THE SALES FIGURES TELL THE STORY FOR THESE TINY TOTS; buyers prefer larger and more expensive hatches from the class above.
So the Holden Spark lands with an "if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-’em" mindset: it's more expensive than average, and has a larger-car feel thanks to its 1.4-litre engine, sizeable touchscreen and personalisation options. It feels, in fact, more like 'the class above'.
And maybe more buyers will consider micro cars if they feel less tiny and less 'tinny'.
Kia has gone a different way with its new Picanto. Rather than asking buyers to pay more, it has gone for the jugular on pricing. One specification level, with a single 1.25-litre engine and four-speed automatic transmission – no manual, no options, just a single driveaway pricetag.
Once on-road costs are factored in there is a $1700 pricing gap between the more affordable Kia Picanto and the latest Holden Spark. So should you spark-up or put that saving in your pocket?
Kia Picanto ($14,990 driveaway)
63kW/120Nm 1.25-litre petrol 4cyl | 4-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 5.3l/100km | tested: 7.6l/100km
Holden Spark LS CVT ($16,690 driveaway)
73kW/124Nm 1.4-litre petrol 4cyl | CVT automatic
Fuel use claimed: 5.5l/100km | tested: 8.1l/100km
The Kia Picanto arrives from $14,990 driveaway – it’s as simple as that. But while getting a new car into your driveway for $15k is basement pricing, larger models such as the Mazda2 also retail for that exact price (albeit with a manual transmission).
However Kia is adamant that an automatic is what buyers want - and reckons it will tip buyers the Picanto's way.
Holden's second-generation Spark is no longer called the Barina Spark, it's now just 'Spark'. The base LT costs $13,990 plus on-road costs for a five-speed manual transmission or $14,990 driveaway nationwide. The LT with optional automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) as tested here, asks $15,690 (plus orc) or $16,690 driveaway.
So it's nearly $2k more than the opposing Picanto.
That’s getting expensive, particularly given that at the time of writing Holden was running out the larger Barina CD with a free auto for $15,990 driveaway. That means the larger Barina is cheaper than the smaller, newer Spark…
The question is, then, should buyers be tempted by either of these fresh micro hatchbacks with their decidedly different marketing strategies? Let’s find out…
THE INTERIORS |
Both the Kia Picanto and Holden Spark measure 3.595 metres long from their stubby noses to their pert backsides.
The larger Kia Rio and Holden Barina hatchbacks tack on around 450mm of body length compared to these little guys. Keep the above half-metre difference mind if you live in a parking deprived area; it could be the difference between snaring and missing a tight spot.
But chopping length off a hatchback also means sacrificing space inside, obviously.
With both the Picanto and Spark, the loss is most evident in terms of boot capacity. The Kia is larger with a 200-litre volume versus the Holden’s paltry 185 litres. Still, it’s enough for a clutch of weekend bags sitting above each car’s space-saver spare tyre.
Each car’s rear seat scores three seatbelts but you wouldn’t want to have a trio of passengers seated there for too long.
If a back seat is important to you, the Holden’s is comfier and roomier. Its seat base sits up higher so it doesn’t crimp knees and there is plenty of space to tuck feet under the front seats.
The Kia’s flat back seat is ordinary but at least it gets seatback map pockets where its rival has absolutely no rear storage to speak of.
And what is that device on each rear door of the Spark? A window winder, kids. Side glass that electrically lowers and rises is standard only on the front doors where the Picanto includes fast-glass all-round. A near-20-year-old Daihatsu Sirion auto offered four-door power windows for $12,990 driveaway…
At least both models offer curtain airbags for rear passengers, in addition to dual front and front-side protection. Both also include manual air-conditioning, remote keyless entry, power mirrors, audio/phone controls mounted on the steering wheel and even auto-off headlights as standard.
But only the Picanto gets rear parking-sensors, where the Spark requires spending an extra $750 to tick a Driver Assistance Pack that includes rear sensors, a rear-view camera and cruise control – the latter of which aren’t available at all with its rival.
The more expensive Holden may seem to offer less equipment than the Kia, but it pulls a sizeable drawcard with its infotainment system. Its 7.0-inch touchscreen houses an intuitive interface, bright graphics and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity that ‘mirrors’ phone functions including messages, music, Pandora/Spotify apps, when a smartphone is connected via USB.
Quite simply, the system is as brilliant as its rival’s is outdated. The little Picanto has a monochromatic screen with basic functions and among the worst sounding audio systems we’ve come across. The functions for radio and phone are at least simple to use, though.
The Spark’s wider, more supportive front seats and general dashboard design also helps it feel grown-up and mature. Its rival counters by offering much better forward and especially rear vision, feeling smaller overall despite identical dimensions.
Each contender affords good up-front storage including cupholders in the centre console and a bottle holder in each front door.
ON THE ROAD |
The Holden's larger-than-average 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine eclipses the capacity of larger city cars such as the 1.3-litre Toyota Yaris. It also matches the 1.4-litre Rio from Kia’s stable.
With 73kW of power produced at 6200rpm and a surprisingly low 124Nm of torque at 4400rpm, the Spark delivers noticeably more, erm, 'spark' than its foe.
