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First drive: Pint-size Picanto is Kia’s next big thing

Range-opener: Global demand for the Kia Picanto is likely to prevent its smallest model appearing in local showrooms before mid-2012.

Full day’s drive in Germany shows why Kia Australia wants Picanto alongside Rio

Kia logo16 Sep 2011

By MARTON PETTENDY

KIA’S classy new Rio has just gone on sale in Australia, but a smaller and arguably cuter new Korean hatchback is also headed our way.

The slick new UB-series Rio five-door was launched to critical acclaim Down Under this month, when it arrived with a higher $16,290 starting price to match its Euro-chic styling and locally polished ride/handling package.

With a sub-$15,000 three-door and a circa-$17,000 sedan expected to bookend the new Rio range here in January, however, it is only a matter of time before Kia’s all-new baby, the pint-size Picanto hatch, takes over from where the cheap-and-cheerful previous-generation Rio left off (at $13,490 drive-away).

Kia Motors Australia has made no secret of its desire to enter the fledgling sub-light vehicle market here, where A-segment – as it is known in Europe – was pioneered in 2009 by Suzuki’s Indian-built 1.0-litre Alto (currently price from $11,790 plus on-road costs), before being joined by other new five-door city-hatches like Holden’s Korean-made 1.2-litre Barina Spark (from $12,490 plus ORCs) and Nissan’s new-generation Thai-built Micra, which opens at $12,990 plus ORCs with a 1.2-litre engine.

The MkIII Rio’s move upmarket to a price point more traditionally occupied by established Japanese light-cars like Toyota’s Yaris, the Mazda2, Suzuki Swift and Honda Jazz – as well as Australia’s two remaining European-engineered B-segment models, Ford’s Fiesta and Volkswagen’s Polo – provides Kia with precisely that opportunity.

Kia Australia thinks the larger second-generation Picanto, which made its global debut in five-door guise at the Geneva motor show in March before the three-door appeared last month, can play a small but significant role in the nation’s growing city-car segment, and in its plan to more than double sales from an expected record of 25,000 this year to up to 55,000 in 2015.

17 center imageThe only hurdle for that plan appears to be global demand for Kia’s latest global city-car, which is likely to prevent Kia’s smallest model appearing in local showrooms before mid-2012, but that hasn’t stopped Kia Australia establishing what it says is a solid business case for the Picanto, which was made available for selected media outlets including GoAuto to test in Germany this week.

On sale in Asia and Europe since July, the all-new Picanto hatch is available there with both three and five doors, powered by the choice of 1.0- and 1.2-litre Kappa-series DOHC petrol engines with dual continuously variable valve timing – a 998cc three-cylinder that produces 51kW of power at 6200rpm and 94Nm of torque at 3500rpm, and a 1248cc four-cylinder delivering 64kW at 6000rpm and 120Nm at 4000rpm.

Both engines are matched with either five-speed manual or four-speed conventional automatic transmissions, with the 1.0-litre manual returning combined fuel consumption of just 4.9 litres per 100km (auto: 5.6L/100km) and CO2 emissions of 117 grams per kilometre (auto: 132g/km), and the 1.2-litre manual returning 5.0L/100km (auto: 6.1L/100km) and emitting 119g/km (auto: 144g/km).

In Europe, an optional Comfort Package is available for both models. That includes Kia’s ISG idle-stop system that reduces the 1.0-litre model’s efficiency numbers to as little as 4.1L/100km and 95g/km and the 1.2-litre car’s to 4.5L/100km and 106g/km.

Just as only the five-door Picanto is likely to become available in Australia, only the larger 1.2-litre engine is expected to be sold here, which is just as well because it is a vastly superior car to drive than the 1.0-litre Picanto.

Both models surprised with a level of refinement that is rare in this size of vehicle, but after driving the smooth and peppy 1.2 with a slick-shifting auto, the 1.0-litre car was louder and coarser at the same 6500rpm redline, generated more vibration through the steering wheel and pedals and lacked the character of the Alto’s triple-cylinder engine.

While the 1.2-litre four was always at the ready to deliver adequate urge in the featherweight 855kg (kerb) Picanto – despite the relatively wide ratios of the four-speed auto, which lacks a manual-shift mode – rowing the 1.0-litre car’s long-throw manual gearbox was the order of the day, with a midrange torque trough and a disappointing electronic flywheel effect between gearchanges often making for frustratingly slow progress.

The 3.6-metre-long Picanto is no fireball with either engine, but the 10kg-lighter triple-cylinder model feels significantly slower and its official 0-100km/h acceleration figure of just 14.3 seconds (versus 11.6 for the 1.2, both manual) confirms that. On the other hand, although it took some time to get there, we saw much more than the 155km/h top speed Kia claims for the Picanto 1.0 on an unrestricted section of autobahn.

The willing 1.2 is far from the Picanto’s best attribute, however. Nor is it its surprisingly spacious cabin that can seat four full-size adults in relative comfort, with plenty of headroom and adequate legroom – if not shoulder room – for all five seating positions. Or the classy cockpit layout with high-tech LCD audio and climate displays, a smart instrument panel and high-quality surfaces that at least look like they’re soft to touch.

No, the Picanto’s highlight is its impeccably solid chassis, which feels thoroughly European in the way it resists bodyroll even when pushed and remains unflinchingly composed even through fast, patch-worked corners and over high-speed back-road whoops, while maintaining a quality of ride on its 14-inch tyres that – at least on the mostly smooth bitumen surfaces we encountered – was best described as plush.

As with the Optima, Rio and every other new Kia model to arrive in Australia from this year, the Picanto will undergo a local chassis tuning program before it goes on sale here, but we doubt it will need to be as comprehensive as previous models.

Like the class-leading Micra, the Picanto’s electric power steering points faithfully, remains free of kick and rattle, transforms from being super-light at parking pace to commendably stable at freeway speed and returns a tight 9.8-metre turning circle, but lacks telescopic reach adjustment and sometimes feels artificial, detached and ‘sticky’, failing to self-centre and lacking the precision and feedback of a Fiesta.

That said, the Picanto is light-years ahead of every other micro-car and most light-cars we’ve driven in terms of overall chassis performance and refinement and, although it will take a back-to-back comparison on home turf to confirm it, we suspect it will seriously challenge the Micra’s position at the top of the A-segment ride/handling tree.

Every Picanto will comes standard here with a full complement of safety gear including electronic stability/traction control, ABS brakes with EBD and hill-start assist, five three-point seatbelts and height-adjustable head restraints, and twin front, front-side and side curtain airbags.

While most models also come with pull-type chromed door-handles, side mirror-mounted repeater lamps, foglights and driver’s seat height adjustment, a host of optional equipment is on offer for the Picanto in Europe.

The cars we drove for more than 300km out of Frankfurt featured luxury-car items like LED daytime running lights, LED tail-lights, projector headlights, keyless entry and starting, heated front seats and steering wheels, rear parking sensors, voice-activated telephony, trip computer, Bluetooth/USB/iPod audio connectivity and alloy wheels up to 15-inch.

Whether the Picanto arrives in Australia before the facelifted version emerges in early 2013 remains to be seen, but when it does we suspect just one or two model variants will be offered here, starting from above the influx of sub-$11,000 Chinese micros but below the sub-$15,000 Rio at less than $13,000.

Kia expects global demand for A-segment cars to be in the region of 2.4 million vehicles annually over the next six years. At that price, the Picanto is good enough to play a significant role in the progression of Australia’s emerging sub-compact category from infancy to baby boom.

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