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The new Kia Picanto gets lashings of style and a good 1.2-litre petrol engine to make it a compelling choice in the city car market, but the Volkswagen Up makes for stiff competition

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This is the third-generation Kia Picanto as the Kia would doubtless prefer you first laid eyes on it: in new upper-trim-level ‘GT Line’ form, complete with 16in alloy wheels, sports body styling, bi-xenon headlights and plenty of other ritzy features.

Unlike six years ago, Kia's city car now has the classy Volkswagen Up, the striking Toyota Aygo and the quirky Suzuki Ignis to contend with. With style-conscious twenty-something buyers to lure, it may well need these more impactful looks in order to hold its own.

The GT Line’s sports styling may be a bit over-the-top for more mature buyers but will more likely be approved of by the twenty-something clientele that Kia is directly courting here

The most multi-talented The Picanto is available in five trim levels, starting at ‘1’, progressing through ‘2’ and ‘3’. Entry-level models get 14in steel wheels, electric front windows, and a 3.8in one-colour LCD stereo system, while the step-up '2' includes 14in alloys, electrically adjustable heated mirrors, a leather steering wheel, manual air conditioning, electric windows front and rear and bluetooth connectivity.

All '3' spec cars upgrade to 15in alloy wheels, gain front fog lights, folding electric mirrors with integrated indicator lights, climate control, cruise control, 7in touchscreen sat-nav and six speaker stereo.

The range culminates in the ‘GT Line’ trim you see here, and the slightly better equipped ‘GT Line S’ specification. The latter gains a 7in infotainment system, wireless charger for your smartphone, heated front seats, rear parking sensors and an electronic sunroof over the GT Line styling kit, which adds extended front and rear valances and side sills to the standard Kia Picanto’s already-relatively-pumped-up form, as well as exterior trim finishers for the grilles and sills that can be had in red, satin chrome or black. Chromed twin exhaust tips also feature.

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As with the cheaper 1.0-litre Kia Picanto, this new model is based on a widely overhauled body-in-white that’s longer in the wheelbase and shorter in the front overhang than the 2011-2017 Kia Picanto was – as well as 40 percent torsionally stiffer and 21kg lighter. Stiffer anti-roll bars, re-tuned springs and dampers, an all-new torsion beam rear suspension system and a quicker steering rack are key parts of the chassis overhaul.

Going for the Kia Picanto 1.2-litre engine instead of the entry-level 1.0-litre means paying a £500 premium on the list price, though it’ll make little difference to what your Picanto will cost to own otherwise. Peak power jumps from 66- to 83bhp and torque from 71- to 90lb ft. The latter benefits from a significantly more linear torque curve than the cheaper three-cylinder motor, and also allows Kia to fit gear ratios for the 1.2 that are around seven per cent taller than those of the 1.0.

Is there more to the Kia Picanto than its looks?

The Picanto GT Line’s sports styling may be a bit over-the-top for more mature buyers but the added presence flowing from that cutesy-aggressive front bumper and those high-intensity foglamps will more likely be approved of by the twenty-something clientele that Kia is directly courting here.

The car’s oversized C-shaped tail lamps make it just as recognisable from the back as it is from the front, while its 16in alloy wheels fill those newly flared arches very nicely. If there is a problem here, it’s only that the car’s looks may promise greater driving dynamism than the car ultimately provides – but that’s hardly likely to deter anyone buying their first car.

On the inside, the Picanto GT Line has leather-effect upholstery and a flat-bottomed steering wheel. At this trim level, you get Kia’s 7in touchscreen infotainment system thrown in, which works quite well and offers smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android smartphones. Glossy sports pedals are another sporty touch in a cabin that accommodates taller drivers fairly well, though doesn’t allow them to sit quite as low or as straight-legged as in a Volkswagen Volkswagen Up.

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The absence of reach adjustment on the steering column may be a similar disappointment to taller drivers, although the wheel could still be positioned agreeably for this 6ft 3in tester, allowing for a fairly upright seat backrest.

A bigger ergonomic bugbear was Kia’s occasionally troubling relative close positioning of clutch pedal and footrest. Although, the latter sitting slightly deeper in the footwell than the former and making it a bit too easy to snag the underside of the clutch with your left foot in the process of changing gear. However, credit to Kia for fitting proper seats with separate adjustable headrests up front, rather than chairs with integrated head restraints which are seldom as comfortable.

With the engine running, you can appreciate the refinement boost the Picanto has had with this 1.2-litre motor just as easily as you can with the 1.0-litre. The engine starts quietly, those twin pipes evidently there for visual effect, rather than sporting tonality. Around town, the motor remains well-mannered and smooth, only getting slightly tremulous and coarse above 4000rpm.

The better news is that the four-cylinder engine’s greater medium-range torque means you needn’t work it nearly as hard as the 1.0-litre engine in order to keep up with the traffic. Despite those longer gear ratios, the 1.2-litre Picanto will pull cleanly and usefully from just about 2000rpm in 3rd and 4th gears, whether you’re in town, on winding and undulating country roads or on the motorway.

As a result, the 1.2-litre Picanto drives much more like a full-sized supermini than its rangemate, and maintains its prevailing speed in high gears much more effortlessly. It’s a long way from fast or particularly exciting to drive, but can be good fun on the right road. There’s well-judged pace and weight to the steering, very creditable lateral body control, good high-speed stability and sufficiently high grip levels for relatively fast cornering, particularly on the 16in alloy wheels of GT Line specification.

The Picanto’s low-speed ride does suffer a bit in dealing with the extra unsprung mass and shortness-of-sidewall on those 16in wheels and fitted tyres, sometimes crashing over sharper ridges. More often, the car simply lacks the suppleness of the outgoing Picanto’s ride, which can be attributed to those new chassis settings. But as a compromise, we can imagine plenty of younger buyers who will use their cars out-of-town, would willingly trade the old car’s compliance for the added visual and handling composure of the new ‘GT Line’-trim car.

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Is the GT Line the Kia Picanto to buy?

Kia Picanto would probably have this car’s engine, but roll on the lighter and more forgiving 15in alloy wheels of a slightly lower trim level. And, truth be told, if you avoided ‘GT Line’ trim altogether, you’d probably never have to explain that the car wasn’t really a hot hatchback since it wouldn’t look like something trying desperately hard to be confused with one.

But there I go again not thinking like a twenty-something buyer. For a younger audience than me, looking for a car they can afford, insure and still use, and also desire a bit, as well as very easily park and quietly enjoy driving, the Picanto GT Line looks like just the ticket.

Now that UK prices, equipment levels and insurance groups have been confirmed, it’s off to a strong start.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Kia Picanto First drives