The Kia Picanto is one of the very cheapest cars you can buy in Australia – and the 2021 update gives this hatchback higher levels of equipment and refinement.
Buying a new car under $20,000 is becoming increasingly difficult in Australia. Dramatic price increases in recent years have made cars like the Mazda 2 and Toyota Yaris much less affordable: neither is available for under twenty grand in 2021.
Those conditions mean that even smaller vehicles – hatchbacks officially classed as ‘micro’ cars in Australia – to pick up the slack. One such car is the vehicle on test here: the 2021 Kia Picanto.
But while the Kia Picanto are very small – much smaller than a Kia Stonic SUV, for example – and very cheap, it’s incredibly cheerful.
Instead of buying a three-year-old used Mazda 2, you could get your hands on a new Picanto with a seven-year warranty: that’s Kia’s pitch.
For as little as $16,990 driveaway Kia will sell you a Picanto S with a manual transmission that is fundamentally equal to the slightly more expensive, sportier-looking Picanto GT-Line we have on test.
A GT-Line with auto still scrapes under the fateful twenty grand mark, at $19,990 driveaway, and buyers nab extra pizazz outside thanks to a sporty body kit, red detailing in the ‘tiger-nose’ grille, and a new set of 16-inch alloy wheels.
The Kia Picanto is a fundamentally basic bit of kit, no doubt about it – but it turns out that its maker has just about nailed the fundamentals for this little car.
Choosing an engine in the Picanto is a simple affair. The majority of Picantos sold in Australia come with the motor on test here: a 1.25-litre petrol four-cylinder that feels like it will outlast humanity. The low-stressed nature of the modest motor is certainly reflected in the outputs, with the 1.25-litre making just 62kW of power and 122Nm of torque.
With those numbers, the Picanto is going nowhere fast – but that might be just the ticket for a first car. However, given it tips the scales at a featherweight 1,011kg mass – and given how low first gear is in this car – the Kia gets off the line tout-suite.
Get the little Kia above 50km/h and with only four ratios at its disposal, the torque-converter automatic transmission struggles to keep the engine in its power-band – and there’s quite the din on the freeway, which is not this car’s natural habitat.
Dealing with busy highways can be an anxious affair as the engine heaves and grunts to propel the Picanto along at the posted 110km/h limit. Although the four-speed auto is quick to kick-down, there isn’t much to gain from a lower ratio when already at speed, meaning careful planning is required to merge smoothly.
We know from our time in the Mazda 2 that a small capacity four-cylinder engine doesn’t have to be unpleasant, and you can see that Kia has spent money on the Picanto’s cabin technology rather than the motor.
The Mazda 2’s 1.5-litre unit may only be little more powerful with 82kW of power and 144Nm of torque, but it’s far a sweeter unit with a real appetite for revs, and it is partnered with a more obedient and flexible six-speed auto. It seems you get what you pay for when it comes to drivetrain refinement.
Kia does offer another engine in the Picanto: a more potent turbocharged one-litre three-cylinder found in the Picanto GT for just $1,000 more. That motor is far punchier – making 73kW and 177Nm – and handily peps up the whole Picanto experience in a very noticeable way..
But if you can’t drive a manual, you’re out of luck, as the warm GT is a five-speed stick shift only.
Where our Picanto GT-Line shone brightest was in tighter urban confines. This car is nearly 40 centimetres shorter than a Mazda 2: it’s genuinely tiny. Our GT-Line had rear parking sensors, though they’re barely necessary as the little Kia is so easy to place – any parking spot you see, you can probably fit into.
Whipping across botched suburban bitumen reveals an abrupt low-speed ride. A combination of short-stroke suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels and a torsion beam rear axle meant the Picanto transmitted expansion joints and potholes into the cabin, especially from the rear.
Instead of taking hits slowly, the Picanto encourages you to dispatch poor roads as quickly as possible, where that extra speed smooths out the harsh edges with more finesse.
The Picanto never lets rebound get out of control, which inspires confidence over speed bumps and country roads. There is not much chemical grip to lean on from the Nexen tyres, but you can carry a surprising amount of speed in the Picanto.
Overwhelm the rubber and the GT-Line defaults to safe understeer until it scrubs off enough speed to get around the corner. Be more aggressive with your inputs and the rear end will rotate, providing some smiles for the enthusiast.
