Kia's distinctive second generation Picanto

Kia’s first Picanto, launched back in 2004, appealed especially to those who wanted an inexpensive and inoffensive city runabout at low cost. But earlier this year, the Korean firm upped the ante considerably with its second generation Picanto. Still cheap to buy and cheap to run, it’s now a small car you don’t feel obliged to justify when people ask what you drive.

The original Picanto was a flair free zone as far as styling went. It looked very upright and ultimately bland, the vanilla design being punctuated by a snouty little grille, bulging headlamps and a slight upward kink in the side window line.

It clearly worked to ensure the entry-level Kia’s popularity, as buyers weren’t scared off by unusual looks and instead embraced the all-round cost-effective route into new car motoring.

So, you’d be forgiven for thinking Kia might opt for more of the same with the follow-up model. But you’d be wrong. Kia in the early 2010s is a brand that’s pushing interesting, if not radical, shapes and creases, ensuring that its products stand out boldly in car parks across the country.

Interesting mix of angles and creases in the Picanto's styling

What have we got then? Yes, the much referenced tiger nose grille is there, as it is on its siblings, but the application on the Picanto’s button nose is very petite. In fact, look at it front on and its slender 1.6m breadth is very apparent. The front itself is quite busy with all manner of large lamp units in the snub arrangement. It borders just on the right side of not being overdone and gives the front end plenty of character.

Less successful is that protruding chin of a bumper – it might do wonders for pedestrian crash protection (and help the diminutive Kia on to its 4 Star Euro NCAP rating), but it uglifies the front a little. Looking at it side on you can’t help but wonder whether Bruce Forsyth gets royalty payments for having his image cast in metal and plastic.

The flanks are dominated by that sharp crease that runs the length of the body and from which the faux chrome door handles gently rise. It’s attractive in a hint-of-BMW way and makes the surfaces look taut. The rake of its angle ensures that the Kia has a forward-thrusting stance, eager to press on with its next urban adventure.

Good game, good game up front

This 5-door Picanto (a 3-door version is also available in this generation), squeezes sensibly dimensioned doors into its 3.6m length that not only look balanced but are sized to ensure access to both front and rear seats is a hassle free exercise.

The rear aspect of the Picanto is dominated by those boomerang-shaped tail lights that reach up from the bumper before bending inwards to a deep rear screen. The back is clean and unfussy, with the simplicity only interrupted by the ancillary lights and reflector units mounted lower down in the bumper.

Distinctive rear tails off the Picanto

From many angles the Picanto looks a size bigger than it is, its mature styling riding on 14” alloys. Many marques seem fascinated by the fitment of ever larger wheels and skinnier profiled tyres, so Kia’s approach bucks current fashions. Would it look better with 15 or even 16” rims? Quite possibly but the smaller wheels and chunkier rubber permit a greater compliance in the ride quality.

Kia’s recent trim level straightforwardness has been eschewed a little for the Picanto: 5-door versions are specified in 1, 2 and 3 trim levels; the sportier feel of the 3-door being promoted by 1, Equinox and Halo versions (no, no idea what’s sporty about them either). Currently only petrol engines are offered, with a 3-cylinder 1.o-litre and a 4-cylinder 1.25-litre the only choices. Depending upon the model ordered, it can be mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic gearbox. The former can also be teamed up with Kia’s Intelligent Stop and Go (ISG) system, as fitted to this test model.

Prices range from the 1 1.0 3-door at £7,795 up to the Halo 1.25 automatic 3-door at £12,295.

Picky about the Picanto’s interior?

If you climb aboard the Kia and expect to be greeted by a wealth of squidgy soft-touch plastics, delicately damped switchgear, rubberised and padded surfaces and a complete absence of exposed painted metals, then frankly, you’re being deluded. The Picanto has none of those features. Yet, whilst the opposite of those qualities might sound barren and smack of being bargain basement, Kia has somehow ensured the Picanto doesn’t feel cheap. Inexpensive, yes, but definitely not cheap.

More cheese, Gromit?

Hard, dark plastics swathe the cabin, with a little design flair across the dash by virtue of angles, curves and matte silver plastics being employed to generally good effect. Some of the interior lines look a little incoherent but overall it’s certainly not a cabin you dread spending time in.

The dashboard’s styling highlights the Picanto’s narrowness further, with the angled moulding reaching across onto the passenger’s side of the cabin. That silvery finish breaks the potential bleakness but it’s the only piece of design frippery of note, other than the curious lines of the air vent shapes and some of the buttons. That silver trim also tinsels up the lower portion of the twin spoke steering wheel. Your hands rarely come into contact with it, but it does look like you’re staring at Wallace’s cheesy grin. Despite hunting around the interior, there was no reference to it being designed by Aardman Animations.

Visibility is a major feather in the Picanto’s cap. The expanse of glass and narrow pillars ensure you get a great view all around you, although you have to learn where the nose is as you can’t see it at all. Rear views are exceptionally good with a very deep screen for a contemporary car permitting an excellent grasp of what’s going on behind.

