Since its introduction in the early part of the millennium, the Kia Picanto has always registered strong brand recall due to its fuel frugality, compact dimensions and exterior design that makes it an ideal car for the female college student, rookie yuppie or fleet sales lineup. But with serious competition in the Chevrolet Spark and Suzuki Alto, is it still the super subcompact benchmark?

Nothing much dimension-wise has changed to the current version of everybody's favorite mini subcompact template save for its length. The new model grows by 40 mm in length (to 3,535mm) and sports a new exterior look. The 14-inch steel wheels' covers are reminiscent of the The rear now totes tailights similar to the Chevrolet Aveo, but the front end is similar to its Carens MPV sibling (especially the front grille), with foglights and upper and lower mesh grilles giving the car a tinge of boy racer look. Obviously the overall the look is now leaning towards the fuel-conscious (but sporty) male market, not just those who brand the vehicle as a "chick" car.

Inside, the car still sports the black upper-light grey lower interior colorway of its predecessor, but has much improved interior features. Storage areas abound within the cabin, the leather/cloth seats are snug, the audio entertainment is improved (but still needs help at the treble and midrange areas), the airconditioning is frosty and the dashboard is wide enough to place food (and dine) on its pebbly surface. Much like the previous model, seating is good for four and cramped for five, and gets tighter for rear occupants if the people in front have long legs.

On the road the '08 Picanto LX A/T accelerates just enough to move its 927 kg kerb weight along. The four-speed slushbox is willing to downshift at three-fourths effort and reach its 6,000 rpm redline to catch up to compact cars sporting 400cc (or more) of displacement. Powerband entry is high (3200-3500 rpm), the upper end of the powerband is narrow and an extra gear is needed to bridge the gap between second and third gear. It may be paltry for people who grew up on compact passenger cars like the (Honda) Civic, (Toyota) Corolla and the (Mazda) 3, but in crowded city streets (where this car thrives), who cares about quick acceleration, Civic-level top speed and a broad powerband? Nevertheless, it registered a 137 kph top speed and 11.09 km/l consumption rate on five days of city driving.

Much like the previous model, this P550,000 Picanto variant does fairly well in everyday driving despite a stiff MacPherson strut (front) and torsion bar (rear) suspension setup. Enter a turn too fast and it exhibits a transition from understeer to oversteer quickly, and at 63-65 kph there's significant traction loss. Not helping much either are its Hankook Optimo K406 165/60 tires, which bare a lot of road noise and provide tolerable (but not good) ride comfort. Steering is a bit off-center and there's little feedback, but tossing the little black wheel around takes little effort due to the electric motor-driven power-assist.

When it comes to safety the new Picanto may be middling but enough to keep occupants out of harm's way. There's still no ABS nor airbags, but unlike previous models the front tires don't lock up quickly during hard braking. The parking brake between the front seats has decent grip. Exterior lighting is still bright enough to see during night driving, but the foglights' beams cannot stand on their own as sole sources of light. Driver controls and gauges are easy to read and reach, and the latter now sports a white outer arc (with bigger readouts) that is a better aesthetic upgrade than the 2002-2005 Hyundai Starex-like gauges of earlier units. It would be better if the sole interior lamp is placed in the middle of the ceiling instead of right between the front passenger visors; the light coming from the aforementioned lamp is distracting to the driver, especially when the sun comes down.

The 2008 Kia Picanto may have grown lengthwise and may sport potentially less power and fuel consumption figures than its manual transmission counterpart, but given the small super subcompact field, this iteration still remains the master mold for all mini subcompact passenger cars.