With cobblestone streets, towering stone walls lined with cypress trees, and the most picturesque rolling landscapes imaginable, going on a drive through a European rural area like Dolce Sitges outside Barcelona, Spain can’t help but be one for the books. More so, in a more humorous way, when it’s done in a Kia Picanto, packed with four other people, and a trunkful of salami. Thankfully, the two 8-hour flights in coach it took us to get here had already prepared us for the tight squeeze.
Just a few months before the eye-catching new Picanto was unveiled in the Philippines, Columbian Autocar Corp., distributors of Kia in the Philippines, invited select members of the media to try the new small car in the iconic European locale.
As ironic as it seemed to us, Barcelona was actually quite an apt venue for the launch of the new vehicle. Serving as home to some of Spain’s most prestigious universities, Barcelona has a comparatively young population compared to the rest of the country, many of which are students looking to buy their first car. And of course, with meager budgets and an economy that is still struggling to recover from a recession, that choice is likely to be a small car like the Picanto.
Thankfully, Kia is well aware of the country's credit crunch and has designed the new vehicle to be particularly appealing to this segment. Designed with the young, sophisticated and very mobile market in mind, the new Picanto sports a youthful, lively look which features an aggressive, sporty design with contrasting accent colors, and smart interiors. Unlike its contemporaries, Kia doesn’t rely on enlarging the model with each generation, but rather making more efficient use of space. And for those willing to spend a little more, the GT Line, first previewed in the Sportage, has now been brought over to the small car, accounting for a whole host of upgrades and a scene-stealing new look.
Complementing the vibrant exterior is its modern interior, featuring design cues and equipment you’d expect to see from a higher class of car. Its interior bears a contoured three-spoke wheel, legible dials with multi-info display, and a floating infotainment system crowning the center console. The driver will find sporty steel pedals and steering-mounted controls. Passengers, on the other hand will enjoy the large storage areas that abound in the vehicle, particularly the large one-liter storage space under the sliding console armrest.
Despite being primarily designed for the youth market, the Picanto also proved ergonomic even for seasoned drivers. Though noticeably more high-tech, the interior is still quite easy to understand and operate, with fewer intimidating buttons and clever design making it easy to adjust both the stereo and climate controls. The visors are also equipped a mirror and dual LED lights on either side, making it perfect for a quick fixup just before meeting friends.
Behind, the broad seat can accommodate three adults, intimately, making up for the rather weak interior heating with shoulder friction. The seat back can be split 60:40 to fold down for more cargo space. Nonetheless, there’s more than enough room for a pair of overnight bags behind, provided they're as tiny and tacky as Jansport backpacks. The movable cargo floor also has two levels. You can keep sensitive items stored under the cargo floor, or lower it to accommodate more.
Just like many apps and new software these days, Kia promised some extra features, but only one was ‘playable’ at the time we drove. Globally, the car gets a choice of three engines: a 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine, and two 1.0-liter three-cylinder engines, one of which is turbo charged, yet requires EURO6 compliant fuel. There’s also a choice between manual and automatic transmission. All the vehicles present were powered by a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine with multi-point injection and a manual transmission. That left the choice between the regular Picanto and the Picanto GT.
Nonetheless test driving the weakest engine of the lot means it can only get better from here. The engine provides adequate power for the car’s size, provided there are a maximum of two passengers. This engine now benefits from multi-point injection, that makes it fussier with the type of gasoline put in, yet the power improvement is sort of palpable. The vehicle took on steep slopes and inclines with some moderate revving and had some pep to overtake the occasional service golf kart or Renault Twingo driving around the resort area.
To show off its peppy acceleration (0-40km/h), and handling, the organizers had also prepared a little gymkhana course that only allows you to get to second gear. Of course, to prevent any heroics, a little ball was placed in a bowl fixed to the hood, promoting smooth driving rather than Ken Block-esque hooniganism. With the promise of a Cross pen as a reward, the result was a drive that puts the car in a rather good light.
The course highlighted the car’s peppy acceleration in first gear, as well as sharp electric power steering. The electric power steering is light to drive at slow speeds and gradually gets stiffer the faster you go. The steering is quick and accurate, requiring less turns to reach each end.
There’s also a bit of a safety feature wherein it stiffens when quickly changing from a sharp left to a sharp right, preventing suddenly jerking the wheel and potentially making it unstable. The manual features a light clutch and throttle, making it easy to rev match when shifting. Finally, the brakes have really good bite, bringing it to a quick stop, with the benefit of ABS. As such, it’s agile at the right speeds but can also discourage some hooliganism should any parent have worries about it being their kids’ first car.
After the gymkhana course, we had more time to experience the vehicle’s behavior at moderate to higher speeds. At highway speeds, the Picanto remarkably quiet, stable and comfortable. The engineers have gone to great lengths making the cabin quieter. On highways, the Picanto is easy to keep in lane thanks to the speed sensitive power steering and stable suspension. Passing large vehicles like trucks and buses are also less likely to blow it off the lane. And finally, whether with two passengers or five, the ride is quite pleasant, soaking up small bumps fairly well, with larger thuds over bigger bumps.
This being a European spec model, there are a few accessories we won’t see in our local model. For one, the multi-info display with navigation will be replaced by an infotainment system with a smaller screen but still positioned prominently on the dash. Philippine Picantos do not have cruise control, however, the steering-wheel mounted stereo controls will be kept.
Of course, the real treat was experiencing the vehicle on the wide variety of European roads. With our home base in Sitges, just outside the city of Barcelona, our route entailed driving through the highway, some winding mountain roads, and even very narrow cobblestone and paved streets in the smaller towns in between.
That said, the real test was when we opted to take the car into Barcelona City itself. With just one unit available, all five of us packed into the vehicle and headed to Las Ramblas (before the unfortunate incident). Being a densely populated area, streets were tight and parking was scarce, forcing us to opt for one of the few tight underground parking lots in the area. The car’s compact size served as a boon, allowing us to maneuver within the lot’s tight confines with little effort.
Naturally, there was some shopping involved, and being the compulsive person that I am, I bought the bulkiest items I could find (old movie posters), thinking little of how it will squeeze into the trunk with the rest of the group’s processed meats. Nonetheless, utilizing every nook and cranny in the car, the five of us and our shopping managed to fit. Even more surprisingly, we managed to get through the lot’s steep ramps without scraping the undercarriage.
All told, the Picanto proved to be up to most tasks. It made us old foageys feel cool for a little while with its youthful design, relatively peppy drive and handling, as well as smart and snazzy interior. Perhaps the most vital factor is how much the car prevents hooliganism with its smart electric power steering and stable handling, allowing parents to rest easy that there’s certainly no way to hot rod this little hatch around town. It feels far more sophisticated and, dare I say, premium, than just Kia’s smallest offering, and while we don’t recommend packing it with as many people and shopping bags as we did, it will certainly handle it if needed.