Front is comfy and cosy - the seat trim feels of good quality too. Less said the better about the pattern

Slot into the driver’s seat, which proved very comfortable on a 450 mile round trip, and you’re greeted with a simple and clear trio of dials. All switchgear falls immediately to hand and is simple to use, even rifling through the iPod’s playlists using the chunky stereo controls whilst on the move was easy. You’ll also discover there’s plenty of room for your head, legs and elbows – well, there is if you’re driving alone. Another passenger means it’s suddenly a little cosier up front, but not so much that you’re changing gear with intertwined arms.

Rear is fine for two, or three very close and slim friends

Dive into the back and again, unlike many cars in this sector there are three conventional seatbelts across the bench. Unless your centre seat passenger’s physique mimics that of the subject of a Lowry painting, best stick to putting two in the back. Two six footers will sit with reasonable comfort behind two more six footers up front.

200l of capacity looks like this. Two squashy overnight bags is about it.

The downside of all that cabin space is the boot isn’t especially generous. ‘What small car is?’ you cry. Fair point – you don’t buy a city car for its luggage carrying potential and at 200l with the rear seats up the Picanto’s boot is one of the biggest in the class. A couple of large, squashable bags seemed to fill it – if that’s all you need, then fair enough. The rear seats do tumble, extending the load bay to 870l. Although there are door bins and a reasonable glove box, there’s precious little storage space in the cabin in which you can hide things. The bins in the centre console are lidless, although the one at the front features rather playful cupholders that revolve out in a manner that would have once looked cool on an episode of Tomorrow’s World.

In 2 specification, the Picanto comes with an iPod and Bluetooth ready CD stereo unit, all around electric windows, electric and folding rear view mirrors with in-built LED indicators, air conditioning, leather steering wheel, front fog lights and multi-spoke alloys.

Well equipped and impressively built to take your mind off poor dynamics?

Let’s be clear from the outset, the 1.25-litre engined Picanto is no ball of fire, nor is it the last word in small car handling dynamics. But it’s definitely not bad either.

Are you ready to unleash those 84 horses?

I subscribe to the school of thought that by their very nature, small cars are fun and don’t take themselves too seriously – the Picanto doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Sure, its front wheels scrabble for grip like cartoon character’s feet under hard acceleration from standstill, and those tyres chirp like an aviary when cornering with too much enthusiasm as they run out of adhesion, but it retains the capacity to induce a smile.

After all, there’s something utterly hilarious about driving a small, unlikely car very fast whilst nipping in and out of larger, lumbering vehicles on the motorway run.

The only negative aspect of driving the Kia at higher speeds is that the steering lightens up, reducing the feel it transmits to the driver. It’s not disconcerting, just less pleasurable. That said, the Picanto remains stable and surefooted as it keeps up the brisk pace of multi-carriageway travel.

At more sedate speeds it remains generally composed but like the majority of small cars, a series of undulations and poor surfaces is amplified by its short wheelbase, creating that stereotypical small car bounce. Those high profile tyres mentioned early doubtless reduce that effect though – suddenly 14” wheels seem a good idea again.

Some may lament the fitment of a torsion beam rear suspension but ultimately it’s a cost effective solution that does a decent job the majority of the time. Let’s not forget, the majority of buyers wouldn’t spot the difference between what’s fitted and a more costly and complex independent arrangement.

14" wheels may look small, but they aid ride comfort

Talking of that 1.25-litre motor, it provides reasonable refinement too. Those motorway jaunts are calm and don’t even broach ear drum pummelling rev ranges as you dart around those brain faded, middle lane dwellers. Needless to say, performance isn’t dazzling (but again, you weren’t expecting it to be, were you?) but neither was economy (aah, that should have been good, though).

Kia claims an impressive 65.7mpg average on the official combined cycle, aided by the unobtrusive stop-start system. Around town it bettered no more than a spell in the high 40s but that long 450 mile round trip averaged around 42mpg. Okay, 85mph isn’t the most economical speed in many cars, but that’s falling somewhere short of expectations. The 35l fuel tank meant I didn’t get beyond 250 miles without needing to refill, either.


The Picanto does nothing badly, little excellently, but is competent across a wide spectrum of abilities. Remarkable given both the price point and the fact that Kia’s had a seismic turnaround over its 20 years on the UK market. It makes the admittedly older C1/107/AYGO trio feel past their sell-by date, although it lacks the allure of Fiat’s 500.

Equipment levels are generous, build quality is impressive for the money and, small boot and lack of odds and ends storage aside, it’s a practical proposition too. Factor in a proven reliability record and that great 7-year/100,000 mile warranty and it becomes very difficult to justify not visiting your local Kia showroom when shopping for a new city car.

Expect the latest Picanto to be even more popular for Kia than the first generation

It’s a grown-up small car, that showed itself over the week to be a decent all-rounder, that exuded a total lack of pretentiousness. That final quality will, for many, be the decisive purchasing factor.

Thumbs Up: Inexpensive, solid, well equipped, attractive styling, refined drivetrain

Thumbs Down: Narrow cabin, lacks interior stowage, bouncy urban ride, fuel economy disappointing

Quick Facts

Model Tested: Kia Picanto 2 1.25 EcoDynamics ISG 5-door

Top Speed: 106mph

0-60: 11.0sec

Average fuel consumption: 65.7mpg

CO2 emissions: 100g/km

Engine size: 4/1248cc fuel injection, petrol

Power: 84bhp

Torque: 89lb/ft

Price: £10,195 (September 2011)

All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2011