Johannesburg - Things move swiftly in the motoring world. It seems just the other day that touchscreen infotainment systems first began appearing in luxury cars, but in a short space of time they’ve filtered down into the budget segment.

Now, just like in a grand Mercedes S-Class, in the new flagship Smart version of the Kia Picanto you can touch-operate your audio system on a large TFT screen which also comes with a reversing camera.

The Bluetooth-equipped system has auxiliary and USB ports, voice recognition, and supports Android Auto (not yet available in SA) and Apple CarPlay for full smartphone integration.

It’s a terrific toy to have in a market segment that was until recently about basic motoring, although this fully-loaded infotainment system is for now available only in the top-of-the-range Picanto Smart models; in the other more humble versions you get a humbler 10cm monochrome touchscreen audio system.

Perhaps a more controversial omission in the lesser-priced Picantos is ABS brakes, a safety feature that should really be a basic prerequisite in every car.

The entry-level Picanto Start models are also equipped with just a driver’s airbag while the rest of the range gets inflatable safety for both front seats. Some essential safety features, it seems, are taking a lot longer to filter down to mass-market cars than fancy audio systems.

This aside, the third-generation Kia Picanto has grown into a generally fine example of mini motoring with improvements to its refinement, handling and space utilisation.

At 3 595 mm the new Picanto’s the same length as before but a slightly stretched wheelbase and a longer rear overhang have freed up a little more cabin and boot space.

At 6ft tall I fitted in the rear seat with my knees pressed not-too-tightly against the front seat, and headroom was fine too, while the angle of the rear backrest is slightly more reclined for a more relaxed posture.

The boot’s also grown from 200 to 255 litres and incorporates a two-step floor that allows some items to be hidden under the floor from prying eyes, although it still gets a biscuit-sized spare wheel.

Folding down the rear eats expands the cargo bay to a surprisingly roomy 1 010 litres.

Additional space-optimising craftiness sees the base of the dashboard moved upwards for increased knee and leg room in the front seats, though the steering column’s still adjustable only for height, not reach.

There’s added oddments space too including a new central armrest/storage compartment between the front seats.

The new Picanto’s cabin adopts a richer-feeling vibe with new materials and layout, which raises the sense of perceived quality. Cloth-upholstered seats are available as standard, while high-spec models are fitted with two-tone black and grey leather seats.

With prices ranging from R134995, the new 11-model Picanto range is available as before with a 1-litre petrol engine (49kW/95Nm) or a 1.2-litre (61kW/122Nm) and four different spec levels: Start, Street, Style and Smart.

Both engines are paired with a five-speed manual transmission feeding the front wheels, with some versions also available with an optional four-speed automatic.

On test here is the range- topping Kia Picanto 1.2 Smart manual selling for R195 995.

If the pricetag doesn’t scare you off the car comes with every luxury you’d expect in a modern mini and then some.

These include automatically-activating headlamps, LED daytime running lights, LED tail lights, trip computer, electrically-folding and heated side mirrors, aluminium pedals, two-tone cloth and leather upholstery, a leather-upholstered steering wheel and gear knob, and the abovementioned full colour infotainment system.

It all gets moved along by a 1.2 engine that’s 4kW down on power on the old unit but gets 2Nm of extra torque.

Together with an unthirsty 5.8 litres per 100km consumption our test car tootled about town with decent pace and wasn’t out of its depth on the open road.

It holds the freeway speed limit comfortably but doesn’t have much quick-overtaking prowess.

I’d be keen to see Kia’s new 74kW/127Nm 1-litre three-cylinder turbo under that bonnet, but for now that engine’s not destined for our market.

Kia has used more sound deadening to reduce noise and vibration on the third-generation Picanto, and it’s all quite refined for a small car.

The engine becomes more vocal when it’s worked harder but not irritatingly buzzy.

Stiffer anti-roll bars tweak the handling and reduce body roll, and in conjunction with sharpened-up electric power steering the Picanto’s a nimble little thing that scoots about like an excited rodent.

The ride quality is reasonably choppy however, despite the lengthened wheelbase, and I’ve driven some small cars that felt cushier.

The clutch is also an odd-feeling thing with no gradual play; it’s like an on-off switch. However you get used to this pretty quickly.

The price includes Kia’s 5-year/unlimited distance warranty and roadside assistance, and a service plan is optional.

VERDICT

Kia’s likeable baby hatch has grown up into a more refined and feature-rich car, and the Picanto range has deservingly been chosen as one of the ten finalists in the 2018 WesBank South African Car of the Year competition.

The fully-loaded Smart version’s R195 995 pricetag isn’t exactly in the budget league, but if you don’t need all the toys the 1.2 is also available in lesser-specced derivatives starting at a more wallet-friendly R150 995.

FACTS

Kia Picanto 1.2 Smart

Engine: 1.2-litre, 4-cyl, petrol
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Power: 61kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 122Nm @ 4000rpm
Top speed (claimed):170km/h
Boot volume:255 litres
Price: R195 995
Warranty: 5-year/unlimited km
Service plan: Optional

PICANTO VS RIVALS

Kia Picanto 1.2 Smart61kW/122NmR195 995
Chevrolet Spark 1.2 LT60kW/108NmR173 500
Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir Lounge63kW/145NmR199 900
Ford Figo 1.5 Titanium82kW/136NmR203 900
Hyundai Grand i10 1.25 Motion64kW/120NmR186 900
Suzuki Swift hatch 1.2 GL63kW/113NmR169 900
VW Polo Vivo hatch 1.4 Trendline63kW/132NmR183 500

Drive360