Weighing in at less than a ton, the new Picanto is a supermini in the original sense, making it pleasingly chirpy, nippy and nimble, says John Simister
Model: Kia Picanto Ice
Price: £6,995 (range starts at £5,995)
Engine: 1,086cc, four cylinders, 12 valves, 64bhp at 5,500rpm, 72lb ft at 2,800rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox (four-speed auto optional), front-wheel drive
Performance: 96mph, 0-60 in 15.1sec, 53.3mpg official average, CO2 126g/km
Carmaking has never been more competitive. New cars are launched in ever-greater number to generate the sales vital for the carmakers' survival. The buying public seems to be becoming more affluent, too, and these trends are reflected in the cars we review in these pages. We report on as many new models as we can; you, the reader, can decide whether or not you approve of what the industry creates.
But even I, privileged to drive many expensive and glamorous new cars, feel a sense of relief and delight when the chance comes to try something cleverly designed down to a price, something simple and minimal and, in a sense, pure.
I like small, ingenious cars. I like the rejection of excess weight, size and unneeded equipment. I like to feel properly in touch with a car's functions instead of "accessing" them via menu-driven interfaces. To design a really good small car is much harder than designing a large, expensive one. And the more people enjoy driving small cars, the better for us all.
So I was pleased when the just-refreshed version of the Kia Picanto arrived for test. The Picanto is a supermini in the original sense of the term, a small hatchback sufficiently bigger than an original Mini to take four people and some luggage easily but still compact, light and nimble. It weighs under a ton, an attribute that the cars most often termed superminis nowadays – cars of the Corsa/Clio/207 persuasion – abandoned long ago. That's why the Picanto manages fine with a properly miniature engine, of 1.0 litres in the basic version and 1.1 in the others.
The Picanto was the car that made Kia slightly cool on its 2004 launch. It was aimed squarely at young, carefree types, for whom its five-door design would encourage the carriage of friends rather than hinting at responsibility. Cartoon-flavoured ads and chirpy colours set the scene, along with very low prices. It was the sort of car that concerned parents would buy for their late-teen daughters, new and safe and reliable and not very fast.
None of that has changed. There is a small facelift, mainly concerned with making the nose look more like that of the Kia Cee'd. So the former vertically toothed front grille has been ousted by a horizontally barred one, set in more rounded surroundings which abut new front wings and a new bonnet. The headlights are bigger and rounder, too, and at the back there are round-lensed lights and a new bumper.
Inside, the slightly reshaped dashboard is now black, as are parts of the door trims. And, thank goodness, the previous model designations, a dated, discontinuous and deeply uncool GS and LS in which the cheaper-sounding one was actually the more expensive, has given way to Picanto, Picanto 2, Picanto 3 and Picanto Ice.
Not that the new line-up is exactly obvious, for the Ice is effectively a Picanto 2 with air-conditioning and black interior trim. This is the version that goes on sale first, and the version we tested. As before, all have the 64bhp, 1.1-litre engine except the cheapest model, the 1.0-litre, 61bhp Picanto Suffix-less which also has significantly less pulling power. It counters this with better fuel economy on official tests and a lower carbon dioxide output (117g/km against 126, possibly making it exempt from the London congestion charge when the new rules are finalised).
New orange graphics for the instruments are meant, again, to ape those of the Kia Cee'd but, contrary to the intention, they look cheap. The worst offender here is the new stereo system, properly built into the Picanto's dsahboard this time but matching its visual unsubtlety with a sound quality redolent of a worn-out vinyl record with bad tracking damage. That's a shame, because the higher-spec versions of the previous Picanto had a surprisingly clean-sounding stereo.
Driving a car like this can be good fun. The lack of power makes you conserve momentum, and at no point does the car become tricky to handle. You are always the boss, and its limits will be reached long before yours. It's the same reasoning that explains why the late James Hunt liked driving his Austin A35 van more than any other road car, and why Sir Stirling Moss loves his Smart.
So it doesn't matter that the Picanto feels a bit out of its depth on a motorway at first. You drive it harder, and note that while its ability to reach 70mph from 60 is low-key, it still feels livelier than a Vauxhall Corsa 1.2. That said, my daughter's 1999 Peugeot 106 1.1, with 60bhp, would blow them both into the weeds. That's the virtue of really light weight.
Otherwise, the Picanto does have something of the 106 and Saxo about it, two once-popular, proper superminis whose small size and nippy responses are virtues rare in today's small cars. In town traffic the Picanto feels unexpectedly chirpy, happily squirting away from traffic lights and through gaps denied to cars whose girth has grown in line with that of the human population's. It also lopes happily along poor roads, soaks up traffic humps without histrionics and steers in a way in which the movements of the steering wheel and the leaning angle of the body play against each other in a satisfyingly fluid way. That's an old-school French thing, too.
Above all, the Picanto is refreshingly easy to drive. You know where its extremities are, so parking is simple. All the controls do as they are told, in proper proportion to the intensity of the telling. There's no gimmicky cleverness, no second-guessing. The Ice has air-con, power steering (which all Picantos have), electric front windows, remote central locking, a CD player which might be improvable with better loudspeakers (an easy task). It also has a leather-covered steering wheel, and all for £6,995. I don't need any more equipment than that; all vital boxes are ticked.
There are snags. The boot is very small. The steering wheel is too far away, so you have to move the seat forward and then your ankles are too cranked. Some proper oddments storage in the centre console would be good, because there's nowhere obvious to put your phone and the target buyers won't like that.
But this is a good little car, with proper little-car virtues. It's quiet enough, it has proper room for four (or five at a squeeze), and its compactness makes it fun. Drive a Picanto and you soon realise how obese and decadent too many modern cars have become. Even the so-called small ones.
Fiat Panda 1.1 Active £6,955
Square-cut in a flair-filled Fiat way, the Panda is spacious, practical and surprisingly entertaining to drive and live with. Recommended, but new 500 pulls harder at your heart.
Citroën C1 from £6,995
Tiny three-cylinder Toyota engine gives adequate pace, and Czech-built mini-car carries four and is fun to drive. Tiny boot, though. Toyota Aygo and Peugeot 107 are same car.
Ford Ka from £7,110 (often sold for less)
Now 10 years old and more successful than ever expected, three-door-only Ka remains the sportiest drive in the category. New Fiat-500-derived model on the way.