Surprisingly capable small hatch let down by vague steering
Exceptional ride comfort
Quality feel
Seven-year warranty
Woeful steering
Brakes not up to scratch
Higher-spec cars too pricey

Kia Picanto review (2011-on)

A city car that will surprise, in more ways than one

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What is it?

Pint-size cars are all the rage. That triumvirate from the VW Group, the VW Up!, Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo, have reminded us all just how fun and funky good, small cars can be, especially when fuel is this expensive. Other mighty-micros include the Fiat Panda and the Toyota iQ. Meanwhile, Hyundai fields the i10 (a new model launched at the 2103 Frankfurt motor show) and Kia, which is owned by Hyundai, the Picanto, the subject of this review.

Launched way back in 2011, the Picanto is available in three and five-door forms and is powered by a choice of two engines: a 1-litre three-cylinder petrol producing 68bhp, and a 1.25-litre petrol producing 84bhp. Gearboxes are five speeds but there is a four-speed auto lurking in the line-up, too.

The five-door Picanto makes do with numbers 1, 2 and 3 to distinguish trim levels. There’s an “Air”, with air conditioning, too. The three-door Picanto is given a funkier treatment to reflect what Kia claims is a sportier personality. There’s a Picanto 1 and an Air, then numbers are replaced by City, White and Equinox trims in ascending order of luxury.

Regardless of door count, all Picantos have a good roster of safety kit: antilock brakes, electronic stability control and brake-force distribution, and emergency brake assist. Standard trim includes a height-adjustable driver’s seat (not just the squab but the whole chair) and a tilt-adjust steering wheel. Goodies such as rear electric windows, alloy wheels and a leather steering wheel arrive as you scale the price list but as ever, the best value is to be found at, or around, entry-level.  In truth, higher-spec cars look a little too expensive for the brand.

All cars come with Kia’s exceptional seven-year mechanical warranty and you don’t need to have the car serviced by a Kia dealer; any VAT-registered garage can do the work, though they must follow Kia’s maintenance schedule and use Kia parts.


The drive

Kia’s slogan is “The power to surprise”. In the case of the Picanto, that surprise comes in two forms: good and bad.

The good, first. The little car rides exceptionally well. It’s amazing what chassis engineers can achieve with a handful of springs and MacPherson struts. There’s nothing truly radical in the engineering but what it achieves certainly is. The Picanto absorbs urban imperfections quietly and without blinking, while at faster speeds on bumpy roads it remains composed and mature-feeling. In fast corners it hangs on well enough, rolling more than a sporty hatch, but not unduly. It’s truly surprising.

As also is the steering. For the wrong reason. Kia is so proud of it that it has given it a special name: motor-driven power steering, or MDPS.  Whatever; it’s numb and imprecise, giving little information on which way the wheels are pointing and what load they’re under. It’s completely at odds with the car’s polished ride and handling.  The brakes are a little over-servo’d, too, leading them to be grabby and hard to modulate.

Back to the good surprises. Our test car’s three-cylinder, 1-litre engine was a delight around town, pulling strongly up to 40mph. Over 50mph it begins to run out of puff but the delight with this engine is how you can wring its neck for every last ounce of power. That said, the 1.25-litre engine is probably a better unit: more powerful so more relaxed, but not much juicier. However, choosing this over the 1-litre tips the car’s price over £10,000, which is pushing things somewhat.


The interior


Three-door cars often look cleaner and sharper than their fussier, five-door siblings, and the Picanto is no exception. Of course, two cabin doors can mean access to the rear is restricted but Kia has gone some way to alleviating the problem by giving the Picanto front seats that tip and slide. Now you can flop into the little car’s surprisingly roomy, rear cabin. Head space is good thanks to the car’s upright styling while the boot has just enough space for a week’s shop, if you pile bags one on top of the other.

The little Kia feels extremely well built; not in that heavy, Germanic way we’ve come to judge build quality by these days but in the precise fit of everything, and the light but precisely engineered controls.  Such quality is a fitting accompaniment to the little car’s accomplished ride and handling.

The fascia is a neatly styled affair, restrained but attractive and, apart from the striking tiger-shaped steering wheel centre, Kia’s hallmark ident these days and which also graces the car’s nose, blessedly free of any self-conscious eccentricity.


The one to buy

Kia Picanto 1 Air 1.0 3dr


998cc, 3 cylinders
68bhp @ 6200rpm
70 lb ft @ 3500rpm
5-speed, manual
0-62mph in 13.9sec
Top speed:
Road tax band:
L 3595mm, W 1595mm, H 1480mm

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