Kia sold more than 21,000 cars in the UK last year. It out-performed Mitsubishi, Saab, Alfa and Subaru at the forecourt, and grew a massive 71.5 per cent. Arguably, that’s the biggest automotive success story of 2003, especially when you consider that seven years ago Kia nearly disappeared.
The Korean-based outfit, now part of Hyundai’s growing empire, wants to keep that giant snowball rolling. It’s targeting 30,000 sales this year, which would put it among marques like Jaguar, Seat and Hyundai itself. A lofty goal, you might think, but it looks like an achievable one.
The most crucial car to that expansion plan is the one you’re looking at. If Kia is serious about shifting cars in numbers, it needs a strong A-segment entrant – a cheap and cheerful alternative to the Ford Kas and Vauxhall Agilas of this world.
Enter the Picanto. This is the car that needs to alter the Kia brand’s position in the market: buyers of the mid-sized Magentis saloon have an average age of 67 years.
The Picanto is the first A-segment car Kia has ever developed on its own. It’s the first car Kia has ever aimed squarely at Europe, and it’s marketed at buyers who’ve had a much less ‘decent innings’ – specifically 25- to 30-year-olds. Something of a departure, then.
At launch, it will be available in 60bhp 1.0-litre L and 64bhp 1.1-litre LX and SE trims, the latter getting a four-speed auto ’box. A 1.1-litre diesel is currently under development at the company’s Russelsheim R&D centre and arrives next year. Anti-lock brakes with EBD, twin airbags, remote central locking and a CD player will be standard throughout the range.
Buyers will be able to choose between nine colours including Lemon Yellow, Blue Diamond and Liquid Silver. Whichever you choose, it coats the car almost completely, from chunky bumpers to bite-size rear spoiler. There are recognisable influences from other cars here and there, but they’re well resolved and create a character that is anything but anonymous. It’s just a shame about the grille.
And the less inspired interior. The dash is a confused mix of black, dark grey, light grey and silver that would benefit from a bit more simplicity. That said, it felt solid and well finished, let down only by flimsy door handles and door lock stalks that look like leftovers from the early ’90s.
There’s good cabin space front and rear. Despite what Kia may have you believe, though, five doors plus some strategically placed cubbies do not a mini-MPV make. There’s no sliding rear bench or folding passenger seat, but the rear seats are split 60/40, pushing storage capacity to an 882-litre maximum.
The driver might not find it that easy to get comfy. The steering wheel budges for rake, but not reach, and though there’s plenty of legroom, the seat offers little support laterally or for the thighs and it doesn’t adjust for height.
Thankfully, the Picanto’s no mini-MPV to drive. Around town it’s capable, with a compliant ride that smoothes out bumps and conveys little into the cabin by way of rumble and thump. At idle, the 1.1-litre engine is so quiet you could mistake it for a hybrid and it remains unobtrusive around town.
The real surprise is how convincingly the Picanto takes on bigger distances and winding B-roads. That quiet engine reveals genuine flexibility when given the chance to show off, pulling keenly from below 2000rpm and with useable punch all the way to 5000rpm.
Dynamically, it’s quite useful too. There’s no mistaking that the chassis works best lower down the dial, but if you push on and test the Picanto’s fully independent suspension and all-round disc brakes, you’ll need real commitment to find them wanting. It turns in well, with an electric steering rack that feels direct, if lacking in feedback. There is noticeable body roll, but it’s well checked by some impressive damping. The only real complaint is a loss of composure over low-frequency lumps at speed and that’s a common fault in small runabouts.
So it seems, on short first inspection, that Kia has turned out a capable, charismatic little motor. If it’s to fill the boots its master has in mind it’ll need a similarly heroic price tag – and that will have to wait until launch. For now, Kia hints at a likely start price below £6000 for the entry level 1.0-litre, rising to £6500 for the 1.1-litre variant tested here. With Kia’s flexible purchasing options and three-year warranty and servicing agreements, that should certainly draw punters away from the £7500 five-door Hyundai Getz.
One thing’s for sure: success or failure, the Picanto will go down as one of the most vital small cars of the year, along with the Fiat Panda and the CityRover. But while the latter could consign a faltering institution to an apparently inevitable end, the Kia Picanto might just cement an automotive reputation.