Kia Picanto (2017) review: Hands-on with the UK’s best-looking city car
The Kia Picanto hasn’t always looked as good as it does now. Back in 1991, when Kia’s smallest car was called the Kia Pride, it was a dumpy upstart nobody but the most value-obsessed would consider. It’s come a long way, though, in the intervening 26 years, and the all-new 2017 Kia Picanto is now at the forefront of a wave of style-conscious, fine-driving city cars vying for urban drivers’ cash.
Kia expects the car to capture around a 5% share of Western Europe’s sizeable city-car market, which amounts to 60,000 sales, and it expects a large part of that to be driven by the Picanto’s improved sportier look. I’ll come to what’s changed on the outside later, but what’s possibly more revealing, and what matters increasingly to drivers these days, is that the Picanto provides increasing evidence that buying a small car doesn’t necessarily any longer mean having to put up with the very basics in comfort and convenience.
Kia Picanto (2017) review: Tech, audio system and interior
That’s an important consideration in such a competitive sector, but you do have to step up the trim levels to get the full tech package. The GT-Line S and other models fitted with the grade 3 trim are the only Picantos in the new range to come with the 7in ‘floating’ touchscreen, models that start from £11,860. If you’re buying new, though, it’s well worth shelling out for, because this is a responsive and well thought-out system.[gallery:1]
In this guise, the Picanto comes with satnav as standard, as well as Bluetooth, USB and 3.5mm aux connectivity, but it’s the inclusion of both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support that really catches the eye. I tried both systems out in the car, as well as the in-car music, radio and satnav systems and everything just worked, which is more than I can say for some other cars I’ve tested purporting to offer these types of features.
Plug in your phone, whether it be an iPhone 7 Plus, a Google Pixel XL or any other iOS or Android-based phone and the Picanto instantly connects via either system, and assigns it to the Media button to the left of the screen. It’s responsive to taps and swipes, the buttons are nice and big and the screen is clear and readable. The graphics aren’t the last word in modernity, but this is as slick and effective an infotainment system as I’ve come across in a small car.[gallery:11]
Moreover, it also achieves that most tricky of tasks – of integrating Android Auto or CarPlay – better than most. A voice recognition button on the steering wheel allows you to activate Google Assistant of Siri (note there’s no voice control available for the car’s own satnav) without you having to remove your hands from the steering wheel, and it’s even possible to mix and match functions from the phone and in-car systems to a certain degree.
If you want to play your tunes from Spotify on your phone while the car’s satnav delivers navigation instructions, for example, that’s easy to achieve. And it’s an important consideration for iPhone owners since Apple Maps still isn’t the greatest satnav tool. Its voice search facilities, in particular, are woeful and route planning isn’t a patch on Android’s equivalent.
The car’s audio system is less impressive but never sinks into “so awful I can’t listen to it” territory. Lower trim grade cars get the four-speaker system that lacks ear-level tweeters, so audio disconcertingly sounds like it’s coming from your feet. The effect is less obvious in cars with the six-speaker audio system, which has two tweeters at dashboard height, two in the footwell and two at the rear, and overall the sound quality is perfectly acceptable.[gallery:14]
The bass never reaches deep down to the very lowest notes and there’s a brittle, hard sound to the mid and upper notes, but it never distorts badly and, even at maximum volume, there’s surprisingly little cabin rattle and buzz.
That’s a good indicator as to the general finish and build quality of the interior, which in general I found was beyond reproach. I’m not a fan of the strange vertical air grilles that bookend the dashboard, but the plastics are of respectable quality and whether you choose a model with cloth or faux-leather seats, everything feels remarkably grown up inside.
In case you’re worried about such things (if so, why buy a city car?), the new Picanto is also more practical, with a larger boot, up to 255 litres in capacity over the previous model’s 200-litre boot. Don’t for one minute think you’ll be seating four adults in comfort, though. Although there’s plenty of room for the front-row passenger to stretch out, leg room is at a premium in the back.[gallery:15]
Kia Picanto (2017) review: Safety and driver assistance
As for driving assistance aids, they’re thin on the ground, but that isn’t particularly unusual in this end of the market. The top-of-the-range GT Line-S model and models with grade 3 trim get a rear parking camera but weirdly no sensors, so it doesn’t beep the closer you get to the car behind and there’s no form of automatic parking. But then this is a tiny car. It measures 3.6m from nose to tail and has a turning circle of 9.4m, so if you’re having trouble parking … well, let’s just say you probably need more practice.
Safety tech is a little more impressive. Cars from grade 3 are equipped with AEB (automous emergency braking) and there’s also hill start assist and torque vectoring through braking for every Picanto in the range. The latter system uses the ESC (electronic stability control) and anti-lock brake sensors to improve grip and security when cornering, gently braking the inside rear wheel if the car is running wide or the outer rear wheel if the back end begins to slide out.
Kia Picanto (2017) review: Exterior design, engines and handling
If the levels of equipment are impressive for a small city car, though, they’re nothing compared to the car’s new eager, shark-nosed look, which is a significant improvement on last year’s model.
If you’ve come across the 2017 Picanto’s predecessor on the roads, you’ll probably be rightly asking what the difference is. A quick tour around the outside reveals a similar overall shape and profile, but tweaks to the design and detailing of the grille and headlamps, as well as a shorter nose and longer rear overhang, all contribute to a design that’s far less cute and has more bite and snarl than you’d expect.
Alas, that aggressive new design, which looks its best on the sportier GT Line and GT Line S models isn’t reflected (yet) in the engine department. The new Picanto is available initially with only two petrol engines: a one-litre, 66bhp three-cylinder unit, and an 83bhp 1.25-litre four-cylinder powerplant for grade 3 and GT-Line cars. The 98bhp one-litre turbo won’t be available until later this year.[gallery:5]
The Picanto feels relatively calm at motorway speeds, as long as the surface isn’t too roughed up, and around the twisty, bendy hillside roads of the coastal Tuscan hills, it felt reasonably pliant, yet still firm enough not to roll around unduly in the bends. Steering is light and responsive, and the gearbox has a positive feel that’s not too sloppy.
But if performance is a priority, this is probably not the city car you want, at least not until the more powerful variant becomes available later on this year. The one-litre version has a 0-60mph time of 13.8 seconds and the 1.25-litre gets there in 13.2 seconds and though the latter responds slightly better, neither offers much in the way of shove.
Remember, though, this is not a car designed for hooning around in the Tuscan hills or long drags on the motorway. It’s a city car, designed for short hops to Ikea to pick up a new lamp shade or to Waitrose for the weekly shop.[gallery:6]
Kia Picanto (2017) review: Prices and verdict
For a small city car, the new Kia Picanto offers a lot in terms of tech and safety equipment, and the Kia has done a great job of balancing that with an aggressive new design and a decent drive.
Since there’s no upgrade path for lower levels of trim, though, you’ll need to plump for a grade 3 trim car or the Picanto GT-Line S to get the full benefit of the nicer interior and tech package, and that bumps the price up from £8,660 at retail to a minimum of £11,860, which is quite a price premium.
Overall, though, the new Kia Picanto (2017) gets the thumbs up from us. In its top spec guise, it’s a great-looking, fun-to-drive city car with a surprisingly competent lineup of tech lurking inside.