriage between newton-metres and engine revs do the work.
A car like the little pint-sized GT is perfect for some adventurous driving on some back-road twisties – something we were only too keen to explore. And its delightful character becomes even more evident, the combination of three-pot gruffness and tactile gear changes a throwback to another time.
There’s decent body control, too, the Picanto remaining composed even under harder cornering and despite its tallish stature. The ride, too, remains unflustered, the GT the beneficiary of Kia’s local suspension tune, while responses to steering inputs are precise.
That’s most evident tackling tighter second-gear corners where the GT simply follows the line as instructed. Accelerate out of those corners and let the revs run freely before grabbing third and you’ll feel like a million bucks.
It’s a joyful reminder of how simple motoring can be so much fun – a tactile experience felt in every nerve-ending. Is it fast? No. But then it doesn’t need to be.
A week in the Picanto GT returned an indicated 6.1L/100km over an all-encompassing urban grind, plenty of highway running and some spirited back-road adventures. Kia claims 5.2L/100km on the combined cycle, so overall, a not-too-shabby return.
Despite a pretty comprehensive list of safety inclusions, the Kia Picanto range wears a four-star ANCAP rating awarded back in 2017. While adult occupant protection was decent at 87 per cent, it was scored down in child occupant protection (64 per cent) and pedestrian protection (54 per cent).
Its biggest markdown came in the area of safety assists, where ACNAP scored it only 47 per cent, marking it down for not featuring any kind of lane-keeping systems or blind-spot monitoring.
Nothing much has changed in the intervening four years, the Kia Picanto GT featuring autonomous emergency braking with forward collision warning as standard, and not much else in the way of advanced safety tech. There are rear parking sensors and standard cruise control, as well as six airbags covering both rows. The four-star safety rating from 2017 carries over.
Kia’s industry-leading seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty continues to set the benchmark, and is matched only by one other mainstream rival. Servicing is expected every 12 months or 10,000km for the Picanto GT, with prices capped over that duration.
Scheduled maintenance over seven years/70,000km will set you back a total of $3112, an average of around $444 per annum.
The Kia Picanto GT serves as a reminder that cars can still be fun to drive. Thanks to its slick manual gearbox and that brimming-with-character triple under the bonnet, the Picanto GT is a hoot to drive at any speed. That it’s under $21,000 drive-away is just a bonus.
If you can get past the four-star safety rating, the Picanto GT represents just about the most fun you can have in a car for the money. Yes, there are ‘warmer’ or even ‘hotter’ hatches out there, but there’s something utterly charming about Kia’s pint-sized GT car.