What is it?
Despite its spicy sounding name, the Kia Picanto started life in 2003 as a fairly bland looking (albeit cheaply-priced and decently-equipped) city car. The second version in 2011 took full advantage of the Korean brand’s design awakening, with famed German scribbler Peter Schreyer (he designed the original Audi TT among other things) lending the company’s output some much-needed Euro flair and credibility.
Schreyer’s signature move was the introduction of the firm’s ‘tiger nose’ grille, which has become familiar over time but was a bold look when it was first unveiled.
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And this is the third-gen car, right?
Correct. Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show (remember those?) in 2017, changes between the second and third iterations were initially limited to freshening up detail tweaks, a mark that there were barely any profits to be had in the city car segment. Especially from cars powered by ghastly petrol engines. Still, Kia did manage to find the funds for a mid-life facelift in 2020 with new headlights, bumpers and infotainment screens. The usual fare.
You don’t like it then?
That’s where you’re wrong. It’s a shame that more people haven’t switched on to the Picanto. It shows up to the small car party with pep and fizz that few of its rivals can muster. It’s a hoot to drive around town and plenty practical enough for day-to-day urban life.
Take it further afield on longer journeys and you’ll bump into some of the car’s shortcomings, but it’s never been billed as a long-distance cruiser. Although it perhaps falls short in terms of outright quality (on some trim levels) and dynamics, the car has a lot in its favour, especially when it comes to taking the chore out of everyday city driving.
Tell me more about what I can buy…
The Picanto range has impressive breadth – 1-, 2- and 3-spec cars begin the selection, the former kicking off proceedings at £12,250 these days and advertising its electric front windows, USB port and Bluetooth with pride. As with most cars, the entry models grab the headlines with their low, low prices, but the sweet spot is higher up the spec list as more of the good stuff becomes available. The 3 is the first to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the larger infotainment screen.
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Are there more than the numerical specs?
Yep, at the top of the price sheet you’ve got the GT-Line (£14,900) and GT-Line S (£17,050) cars, which bring all the toys and personalisation options that the kids love so much. In fact the top spec cars offer features that you’re surprised to see at this end of the market – options include automatic aircon, cruise control, a wireless phone charger, heated seats and wheel, keyless go and a reversing camera.
There’s different styling too – we’re supposed to believe that a reprofiled bumper and a few red accents will make a car sporty. Actually the engine makes the biggest difference here, more on which next.
And what’s that jacked-up crossover thing I see in the pics above?
That’ll be the plastic-clad X-Line and X-Line S options that sit 15mm higher and come with a few extra bits of cladding stuck on the outside for that faux-SUV look (and a slightly higher hip point for the bingo crowd) – Kia will have you believe a tube of glue and some grey plastic will turn a city car like the Picanto into a crossover, but let’s not get carried away with ourselves.
What are the powertrain options?
The equipment levels might be baffling, but the engine selection really isn’t – there’s only the single 1.0-litre 3cyl engine available for the Picanto, with five-speed manual or five-speed automatic gearbox options.
In all but GT-Line guise the motor produces just 66bhp, but the top trims give you the option of turbocharging the petrol unit for a spicier 99bhp. It’s still not quick mind, that engine drags the Picanto’s 0–60mph effort below 10 seconds by the skin of its teeth.
What are its main rivals?
Good question. The city car segment has lived through its heyday, it seems, as people nowadays are more interested in bigger motors with more space and a better view of the road. Still, there are a few good alternatives to choose from: the Hyundai i10, Toyota Aygo, VW Up and Fiat 500 are probably your best options.
Our choice from the range
Kia1.0T GDi GT-line 5dr [4 seats]£14,615
What’s the verdict?
“The Picanto is a fun and interesting city car, with something in the range for everyone’s taste”
The Picanto has learned from the likes of the Fiat Panda that drivers will forgive a lot inside a car as long as it’s presented in a fun way and is cheap to run. For a first car or something that’s just needed as a runabout, you couldn’t go at all wrong with the Picanto. It’s fun, frugal and feels like great value for money.
It’s not often we’d say this, but the X-Line ‘crossover’ version is worth considering. It gets chunky looks, decent levels of equipment and a slightly more supple ride thanks to its lofty 15mm height boost. Loses none of the urban driving entertainment either. If you want a properly fun little baby supermini though (and one that can cope with the occasional long journey) we’d recommend the sportier looking GT-Line with the more powerful turbo engine and of course a manual gearbox. There might not be a better car to learn how to drive in on the market right now.
Overall the Kia Picanto is an impressive all-rounder, and recent tweaks have only served to make it a more enticing prospect. There’s life in the city car segment yet people.
£9,800 – £17,165
£9,955 – £23,140
Continue reading: Driving