The more stiffly suspended Picanto GT model amplifies this characteristic further, making it the choice for keen drivers on a budget. However, the GT-Line still feels like it’s trying its hardest to please the driver, demonstrating a heart and soul that runs deeper than the cheap purchase price suggests.
At this point, a special mention of the fantastic steering is needed. Kia has nailed the ratio and weighting with just one setting, there is no overly-claggy sport mode or finger-light eco mode, it’s just right.
Safety is a sore point for the Picanto which recorded an ANCAP rating of four stars in 2017. Being a cheap car, it misses out on advanced tech, but it does have basic city-speed AEB and forward-collision warning. Traction and stability control are standard but seemed reluctant to trigger in wet weather.
The Picanto’s peculiar proportions present real advantages inside, where even my 188cm height left plenty of headroom in the front seat. The chairs themselves are finished in synthetic leather on this GT-Line and have some fruity red highlights, though to actually sit on they are flat and unsupportive.
While the cabin design isn’t particularly inspiring, there are red highlights to lighten the cabin up and the heavy-traffic touchpoints are remarkably well-appointed with soft pads on the armrest and a feeling that someone has screwed this little car together properly.
The Picanto’s eight-inch touchscreen is crisp and very simple to use – and it boasts wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is seriously impressive at this price. We did find, however, a frustrating tendency for the wireless CarPlay connection to drop out – an issue Chasing Cars has noted in many Kia/Hyundai products with this infotainment system.
A set of clear analogue gauges and a 4.2-inch TFT screen with digital speed readout sit behind a lovely leather-appointed steering wheel.
Practicality is normally a scourge for such a small car, but the Picanto nails the important stuff. There are two pop-out cup holders ahead of the shifter with dual-level storage behind them in easy reach of a twelve-volt socket and USB port.
An adjustable armrest offers a small amount of covered storage to keep valuables away from prying eyes, something often missed by trendier, more expensive vehicles like the Toyota Yaris Cross.
Surprisingly the back seat is usable, even for my tall frame. The high roof-line offers ample headroom for all sizes, while leg and toe room will be agreeable for people below 188cm. Unfortunately, the door armrest is hard plastic, there are no cup holders or any storage and no flip-down armrest. For short jaunts to the beach, though, the rear seat will be suitable for most.
The boot is nothing special, offering 255 litres of cargo room, though it bests some light SUVs like the Mazda CX-3. There is enough capacity for day-to-day use or an overnight stay but no handy features like nets or cargo organisers. With seats folded, the Picanto can carry a road bike with both wheels off.
Overall the Picanto impresses with a clear and straightforward layout and classier appointments than expected – it makes more expensive vehicles look sorely under-equipped.
Our combined test loop saw the Picanto return a 7.1L/100km consumption figure, which is competitive, but some way short of the 5.8L/100km claimed. In urban settings, this tended to climb to around 9L/100km, which is still respectable but the more efficient manual would improve things.
The Kia will happily be fuelled with cheap 91 octane petrol or the E10 blend at the bowser, keeping everyday bills low.
One of the big pulling cards for Kia is their industry-leading seven-year unlimited-kilometre warranty from which the Picanto benefits.
Servicing is more expensive than you might expect for a relatively simple vehicle. Kia offers seven years of capped-price servicing, for five years it will cost $1,895 to service the GT-Line – rather oddly on an almost exact par with a BMW 4 Series reviewed recently.
The most expensive service then hits in the sixth year of ownership, that maintenance will cost an owner $574.
As light cars climb in price – or disappear from the market altogether – the door opens for new competitors to wade in and challenge established names. That is what Kia has managed to do with the Picanto.
Of course, the punchy Picanto GT with its turbocharged engine and manual gearbox is our pick for just $1,000 more – and if you want a bargain, the base model Picanto S is probably the grade to choose.
It is a shame that the Picanto lacks some of the active safety technology buyers have come to expect in 2021, but there is still plenty of appeal to the GT-Line – and ultimately, high-end safety tech becoming standard is the factor that has been blamed for the radical price increases to cars like the Toyota Yaris.
On the surface, it offers basic motoring for an affordable price with some interesting exterior styling, but it says a lot that we copped a friendly wave from a fellow owner during our week in the Picanto. Clearly, buyers are enjoying their quirky South Korean light car as much as we did.
Key specs (as tested)
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