Middle of the range Kia Picanto LX features a 1-litre, 3-cylinder engine good for 51kW.
Middle of the range Kia Picanto LX features a 1-litre, 3-cylinder engine good for 51kW.
Selling for R107 995 it is a great step forward for the Korean company.
Selling for R107 995 it is a great step forward for the Korean company.
Cabin very neat but we could not come to terms with the electric power steering system.
Cabin very neat but we could not come to terms with the electric power steering system.

Brand perception is an interesting thing, and Korean carmaker Kia is an absolutely classic example.

I can’t tell you how often, as a motoring scribe, I get asked for advice on vehicle choices. And more often than not the disbelief I get when suggesting a product from the Korean stable.

Kia has been in it to win it in recent times, with an onslaught of new product which has generally paid testament to solid build quality, modern styling, good pricing, fantastic warranties and fun-to-drive cars.

The latest-generation Picanto is no exception – except for a serious steering flaw which I’ll talk about later. It’s without a doubt one of – if not the – best lookers in the ring-ding-ding entry-level A-segment.

I’ve been a big fan of Kia’s signature “tiger nose” design trait since I first saw it on the carmaker’s fetching SUV, the Sportage. And design guru Peter Schreyer’s subsequent implementation of that feline design line on newer models like the Cerato and new Rio (which will be launched in SA soon) has created a specific identity for the Korean brand.

For me that nose is the styling highlight in the Picanto, adding some aggression to the front end. I also dig that wide front bumper, which is a bold look for the segment. The rear end is not too bad either with those boomerang-shaped LED tail lights. And there’s a bold crease line that runs along the side of the car, which gives it an attractive and sleeker presence.

The cabin has a definite upmarket feel to it without any cheap and nasty-feeling bits. The bottom-half of the steering wheel carries a bit of that tiger-nose theme too (which I doubt many buyers will notice), highlighted in a silver edging. It’s also a chunky wheel to hold and exudes a sense of confidence.

It’s a pity then that the mechanicals behind the steering wheel don’t deliver on the promises made by its design.

It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of electric power-steering systems (versus traditional hydraulic) in various cars since they’ve been introduced. Manufacturers swear they’re more efficient and save fuel, but we find in some applications they’re over-assisted, lacking feeling and feedback.

In the new Picanto the problem is bigger than just driver feel though. The steering lacks the inherent ability to self centre, which means that after taking a turn it doesn’t naturally get back to a neutral position. You constantly have to feed in minute adjustments to prevent the car wandering in the lane – like those old movies where the dude is constantly jostling the wheel left and right while talking to his chick.

We contacted Kia SA to check if perhaps the problem was specific to our test car – especially as the Ed drove the car at its world launch and no such symptoms were evident. A Kia technician plugged in his laptop and showed us three settings: General, Domestic and European. Our car was in the correct setting for SA (General). We were told that Domestic makes the wheel lighter, and European is, well, for European countries only.

Other than that the Picanto is a bubbly little runabout with above-average ride quality. There’s no sense of claustrophobia in the cabin – like you sometimes get with these budget-beaters. Which is probably due to the new Picanto being 60mm longer than its predecessor and the wheelbase up by 15mm – meaning more interior space and a boot which, at 200 litres, is 30 percent bigger than the car it replaces. But don’t be fooled, adults with long legs will get a bit grumpy in the back seats on longer trips.

We had the 1-litre, three-cylinder LX model on test, priced at R107 995 and making 51kW and 94Nm, which feels reasonably willing for its size, but averages a rather high 7.3l/100km consumption figure.

Being middle of the range the LX has features like colour-coded door handles, front foglamps, electric windows (front only), and front driver and passenger airbags (the entry-level 1-litre gets a driver’s airbag only).

Only the range-topping 1.2-litre EX gets safety-critical ABS with EBD. The range starts at the hundred grand mark for the 1-litre 3-cylinder, the LX (on test here) adds eight grand to that pricetag, while the 1.2-litre EX comes in at R114 995. It’s definitely worth finding another seven grand and going for the 1.2-litre - over the 1-litre LX - me thinks. You also need to factor in around three grand for a 2-year/45 000km service plan.

VERDICT:

A refined little car with great build quality and stand-out looks. In most aspects it’s a worthy 2012 Car of the Year finalist, but the sticky steering was bad enough to prevent me from buying the car.