From £9,2457
A pleasingly well-rounded and charming value offering, but not in all of its guises

What is it?

This Kia Picanto is potentially the last of a dying breed, if we’re being honest (and perhaps a bit dramatic).

The humble value-orientated city car has been on its way out for several years, meaning similarly diddy and affordable combustion-powered competitors for this facelifted version of Kia’s diminutive Picanto are now limited, essentially, to the closely related Hyundai i10, the endangered Volkswagen Up, the Fiat Panda and the Suzuki Ignis

Each of those has been subject to a fairly comprehensive overhaul in the not-too-distant past, but this third-generation Picanto is still relatively fresh from the oven, so it receives only subtle tweaks for this round of updates. Design changes are reserved for the range-topping GT-Line and jacked-up X-Line cars, with the humble standard car making do with new personalisation options, a larger and slicker infotainment display (on applicable trims) and added safety kit. 

More significant are revisions to the powertrain line-up. The old 1.2-litre naturally aspirated engine has been swapped out for a smaller 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit on all but the range-topping GT-Line and GT-Line S cars, which gain a zingier 99bhp turbo triple. The optional four-speed automatic gearbox is gone, too, making way for a new five-speed ‘automated manual’ unit which, if you’ll allow the tenuous and generous link, operates a bit like the old BMW M3’s SMG ’box (in principle, at least), although the five-speed manual remains an option at all levels. 

Trims follow Kia's eminently sensible naming strategy: entry-level 1 keeps things simple with 14in steel wheels, keep-fit rear windows and black plastic body trim, while 2 trim brings a touch of chrome, electric mirrors and more ostensibly upmarket interior materials. Our test car was specified in mid-rung 3 trim, which brings such luxuries as LED indicators, colour-coded exterior trim, 15in alloy wheels, cruise control and automatic air conditioning. 

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What's it like?

The Picanto remains a cheery-looking proposition, even if its over-designed and somewhat insectile front end remains at odds with the car’s accessible and unpretentious billing. Wheels are pushed into the corners with minimal body overhang, which suggests pleasing maneuverability, and while the entry 14in steel items no doubt offer a better-cushioned ride, these slightly larger alloys inject a welcome hint of flair and kerb appeal. 

Touchscreen infotainment was previously an option reserved for the upper echelons of the Picanto range, but it now comes as standard from mid-rung 3 trim upwards. It’s usefully 1.0in bigger, too at 8.0in, but Kia hasn’t fallen into the trap of over-digitisation: temperature, fan speed and volume remain happily adjustable via physical dials, and the multifunction steering wheel gives easy access to a sensible - rather than overbearing - array of settings and controls. 

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It’s a necessary touch of refinement in an interior that otherwise smacks of utility. The Picanto’s value billing becomes abundantly clear if you start enthusiastically prodding and poking your way around the cabin: the leather-effect plastic trim is unconvincing and the switches and knobs a tad flimsy-feeling, but the seats are comfortable, the glasshouse bright and airy and the driving position sufficiently variable. It’s a perfectly liveable environment, all told. 

The 1.0-litre atmo engine makes do with just 66bhp and 96lb ft, making it one of the least powerful powerplants currently fitted to a mainstream production car, and even though this Picanto weighs just 977kg, it’s sorely lacking in the performance department. Tackling motorway slip roads is best viewed as a marathon, not a sprint, but that’s alright because the unrelenting engine and tyre roar through the under-insulated cabin at speed is enough to make you avoid longer jaunts in any case.  

The Picanto is, of course, a city slicker. Nimble, diminutive and sensibly packaged, it carries itself particularly well in congested urban environments and doesn’t feel half as vulnerable as it ought to, courtesy of big windows all round affording fantastic visibility and confidence. Low-speed manoeuvres, as you would expect, are a cinch, and although it’s not a necessity in a car this small, the optional reversing camera gives as clear and crisp a rearward view as you could ask for. The ride isn't particularly fazed by decaying urban asphalt, either: there’s a bit of knocking and jolting over the harshest bumps, but it’s nowhere near as firm as it could be. 

There are a few flies in this otherwise effective ointment, then, but none so unwelcome as the languid and indolent automatic gearbox. So tangibly does the car’s acceleration curve flatten between ratios that you sense your head lolling forward at every upshift, and because the blundering robot that controls the set-up is so easily confused, you can spend several seconds right at the top of first gear, revving the proverbial knackers off that wheezy motor until it finally decides to proffer up a larger cog. It’s almost as if there were an excitable child in the passenger seat begging to “do the gears”, but failing to ever quite get the timing right. 

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It will come as no surprise, then, that just 25% of UK Picantos are so equipped. We had a brief stint in a cheaper manual car, and found it to more clearly embody what we tend to enjoy about city cars: snappy, short-ratioed and surprisingly crisp, the cheaper transmission is able to far better exploit the engine’s limited reserves and provides a much more agreeable driving experience. 

7 Kia picanto 2021 first drive review cabin

Should I buy one?

Perhaps, but not like this. Presented in mid-rung 3 trim and with the auto ’box fitted, our test car came in at £14,665, which inevitably lines the Picanto up for comparison with rather more accomplished and better-rounded equivalents, even from the slightly larger supermini segment, to which it simply can’t stand up. 

In lower specifications, the Picanto recaptures its value edge, and we’d happily stick with the manual ’box for the more pleasurable driving experience and near-£700 saving it offers. Plus, if you can survive with a rudimentary infotainment system (your smartphone means you probably can), then you can forego the touchscreen set-up in favour of a £10 USB cable.

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Felix Page

Felix Page
Title: News and features editor

Felix is Autocar's news editor, responsible for leading the brand's agenda-shaping coverage across all facets of the global automotive industry - both in print and online.

He has interviewed the most powerful and widely respected people in motoring, covered the reveals and launches of today's most important cars, and broken some of the biggest automotive stories of the last few years. 

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Sulphur Man 15 February 2021

The inlaws have a 1.2 Picanto auto. It's a very able little car, and the torque convertor auto box does exactly what it should do - shifts easily and sensibly. 

Bizarre that they're swapping out for an automated clutch box, unless its just for emissions. Honda tried that with the second gen Jazz (i-shift). it didnt go well after a customer revolt. 

My inlaws, should in theory be well suited to an EV. Except they live in a terraced house with on street parking. Dont for a minute think they have any interest in plugging an EV into a street-based charging point, if one were ever available. They definitely wouldnt want to do it at night, on a wet November evening. They have even less interest in driving somewhere for the sole reason of charging their car, away from their home. 

Small cheap economical petrol cars will not go away. People want to buy the fuel then need and park it without the hassle of proximity to charging. 

xxxx 11 February 2021

This sector is neither dead or dying, there has been leavers and joiners over the years and always will be.

gavsmit 9 February 2021

I like the Picanto, it offers much better value for money that the incredibly expensive sister car the Hyundai i10 but since the facelift they've dropped the 1.2 engine which is ridiculous. 

And whilst the rest of the range has 5 seats, the GT Line with the 1.0 turbo engine has 4, despite this trim having 5 seats overseas. Bizarre.

Anyway, the real city car test I want to see is the Kia Picanto 1.0 T-GDi GT-Line versus the Hyundai i10 N Line versus the VW Up GTi. I quite like the idea of a pocket rocket, and the Picanto is the only one, after a decent discount that the others won't entertain, that is almost reasonably priced in lower GT-Line (not GT Line S) trim.