Kia Picanto LX ISG 2011 Review

Working to a budget is an art form in itself; it requires discipline, sacrifice and the ability to hunt down cheaper alternatives. The global recession has increased the legions of budget-conscious kiwis and for these dollar-saving masses there is a new stead – the 2011 Kia Picanto. The Korean city car is now in its second generation and offers a giant leap forward in quality and comfort. Priced from $18,590 the Picanto is one of the cheapest new cars in the country but it is running costs where this micro machine shines brightest. Hyped up by an advertising tagline of “Clever Around Town” Car and SUV decided to put the new Picanto through an examination to see what sort of grades it could achieve.

The Picanto exterior styling has a shrink-wrapped charm and while suitably cute it also features some sporty design cues. There’s an ascending belt line that links colour-matched door handles and gives it a progressive stance. At the rear, uniquely shaped, vertical taillights sit between an integrated hatch spoiler and a chunky bumper. But it’s at the front where the Picanto is a real caricature of Kia’s current design language. The corporate tiger-nose grille sits flanked by huge, raked-back headlights and a gaping low air dam finishes the distinctive look. Our tested base-spec LX manual model received some touches not usually found in a sub-$20k vehicle like front fog lamps, colour-coded mirror caps and 14-inch 8-spoke alloy wheels.  

Dimensionally the Picanto remains tiny but has seen a size increase over its predecessor of 60mm to 3.6 metres in length with a 15mm increase to its wheelbase. Luggage capacity has also grown to 200-litres in the hatch, while there’s been no change to height or width compared to the first-gen model. The Picanto is only available in NZ in a five-door body shape.

Into the cabin and while there is no doubt that the Picanto is a budget model it doesn’t look or feel particularly cheap. Everything is well screwed together and plastics feel solid if a touch hard in places. There’s also genuine visual appeal with a thick, two-tone steering wheel and rounded three-gauge instrument cluster. Switchgear is a simple assortment of buttons and knobs and is located close to the steering wheel for easy access. The seats are trimmed in a woven cloth that has a durable feel and doesn’t look bad either. The driver’s chair is height adjustable and well bolstered but may prove too narrow for broad-shouldered drivers on longer trips. In the back seat, legroom is understandably limited but no more than you’d expect, and with compassionate front seat adjustment two adults can ride in relative comfort. The rear door opening is narrow but squeezing through isn’t a major issue.

Standard equipment on the LX ISG Picanto is sharp for the price and includes a CD stereo with full iPod and USB connectivity, air-conditioning, power windows all round, trip computer, remote central locking, daytime running lights and plenty of cup/bottle holders. If you do step up to the higher spec EX model expect additional treats like Bluetooth connectivity, a 6-speaker stereo, reverse parking sensors and electric side mirrors with LED indicators.

Under the bonnet the Picanto’s new 4-cylinder engine is larger than its predecessor. All models in the range are fitted with the 1248cc powerplant from Kia’s Kappa family of motors. This petrol unit produces 64kW of power with 123Nm of torque. The LX base-model features a 5-Speed manual box, while there’s a four-stage auto for both LX and EX variants.

On road, the Picanto is no pocket rocket, but has enough pep to run with regular traffic. It’s best suited to suburban and city blasts but once up to speed it feels settled and content even on the open road. Off the line the 850kg Picanto takes 11 seconds to hit 100km/h with the manual transmission. It needs to be pushed hard to generate any real performance, but as a city car the powertrain is energetic and capable.

The manual gearbox is easy to work with a light clutch and a predictable throw to the gearstick. The manual transmission also comes with the added benefit of Kia’s ISG (Idle Stop Go) technology. Our test Picanto was lavished with graphics advertising the ISG system and Kia have a right to be proud – it’s the first time this fuel-saving tech has been offered in a car at this price point.

The ISG is a stop-start engine management unit that works off clutch input. Pull up at the lights, put the Picanto into neutral, release the clutch and the engine will cut out. Once the light is green, press down the clutch and the engine will restart. It’s a simple system to use and it can easily become habitual. If you’re not into it, a cabin button turns the ISG off and the hatchback will behave like any other. With the ISG system in use the Picanto returns a combined fuel usage figure of just 4.3-litres per 100kms travelled, making it the most efficient petrol-powered car in NZ.

For an A-segment car the Picanto has stable handling characteristics. It uses a MacPherson front strut/coupled torsion beam rear axle set up that makes for a compliant ride. During cornering the Picanto doesn’t feel particularly narrow and keeps nicely balanced, but only to a point, so amateur rallying antics are ill-advised. Kia has put a lot of effort into improving the noise levels in the Picanto and the results are noticeable. Little wind or engine noise enters the cabin, making it one of the smoothest and quietest vehicles in the class.

When it comes to safety the 2011 Picanto is well equipped and features some kit you wouldn’t expect to see in a budget-focused vehicle. There’s an Electronic Stability Control system that works in with the electronic steering for greater stability and includes Traction Control. There’s also ABS braking, Brake Assist and Electronic Braking Distribution. Hill-start Assist Control makes the cut and prevents the car rolling back for two seconds after the driver takes their foot off the brake pedal. The two LX models feature a six-airbag package.

All up, the 2011 Picanto is much improved over its predecessor. It drives well, crests the pinnacle of petrol efficiency and has a dynamically styled, modern appearance. The range of equipment included, even in the base-model, is impressive and Kia’s ability to pack in the ISG system into a sub $20k car deserves to be applauded. Clearly, the Picanto’s diminutive size won’t suit the needs of some buyers but that’s no reflection on the value for money proposition this car offers. If you’re looking for a city runabout and you’re on limited funds then the 2011 Picanto makes a sensible option. Factor in the cheap running costs and Kia’s 5-year/100,000km warranty programme and the Picanto starts to look like the boss of bargain buying.

Price: from $18,590

What we like:

  • ISG system and overall fuel economy
  • Dynamic exterior styling
  • Quality interior fit
  • Capable handling dynamics
  • Safety features

What we don’t like:

  • Narrow front seats
  • Hatch area has very limited space and feels flimsy

Who will buy this car: Young women, older women and any woman in between who only requires limited space and is on a budget. Alternatively the Picanto may find a home with fuel economy enthusiasts.

Cool Factor: Low/Med, it’s a good looker for its class and has some tricks but cars of the Picanto’s size will always struggle for true respect on the streets.

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

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