Cape Town - Kia SA marketing manager David Sieff raised a few media eyebrows at the South African launch of the third-generation Picanto this week when he told us the average age of Picanto buyers in this country is 38, thus forever laying to rest the misconception that the Picanto is a student’s car.

And Kia has played right into that with this latest iteration, moving the front wheels forward to extend the wheelbase, increase cabin volume and shorten the front overhang, while increasing the rear overhang to add 55 litres to the boot volume (now a useful 255 litres) without increasing the overall length of the car (3595mm, if you need to know) by a single millimetre.

Yes, it’s a small car, perhaps just a little on the narrow side for two burly old farts with broad shoulders, but neatly laid out, making the best use of budget materials, set off with upmarket leather trim on the top-specced model where it will do the most good - on the steering wheel, gear lever and seat bolsters - so that grownups, stepping into the Picanto for the first time, won’t get the feeling that they’ve been down-graded to cafeteria class.

The new dashboard makes the most of the cabin width with strong horizontal styling cues underlining the ‘floating’ tablet-style centre display and the conventional but very neat instrument cluster, featuring round analogue dials for speeds and revs with a comprehensive monochrome data panel in the middle.

The base of the dashboard has also been moved 15mm upwards to allow more room for the creaky knees of the aforementioned BOF’s, and the top models boast a sliding centre armrest with a lid that lifts to open a little storage compartment that’s been framed specifically to cradle your spare driving glasses.

The only derivative provided for the launch drive was the flagship 1.2 Smart, with five-speed manual ‘box and 15 inch alloy wheels, so I can’t speak for the audio interface with 9.6cm liquid-crystal display on the rest of the range, but the 18cm colour touchscreen in the Smart we drove is straightforward in use (even for grown-ups), with large, intuitively recognisable icons, understandable menus and built-in compatibility with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Bluetooth, and with both USB and auxiliary ports.

And then a needle-sharp rear image with dynamic steering guidelines pops up as soon as the ‘box is put into reverse - an impressive feature in a car costing less than R200 000.

The first 40km of the launch drive was done in the outgoing model, an arguably somewhat risky ploy on the part of the Kia mavens, aimed at highlighting the all-new version's column-mounted electric power steering on the new version, but it paid off.

The original Picanto took a bit of flak for vague steering, and the second generation wasn’t really all that much better, but this one has a new rack, with the electric motor mounted on the steering column and a much quicker steering ratio (from 16.5:1 to 14.3:1) reducing the turns of the wheel lock-to-lock from 3.4 to 2.8 turns.

The difference was immediately apparent, pulling away from the vehicle change; the new Picanto steers more quickly, more accurately and has noticeably more feel around the centre point than did its predecessor.

Kia has also retuned the suspension to suit the new model’s revised footprint, with stiffer anti-roll bars, mounted a little lower in front and a little higher at the rear to reduce pitching and nosedive under braking. The result is a noticeably firmer ride (although part of that may have been due to the lower-profile tyres on the 15 inch rims) but, rather than being less comfortable, it combined with the sharper steering to lend a pleasing sense of confidence in the new Picanto’s road-holding ability.

Seat of the pants

We can’t say much about the slightly detuned engine; it takes a very educated pants’ seat to tell the difference between 65kW and 61kW, and 120Nm and 122Nm, from the driver’s seat. Nevertheless, the 1.2-litre petrol four revs willingly to the naughty side of 5500rpm, making overtaking, even at national-road speeds, merely a matter of waiting for a suitable gap and snicking down a gear. Kia also offers a 1-litre, three-cylinder engine option, rated at 49kW and 95Nm.

The gear-shift, now that we mention it, was light and positive, but felt a little remote, almost as if the snicking-into-the-slot feel had been added on afterwards using spring-loaded detentes, rather than built into the selector mechanism. But it’s a small criticism, if indeed it’s a criticism at all; certainly the car we drove at thoroughly mischievous velocity over Helshoogte to Stellenbosch and very, very slowly, with countless gearshifts, through horrendous city traffic on the latter part of the launch drive, went sweetly into the desired gear every time.

Initially I felt that the gear lever was mounted too far back, making changes that moved the knob towards me a little awkward, until my driving companion showed me how to take advantage of the slick shifting mechanism by dropping my wrist and using my fingertips, rather than ‘rowing the box’ with my whole forearm, whereupon the awkwardness vanished for good.

Kia has made much of its efforts to reduce wind and mechanical noise intruding on the comfort of the occupants - and it works. On smooth tar the new Picanto is impressively quiet and non-vibratious for an entry-level hatch. But, on the coarse, abrasive surface of the Cape’s newer roads, it served only to highlight the excessive tyre roar generated by the launch car’s 185/55 R15 Kumho radials. Unless you are the type of driver that enjoys getting the most out of even a budgetmobile, the 14 inch tyres of the next model down may prove to be a better compromise; certainly, drive both derivatives before you decide which wheels you want on your new Picanto.



1-litre, three-cylinder:

1.0 Start manual R134 995
1.0 Street manual R149 995
1.0 Style manual R159 995
1.0 Style auto R172 995
1.0 Smart manual R179 995

1.2-litre, four-cylinder:

1.2 Start manual R150 995
1.2 Start auto R163 995
1.2 Street manual R165 995
1.2 Style manual R175 995
1.2 Style auto R188 995
1.2 Smart manual R195 995

Hovering as it does, at the top of the A segment, many of the Picanto’s competitors are in fact previous-generation sub-B segment body-shells, recycled with updated trim and funky new names. The crisp styling and features of the new Picanto go a long way towards justifying its slightly higher price point, whether you are a cool twenty-something, or a 50+ empty-nester used to more upmarket family cars.


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