It's Light, Slim. and Very Fit

Article excerpt

Road test kia picanto

Weighing in at less than a ton, the new Picanto is a supermini in the original sense, making it pleasingly chirpy, nippy and nimble, says John Simister

Carmaking has never been more competitive. New cars are launched in ever-greater number to generate the sales vital for the carmakers' survival. The buying public seems to be becoming more affluent, too, and these trends are reflected in the cars we review in these pages. We report on as many new models as we can; you, the reader, can decide whether or not you approve of what the industry creates.

But even I, privileged to drive many expensive and glamorous new cars, feel a sense of relief and delight when the chance comes to try something cleverly designed down to a price, something simple and minimal and, in a sense, pure.

I like small, ingenious cars. I like the rejection of excess weight, size and unneeded equipment. I like to feel properly in touch with a car's functions instead of "accessing" them via menu- driven interfaces. To design a really good small car is much harder than designing a large, expensive one. And the more people enjoy driving small cars, the better for us all.

So I was pleased when the just-refreshed version of the Kia Picanto arrived for test. The Picanto is a supermini in the original sense of the term, a small hatchback sufficiently bigger than an original Mini to take four people and some luggage easily but still compact, light and nimble. It weighs under a ton, an attribute that the cars most often termed superminis nowadays - cars of the Corsa/ Clio/207 persuasion - abandoned long ago. That's why the Picanto manages fine with a properly miniature engine, of 1.0 litres in the basic version and 1.1 in the others.

The Picanto was the car that made Kia slightly cool on its 2004 launch. It was aimed squarely at young, carefree types, for whom its five-door design would encourage the carriage of friends rather than hinting at responsibility. Cartoon-flavoured ads and chirpy colours set the scene, along with very low prices. It was the sort of car that concerned parents would buy for their late-teen daughters, new and safe and reliable and not very fast.

None of that has changed. There is a small facelift, mainly concerned with making the nose look more like that of the Kia Cee'd. So the former vertically toothed front grille has been ousted by a horizontally barred one, set in more rounded surroundings which abut new front wings and a new bonnet. The headlights are bigger and rounder, too, and at the back there are round-lensed lights and a new bumper.

Inside, the slightly reshaped dashboard is now black, as are parts of the door trims. And, thank goodness, the previous model designations, a dated, discontinuous and deeply uncool GS and LS in which the cheaper-sounding one was actually the more expensive, has given way to Picanto, Picanto 2, Picanto 3 and Picanto Ice.

Not that the new line-up is exactly obvious, for the Ice is effectively a Picanto 2 with air-conditioning and black interior trim. This is the version that goes on sale first, and the version we tested. As before, all have the 64bhp, 1.1-litre engine except the cheapest model, the 1.0-litre, 61bhp Picanto Suffix-less which also has significantly less pulling power. It counters this with better fuel economy on official tests and a lower carbon dioxide output (117g/km against 126, possibly making it exempt from the London congestion charge when the new rules are finalised).

New orange graphics for the instruments are meant, again, to ape those of the Kia Cee'd but, contrary to the intention, they look cheap. The worst offender here is the new stereo system, properly built into the Picanto's dsahboard this time but matching its visual unsubtlety with a sound quality redolent of a worn-out vinyl record with bad tracking damage. …