Kia Picanto: The little big car
The best things, they say, come in small bundles, and they don't come much smaller than this. Kia's Picanto is the smallest car in its range and the latest to receive the Schreyer-inspired family look in a rolling programme of updates that will encompass its entire range.
Small it certainly is - within a millimetre or two of Fiat's funky new 500, and some 10cm shorter and narrower than the new Mini. Yet it still manages to offer four doors plus an opening rear hatch - a boon for city drivers with passengers or children to ferry around.
The new Picanto shares its underpinnings and drivetrain with Hyundai's highly acclaimed i10, and is the much-needed replacement for the previous generation, which was beginning to look decidedly dated alongside the rest of Schreyer's reworked range. The new car is 60mm longer than the one it replaces though its wheelbase is only 15mm longer. Body types are currently a five-door hatch, though a three-door version is also available in some markets.
Build quality is impressive, with precise fit and tight panel gaps, a crisp new family nose, puffed out wheel arches and snazzy rear lights. The old slab-sided body has been freshened considerably with a crisp new shoulder crease rising from the front wheel arch and through the door handles to meet the apex of the rear lights. Though the nose is a bit pug-like in its compression, the overall effect is businesslike and modern, different from the cute, retro looks of some of its sector rivals.
The silver lining
Inside, the interior is equally crisp, with a silver strip lining the bottom half of the wheel, running around the heating controls and over the glovebox to add a welcome highlight to the cabin. The seats are comfortable, the dials clear and easy to read, and the control stalks feel robust and durable in operation. The interior feels surprisingly spacious, partly due to the sweep of the windscreen, which stretches forward like a mini SUV.
The lack of bulk in the doors means there's a decent amount of shoulder and elbow room, and the tall roof means plenty of air above the tallest head. The high seating position and large glasshouse lead to excellent all-round visibility, which inspires confidence in a car so small.
All the gadgets and gizmos you would expect in a larger car appear here too - Bluetooth connectivity a USB port for your music library, a proper iPod cable and a pretty decent stereo. The A/C was noisy, but proved effective at clearing the heat out of this large glasshouse once on the move.
Small but sophisticated
Safety features abound, such as the seatbelt pre-tensioning and pressure release system. This is the sort of sophistication that is usually reserved for much larger cars. There's a full complement of airbags, including two-curtain bags that run the full length of the cabin. Vehicle stability management and electronic stability control systems manage the car's dynamics to keep you in control through emergency manoeuvres.
Picantos in this part of the world come with the company's 1.25-litre Kappa four-cylinder engine, mated to a conventional four-speed auto box. The engine is a willing and free-revving unit delivering 87ps and 122Nm of torque at 4,000rpm, enough to deliver peppy performance in most city-driving situations, and sufficient to maintain motorway speeds when called upon to do so.
Suspension is by MacPherson Strut at the front, and torsion beam at the rear. These have been stiffened and tuned to minimise body roll whilst maintaining compliance over the bumps. The result is a car that corners with alacrity, and provides an engaging drive through the cut and thrust of a city day. For short journeys and popping out to the shops, it proved the default choice while on test.
But there is a downside - the electric power steering. Unlike the hydraulic assistance usually found on larger cars, the electrically assisted system in the Picanto is light and easy only at walking speed.
Unfortunately, when the speed builds, it becomes stiffer and reluctant to turn. Once you have mastered it though, the Picanto makes up for odd steering with surprising refinement and grown-up ride quality.
The Picanto was a real surprise. It is an undeniably small car, and yet it is less compromised than you might expect. It offers room in the back large enough for adults. It rides well, has a generous amount of kit, and sports a thoroughly modern design.
Elsewhere in the world, small cars are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the face of punitive petrol prices and green legislation. Here the choices remain wider, but it is well worth considering how such a diminutive offering might make environmental and economic sense in this part of the world.
Certainly, during its stay in my household, the Picanto was picked more often than you might expect, justifying its choice with an easy drive and nippy character. Of course, there is always a pleasure to be derived from the effort and concentration involved in driving supercars. It's just that sometimes, all you really want is a pint of milk and the newspapers. For that, the Picanto was perfect, and almost as cheap!
Engine: 1,248cc 4-cylinder petrol "Kappa" unit
Transmission: 4-speed auto, front-wheel-drive
Power/torque: 87ps @ 6,200rpm/122Nm @ 4,000rpm
Price: from Dh36,500 to Dh43,000