18 Jan 2019

Kia Picanto GT 2019 first drive review

Could this be Australia's cheapest performance car?
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What is performance?

For some, it might be an arbitrary number, such as being able to reach 100km/h in less than six seconds, or topping 250km/h on a long straight. To others, a performance car is a model that has been optimised for performance. That might be the case for Kia's Picanto GT, possibly Australia's most affordable performance car. 

Overview

The Picanto is Kia’s smallest and cheapest car. Priced from $14,690 drive-away, the Picanto represents basic motoring in a compact, sub-1000 kilogram package. This new Picanto GT takes a different approach, building on those basics with more kit and the promise of driving fun.

Kia is at pains to point out that its GT models are not intended as direct rivals to the likes of VW’s GTI family - they’re positioned as “warm hatches” with more punch and equipment than a standard model, if not the holistic approach of a more expensive performance car.

The brand’s press kit thumbs its nose at naysayers who felt the Picanto was a waste of time when Kia originally introduced the model, believing there is little demand (and even less profit) to be found in sub-compact city cars which make a Mazda2 feel like a roomy indulgence.

Happily, the Picanto has carved out its own niche, giving Kia the confidence to offer increasingly expensive variants.

Priced from $17,990 drive-away, the Picanto GT remains an affordable machine. That’s exactly the same money Kia asks for a larger Rio Sport hatch, but the brand is confident there are people who want a physically small car with a good amount of equipment.

The GT builds on that by scrapping the standard car’s 1.25-litre four-cylinder engine in favour of a turbocharged 1.0-litre triple. Available only with a five-speed manual transmission, the Picanto also benefits from firmer suspension and retuned steering intended to appeal to enthusiasts.

Based on the Picanto GT-Line, the GT benefits from 16-inch alloy wheels, a 7-inch touchscreen with a reversing camera, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and sat nav, power windows, cruise control and LED daytime running lights.

Safety is accounted for by autonomous emergency braking, six airbags, ABS and stability control.

Capped price servicing for the Picanto costs an average of $345 per year for the first five years. As with all Kia models, the Picanto is backed by a seven-year, unlimited-kilometre new car warranty which includes roadside assistance.

What's it like inside?

The Picanto feels like a car built to a price. Hard plastics and cheap finishes are easy to find in the model, which also feels a little light and tinny on the road. That said, is anyone expecting Lexus-rivalling quality and attention to detail from a basic city car?

Everything about the Picanto is small, including its boot. There’s only room for 255 litres of cargo back there, which is a little on the cozy side. Put it this way - friends are unlikely to ask you to help move house.

The Picanto isn’t especially quiet, as a noticeable amount of road noise filters into the cabin. The seats are a bit flat for something with sporting pretensions (though they look great) and the manual air con isn’t as nice as dual-zone climate control.

Unlike the bigger Cerato GT, the Picanto does not feature heated and ventilated seats or active cruise control, which make life a little easier. Then again, it costs a little more than half as much as that car, so you can’t be too picky.

Access to the Picanto’s front seats is a cinch. But the back seat is a little cozy, particularly if you have adults in front.

By now, you’ve probably realised the Picanto GT isn’t the most spacious or versatile vehicle on the road. But it does have charm.

What's it like to drive?

The standard Picanto features a wheezy little 1.25-litre engine which makes 62kW of power at 6000rpm and 122Nm of torque at 4000rpm, while the GT produces a much more useful 74kW at 4500rpm and 172Nm between 1500 and 4000rpm.

Not only do the GT’s power and torque peaks represent increases of about 20 and 40 per cent, they arrive much earlier in the rev range, which means you don’t have to work the engine nearly as hard. 

The GT feels effortless when pottering around town, taking a quieter tone than the standard motor. But it doesn’t like to be worked hard - the triple feels a little breathless at the top of the tacho (it revs beyond 6000rpm) and can feel a touch laggy before the turbo comes on song.

This isn’t a performance car engine aching to deliver its best, but a torquey little eco-motor transplanted into a smaller model for buyers with a little more cash.

As long as you’re not expecting an effervescent performer, you should be happy.

We’ll also raise a question about long gaps in the Picanto’s gearing. Spaced ratios make it hard to get the most out of the engine - my first shift from second to third gear was quickly followed by a dip of the clutch and a waggle of the gear lever to make sure I hadn’t grabbed fifth by mistake - and it fairly hums along the highway in top gear.

You might be surprised to find that the Picanto GT uses less fuel than regular models - even if it produces far more torque. The GT returns an official 4.8L/100km in standard testing - a full litre less than regular auto models - though we struggled to match that in the real world.

We had a blast in the Picanto, testing it at the model’s local launch in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. There’s something engaging about lightweight, manual cars that require a little bit of work from the driver - you’re always shifting gears, and thinking about how you can maintain momentum through a series of corners when out for a fang.

There are frustrating elements to its driving experience - that long-throw gearchange and less-than-willing engine could be improved - and it’s clear that the car is a dressed-up model rather than something that started life with performance intent.

Budget Kumho tyres squeal when asked for meaningful cornering performance, the car’s carry-over brakes lack bite and the suspension setup features an excess of front-end push lacking the tail-happy playfulness found in a Ford Fiesta ST or Peugeot 208 GTi.

But there’s plenty of feel and feedback through the steering wheel, the suspension retains an impressive degree of composure and the torquey little engine does make life a little more interesting.

What's the first impression?

I didn’t approach the Picanto GT with high expectations - the standard car isn't an amazing drive, and Kia does not have a history of building engaging hatchbacks. The Picanto helps address that with a punchy little motor and sharper reactions from its steering and suspension which help keep drivers engaged. No, it’s not a performance car.

But it is a better Picanto, and for many people, that will be more than enough.

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