First Drive: New Kia Picanto

As it happens, we have a current Picanto at home, so taking the third generation one for a number of drives in the hills behind Sitges was going to be an interesting comparative exercise, writes Brian Byrne.

Evolving from what has been a pretty successful small car for the Korean brand, globally and in Europe, they took a careful look at the buyer profile in the A segment before they went about fixing something that wasn't in any way broken.

And briefly, two thirds of those buyers are female, all are well educated, and generally they earn somewhat more than supermini and compact buyers. The cars tend to be an only car for those in their 20s, a second car for those households where age is in the 50s.

What they like about their current cars are looks, drivability with some emphasis on nimbleness in the city, and economical operation. They're not in the high powered league, but they are willing to spend a bit more on personalising their car.

Of course, that's all research at European level, where what we call the city car segment is significant as a share of the overall market. Here in Ireland, at about 4,000 units a year out of a total of around 140,000, it is useful but not large.

Anyhow, the new Picanto. A completely new car from the current version, which it will replace in Ireland at the end of April.  A new platform, a lighter but stronger structure, a longer wheelbase but not a longer car. Not as wedgy in style, but retaining cues of the current  car in various places, especially the rear.

At the press presentation, the company's marketing boss noted the increasing proportion of crossover/SUVs being bought, and though the Picanto was never going to be one of them, they did figure that their little car needed a stronger image. So the front end has been substantially beefed up in looks, giving it more presence.

Inside, though the car is no wider than before, there is more shoulder room, and the design of the dashboard components makes it seem wider. The main instruments are  large and clear, and a 7" central screen dominated the cars at the international presentation. When the GT Line top end grade comes to Ireland at the end of the summer, that will be part of it.

The 'packaging' of occupants has been further improved by changes to the positioning of airbags in the dashboard, allowing more knee room. And I had the sense that there's a bit more space for the rear passengers than in the current car.

One very clear improvement, though, is the boot space, which has been increased by 25pc to 255 litres. Claiming a best in class here now, that sorts one of the niggles of the current car, especially on weekly shop days. The boot floor too is now a double deck space, so small items can be concealed. In addition, tilting the rear seatbacks forward now provides a flat floor rather than the angled one of the present Picanto, and offers more than 1,000 litres of cargo capacity.

The 1.0 3-pot petrol engine is very familiar to current Irish owners, and this has been retained for the new car, which thanks to being lighter is also a tad more frugal than before. There's also a nice 1.25 four that will be available in Ireland, but only with an automatic transmission.

I had time to drive several times into the hills with both engines, as well as negotiating towns, villages, and zipping along stretches of excellent Spanish motorway. The 1.0 requires a bit of rowing through the gears on steeper climbs, but it is well up for that and was surprisingly fun under pressure. The 1.2 is quieter and a little easier on the same routes, but both motors are well able for whatever is required. In both instances, the 5-speed manual gearbox was a pleasure to use.

There's a 100hp turbocharged version of the 1.0 coming down the line later in the year, which we will have as part of a GT Line specification which makes the car very smart looking indeed.

The longer wheelbase and some improvements to the suspension mean the new car rides and handles a little better too, noticeable in less roll in the bends.

At the moment in Ireland, Picanto is fifth in its segment led by a rampant Hyundai i10. The Kia small cousin is now arguably more attractive in every respect than that one, especially in presence and packaging. There's a real opportunity for the Picanto to improve in its small but growing segment, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't.

Prices from €13,295. The automatic is €16,495, which is a reasonable €1,700 premium on its equivalent EX grade 1.0 manual, and remember for that you're getting more power too. I'd be tempted.

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