The tiddler category (or A-segment, to refer to it by its official nomenclature) isn’t about profit for car manufacturers. The competition is so cut-throat in this price-sensitive end of the market that whichever manufacturers are in the cheap-and-cheerful fray aren’t there purely to make money — they’re in there purely to boost their sales volumes and indoctrinate first-time car buyers to the brand.
Given this context, it’s not surprising that most vehicles of this genre are ultra-basic, no-frills contraptions with little to offer in terms of style, refinement or on-road poise. They get you from A to B for a modest outlay, but that’s pretty much it.
So, it comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a fresh contender in the minnow class that actually has some appeal, both visually and dynamically. Then again, Kia has been on a roll lately (the Cadenza snared the Best Family Saloon gong in our recent Car of the Year awards, while the latest Sportage is also a very, very capable entity), and the Koreans clearly want to retain their current momentum with the all-new Picanto.
Later in the year come the keenly anticipated Niro and Stinger, but it’s the entry model we’re focusing on for now, having scored a preview drive of the third-gen iteration in Tunisia, where there seem to be more olive trees than inhabitants.
The latest ‘JA’ Picanto usurps the ‘TA’ model that’s been on sale since 2011, and while it carries over the core essence of its predecessor, the newbie raises the bar with greater levels of interior space (thanks to a wheelbase that’s been stretched by 15mm), a more premium cabin ambience and crisper handling as a result of a brand-new chassis with beefier front and rear anti-roll bars and a torque-vectoring system designed to quell understeer.
Although the basic dimensions of the car are unchanged (it stretches 3,595mm from bumper to bumper and 1,595mm across the bows, as before), the wheels have been pushed out closer to the corners of the car, making for a more purposeful stance. You’ll also notice the ‘Tiger Nose’ grille and aggressive wraparound headlights that bring it into line with Kia’s latest design language.
There’s greater scope for individualisation than before, as the Picanto’s colour palette includes 11 hues — most of which are bright, funky shades, such as the pearlescent metallic Lime Light, Shiny Red, Aurora Black, Pop Orange, Sparkling Silver and Celestial Blue. Entry-level models come with 13in steel rims, but if you’re prepared to splash a bit of extra cash you can opt for 14- or 15in alloys — a rarity in this segment. Also available for an additional outlay are new projection headlamps with LED indicators and LED daytime running lights.
Perched at the top of the third-generation Picanto line-up is the ‘GT-Line’ model, which comes with chrome-tipped twin exhausts, along with red, silver and black highlights in the grille, side intakes, along the side skirts and in the rear valance. It is purely a cosmetic improvement though, as the GT-Line’s chassis and mechanicals remain unchanged.
If it were me doing the buying, I’d forego the GT-Line — which looks a bit tacky to my eyes — and opt for the lower-spec (monocoloured) EX model, as the Picanto is perky and eye-catching enough to not need any superficial fiddling. Styling is, of course, subjective, but one could make a case for the Picanto being the best looker in its segment, which includes rivals such as the Mitsubishi Mirage, Chevrolet Spark and even the Ford Figo.
There’s more leg and headroom than before, and the base of the dashboard has been moved upwards by 15mm to free up more knee room for those in the front. The new central armrest for front passengers can slide back and forth up to 55mm — claimed to be a first in the class — and beneath it is a handy multi-level storage compartment that incorporates a retractable pair of cup holders that can fold away to yield more oddments space.
Meanwhile, the boot grows from 200 to 255 litres (Kia claims it’s now the biggest in the class) and is available with a two-step floor that can be raised or lowered by 145mm to liberate additional space as required, or provide an underfloor storage area. The rear seat bench can be folded down with a one-touch lever, boosting cargo capacity to 1,010 litres (60:40 split-folding seat backs are also available).
Cabin quality/presentation is of an appreciably higher standard than in the oldie, and new for the third-gen Picanto is a floating centre console that houses a 3.8in monochrome TFT LCD audio system. Buyers will also be able to specify an optional 7.0in colour touchscreen infotainment offering Bluetooth connectivity (it supports Apple Car Play and Android Auto), while other extra-cost goodies include rear parking sensors, reversing camera, climate-control air-con, cruise control, electrically-folding door mirrors, sunroof and keyless entry and start.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, but one glaring shortcoming is the lack of reach adjustment for the three-spoke steering wheel. Other than this, there’s little to complain about, as the cabin has a bright, airy feel (especially when equipped with the optional sunroof) and visibility is good in all directions.
As you’d expect of a car in the el-cheapo end of the market, there is some hard plastic to be found in the cabin, but the overall layout and trim materials used are better than you’d expect at this price (the new Picanto will start just under Dh40K, stretching to a tad under Dh50K for the range-topper).
Once on the go, it’s clear the third-gen Picanto is a more mature package than its predecessor in terms of its ride quality and refinement levels, which are up there with the best in the class (if not better). On the minus side, the 83bhp 1.2-litre engine is a bit weedy, lacking grunt off the mark and in the cut-and-thrust of the urban jungle. The motor isn’t too bad once you get it percolating on the highway, enabling a steady cruise in the 120-140kph range without feeling stressed or deafening you in the process. The four-speed auto shifts smoothly enough, but there are rather large gaps between ratios, so kicking down to a lower gear results in revs spiking to raucous levels.
Buyers based in Europe have the option of ticking the box for a 98bhp 1.0-litre turbo engine but, unfortunately, we won’t be getting that here as it would bump up the Picanto’s cost beyond the bounds of its segment.
But where the drivetrain is a tad underwhelming, the chassis overdelivers (in the context of this segment) with a surprising level of poise across a wide range of road surfaces… and even gravel tracks, owing to a navigational blunder on our part.
Part of the JA Picanto’s on-road composure is down to its new platform that boosts torsional stiffness by 32 per cent over its predecessor, and it’s aided by a revised suspension layout, stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars and the aforementioned torque-vectoring system that brakes the inside front wheel in tight corners to minimise understeer.
It’s fair to say we traversed the Tunisian back roads — which were pleasingly sinuous in parts — at a far greater pace than most prospective Picanto owners are ever likely to, and the pint-sized Kia responded with impressive grace and pace — given the type of car it is, of course. Even the steering is more feedback-laden than before, as well as being more direct (the steering ratio has been quickened from 16.5:1 to 14.3:1).
Dare I say, the new Picanto is quite enjoyable to punt, and this is more than can be said for most bargain-basement contenders. It’s a crisply packaged and well-engineered car, continuing Kia’s run of good form. The latest Picanto’s attractive styling and keen pricing should ensure it fares well, not just with retail buyers, but also the fleet operators who swallow up a vast chunk of this segment.