Kia’s 1.25-litre four-cylinder makes 63kW at 6000rpm and 120Nm at 4000rpm, so despite the capacity deficit it actually narrows in on the Spark hatch for torque.
The Holden weighs 990kg, whereas the Kia weighs 994kg – there is nothing between them for kerb mass.
What those figures don’t explain, however, is why the heavier Kia here feels lighter on its feet and more immediate in its responses.
The Holden is faster in a straight line, but it slurs gently off the line, requiring a larger press of the throttle than is ideal. Its steering is heavier and the whole driving experience feels more solid and, again, more mature.
The way the Picanto leaps off the line following the barest press of the accelerator is impressive. Its steering is lighter and fluffier, and the little Kia immediately adopts a frisky, fun attitude even through round-a-bouts and right-angle bends.
Keep your foot pressed on the accelerator and the Kia’s weakness is exposed however. Its four-speed automatic has gaps between the gears that can’t be avoided, so while the transmission itself changes gears reasonably quickly, there just isn’t enough ratios... and you can occasionally find yourself sitting between them (holding too few revs in third gear, but travelling too quickly for second).
Don’t write the Picanto off because it’s a four-speeder, though. Thanks to a stronger power-to-weight ratio than the 1.4-litre Rio, this micro hatchback doesn’t really suffer from its auto unless you’re really flogging it.
In fact, the Spark’s auto CVT can be more frustrating in stop/start driving. It hesitates off the line, but, when the throttle is pressed hard then quickly lifted, it surges then slumps disconcertingly (like on an elastic band). It gets a lot better when on the highway though.
With the Kia’s four-speed auto you can manually hold lower gears, where the Holden only has an ‘L’ indent that signifies ‘low’ range (accompanied with an increase in revs, but is never truly responsive).
Both micro hatchbacks offer 14-inch steel wheels with hubcaps. The Holden gets chubby 65-aspect 165mm-wide Continental tyres while the Kia runs 60-aspect Hankooks of identical width. The wheelbase of each is also the same.
However the Picanto has been available overseas for five years, despite being fresh to market locally. The Spark is a brand new design and has been tuned by Australian engineers, unlike its rival, although both models are imported from South Korea.
For rough-road composure and control over bumpy roads at speed, there is no contest. Quite simply the locally tuned Spark offers on-road balance and sophistication beyond its stature.
It is not perfect, however. The limitations of what is obviously a basic suspension set-up come through around town where the ride isn’t as cossetting as it should be on such chubby rubber.
The Spark is also noisy on the freeway and on country roads, whereas the Picanto is surprisingly calm and quiet. The Kia’s suspension can get a little restless and jittery at times, however its refinement is surprisingly impressive.
And, despite the restlessness on broken or rippled tarmac, the Picanto turns surprisingly well. It can be thrown into corners like toy car. It is as nippy, willing and playful around a set of bends as it is around town, always feeling tiny and agile.
The Spark hides its dimensions with a 'larger (small) car" feel; its steering is more direct and measured, and the extra tyre grip is palpable.
However along with a noisy engine and unwilling CVT, its handling is safe but dull.
At higher speeds on Holden’s Proving Ground, the stage for the Spark launch, we were impressed with its dynamic depth and capability. But, against the lighter 'alive' feel of the Picanto, it struggles to inspire and simply isn’t as nippy to drive as its rival.
Lastly, for micro hatchback buyers what happens off the road in servicing centres is as important as how a car drives on the road.
The Picanto is scheduled for annual servicing unless 15,000km comes up first, at a cost of $930 over three years/45,000km.
The Spark however needs nine-month service intervals unless 15,000km tallies first, so it will generally need four services over three years (costing $916) or three if 45,000km comes up first (costing only $687).
However Kia insists only its program includes brake fluid every two years and a pollen filter change, arguing it is better value.
Kia also triumphs with its benchmark seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, more than double Holden’s average three-year, 100,000km coverage. You can select a six-year, 175,000km warranty for the Spark, but it costs (gulp) $2090 extra.
The first question is whether you should consider a micro hatchback over a light hatch, and the answer is double-headed. Firstly if parking is tight in your area, then absolutely. Secondly if you must have an automatic transmission, then certainly.
However, there are more-accomplished light hatches available with manual transmissions (and in some case autos) for around the same money as the Kia Picanto and especially the pricier Holden Spark.
We would buy a Mazda2 or Toyota Yaris manual, but we recognise that many wouldn’t simply because of the DIY shifter.
Of these two very different models, it comes down to a choice between "fun over finesse" (Kia) or "finesse over fun" (Holden).
The Picanto is characterful and charming, sturdy, tinny and basic. With its cheap auto and long warranty, it is a good option, despite its cramped rear quarters and sub-par infotainment.
The Spark is expensive (relatively) and offers only an average warranty. However its superior infotainment system and rear accommodation are arguably enough to warrant its pricing premium.
Its ‘larger than it is’ feel will also more likely be appreciated by drivers who traditionally turn away from micro hatchbacks, and that fact, plus its vastly better infotainment and communications platform, ultimately gets it across the line first in this contest.
So there we have it: Holden Spark, on balance, by less than a nose, but both 3.5 star contenders:
Kia Picanto – 3.5 stars
Holden Spark LS – 3.5 stars