Kia Picanto GT-Line having growing pains
The Kia Picanto has a history of surprising and delighting in the city-car segment. The first-gen model (2004) had appealing cheeky styling and came in a selection of bag-of-Fruit-Burst colours.
The second-gen Picanto (2011) had some cartoonish styling cues, but didn't take itself too seriously and was a lot of fun to drive. Kia also insisted on calling it a "1250" in a delightfully retro way. Not a 1.3-litre. The Picanto 1250.
Now we have a third-generation Picanto, which has been launched in two versions: the entry LX (manual or automatic, $18,490-$18,990) and the one you see here, the hilariously overstyled GT-Line at $21,490.
The new Picanto has the same footprint as the outgoing model, but it's on a new platform (same as the larger Rio). The wheelbase and rear overhang have been increased, but the front has been trimmed right back. Cabin space has improved and so has luggage space: up from 200 to 255 litres.
The chunky look of the GT-Line comes from 16-inch alloys (the LX rides on 14in rims), a different grille with foglights nestled in either bottom corner, LED daytime running lights and extra silver or red exterior detailing (depending on body colour).
City cars are arguably more about the cabin environment than the driving experience, so let's go there next. The Picanto interior is stylistically similar to the Rio, especially the tablet-style touch-screen that sits proud of the dashboard. The plastics are pretty hard but that's the way of things with $20k cars, and the build quality is excellent.
The seven-inch touch-screen features Apple and Android phone projection, although the response is not exactly crisp. You have to press long and sometimes quite hard to get a reaction from the on-screen menu. And yes, the Rio is the same... presumably because it's the same modular unit.
It's all quite grown-up inside, which may delight or disappoint depending on what you expect from your city-car. No complaints about the space or driving position, and you do get a nicely shaped leather-bound steering wheel which adds to the impression of quality.
Keyless entry/start and climate-control air conditioning add to the comfort/convenience factor. Less so the sweaty "leather-style" upholstery; give us a nice cloth trim any day.
Kia says the Rio's 1.3-litre engine is a "proven" unit, which is industry-speak for "same as the old car". Not bad thing at all, except that it's still matched to a four-stage automatic. It's reasonably strong at low speed but it's all too easy to find the gaps in the gearbox, even in urban running, and the little motor sounds and feels over-stressed if you dare to rev it hard.
Really hate to say this, but continuously variable transmission does a better job of getting the most out of a tiny engine than a conventional gearbox that's short on ratios. A four-speeder is okay in the more powerful Rio, but it's not a happy companion for the Picanto's smaller powerplant.
Combine that with a high level of road noise and a lumpy ride (the LX, on smaller 14-inch rims, is presumably better) and the Picanto doesn't feel as good as it looks in city driving. Full marks for safety, though: all Picanto models have autonomous emergency braking and six airbags.
On the open road the strength of the Picanto's platform and the extra composure of torque vectoring by braking (a first in this class) make for a confident cornering feel. Confident, but not entertaining. The suspension crashes over bumps and the raucous engine intrudes into the cabin as it rises in revs.
Kia claims the Picanto is quietest in class at idle and we don't doubt it. But refinement and NVH go downhill the harder you ask the car to work.
It's mixed bag, then. Styling, safety and technology-wise the Picanto looks very strong. And you can't ignore Kia New Zealand's five-year warranty package.
But the competition is strong and the Picanto just doesn't have the refinement of the Holden Spark (our reigning Top Car of 2016) or the cheeky dynamic character of the Suzuki Ignis.
As you read this, Kia New Zealand is offering the larger Rio LX automatic at $20,490 and that's still a really smart-looking small car.
Even at the standard Rio LX price of $23,490, or the stretch up to $25,490 for the higher-specified EX, it's really hard to justify the Picanto GT-Line. Unless you have an incredibly small parking space at home/work or a real passion for the Picanto's baby-butch styling.
If you do, we'd suggest waiting for the forthcoming Picanto X-Line (no date yet, but "soon" says the Kiwi distributor). It's a very mild SUV-isation of the tiny Kia, with ride height raised by 15mm and some extra plastic bits on the body.
None of which really matters, but under the bonnet will be a 1.0-litre direct-injection turbo powerplant with 75kW/172Nm, which should give the car the performance zing and character the styling deserves.