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CAPE TOWN – Over the past few years, there has been a hive of activity in the local A-segment, with both fresh and refreshed contenders joining the jocund jostle for position … and a few stalwarts bowing out, too.

In addition, a handful of somewhat larger offerings (such as the ubiquitous Volkswagen Polo Vivo, popular Toyota Etios and big-on-value Renault Sandero) have muscled in on the traditional city car's pricing territory, offering more space for similar money, while a couple of crossover variants have also been added to the mix (think cut-price Renault Kwid and charming Suzuki Ignis).

This, then, is Kia's answer to the increasingly stiff and varied competition: the restyled, third-generation Picanto. And the Korean automaker appears to be taking direct aim at the Volkswagen Up! right off the bat, challenging the sophisticated little German for maturity and refinement as it seeks to return to the sales summit of the segment.

Has it grown?

It may not be any larger than its forebear, but with its axles shuffled slightly further apart, the latest version of Kia's smallest offering boasts a smidgen more cabin space and as many as 50 additional litres of luggage capacity (Kia claims a class-leading total of 255 litres, or more than 1 000 with the 60:40 split rear seats folded down). Perhaps more important than a few extra millimetres of wheelbase, though, is the marked improvement in the quality of materials used inside.

While we were afforded access to only the range-topping, kit-filled Smart derivative (read about standard specifications and pricing of the rest of the range here) – besides a short but useful run in the outgoing model – first impressions suggest the fit-and-finish is vastly improved over the already solid second-generation Picanto (which debuted as long ago as 2011), with most surfaces in the new model eminently more pleasing to both the touch and the eye. A further highlight, in addition to the comfortable, dual-tone leather front seats, is the seven-inch colour touchscreen display (supporting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) – again, exclusive to flagship Smart variants – that sits proud of the facia.

This newfound big-car feel extends to the ride, with the latest Picanto delivering both improved road holding and a dash more comfort. While the torsion beam setup has been retained (albeit in a slightly modified form) at the rear, stiffer anti-roll bars and a quicker steering rack help provide the city car with sharper reflexes. On-road refinement, too, is greatly improved (although tyre roar over coarse tarmac is difficult to ignore), with engine noise becoming intrusive only once the tachometer needles heads well into the second half of its available travel.

Engine line-up unchanged

So, what's under the bonnet? Well, the naturally aspirated engine line-up has been carried over from the outgoing range, although the Seoul-based automaker has executed a few tweaks in the name of efficiency. The entry-level 1,0-litre three-cylinder mill now makes 49 kW and 96 N.m (the previous version was worth 51 kW and 94 N.m), while the 1,2-litre four-pot sends 62 kW (down from 65 kW) and 122 N.m (up from 120 N.m) to the front wheels.

Why no 1,0-litre turbo-triple, which has already been announced for other some other markets? Well, Kia's local distributor told us that it was "pushing hard" to bring this 74 kW/172 N.m unit to South Africa at a later stage, but admitted that it would have to come in at somewhat of a premium (and render the forced-induction Picanto far pricier than all of its direct rivals).

Still, the free-breathing 1,2-litre – which out-punches virtually all of its A-segment rivals – has little trouble hauling the sub-1 000 kg Picanto around (and is certainly a better bet than the 1,0-litre should you often venture outside of the city), while the five-speed manual and light clutch-action lend themselves to fuss-free shifting. An ageing four-speed torque converter is also available should you prefer not to use your left foot.

More choice...

The local range has expanded from seven to 11 variants thanks to the addition of a fourth trim level, but Kia Motors SA has managed to keep the pricing bookends largely unchanged. The base model – which now comes standard with an audio system – costs R5 000 more than before (at R134 995), while the R195 995 range-topper can no longer be specified in automatic form (had a self-shifting 1,2-litre Smart derivative been included, we're told, it would have been positioned untenably close to the R215 000-mark).

As many as five of the seven variants in the outgoing range lacked ABS, and Kia Motors SA has thankfully rectified this shortfall in safety – for the most part, anyway. Now, only the three base Start-badged derivatives (each with just a driver's airbag) do without what we believe is an essential safety feature, while the eight other models add a passenger airbag to the mix. Bluetooth, meanwhile, is now standard across the range, but a service plan is unfortunately still a cost extra. That said, the Picanto does pip its rivals in terms of its unlimited kilometre warranty, which stretches as long as five years.

The Smart derivative we drove is impressively equipped, featuring standard items such as LED daytime running lights, LED tail-lamps, LED indicators, electrically folding (heated) side-mirrors, aluminium pedals, rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, 15-inch alloys as well as the infotainment system and leather upholstery mentioned above.


Prospective buyers in this segment are positively spoilt for choice. Sure, the market is due for yet more change – what with the Hyundai i10 soon to be discontinued locally (leaving the Grand i10 to do duty as the Korean automaker’s entry-level model) and the Spark set to exit the stage along with the rest of Chevrolet's wares at the end of 2017 – but the Picanto still faces plenty of competition, both from within the A-segment and outside it.

So, what exactly does Kia Motors SA hope to achieve with its new Picanto? Well, the local distributor has lofty ambitions indeed, boldly aiming to double its monthly sales total to 650 units, which would put the city car at the very top of the A-segment once again.

An achievable target? First impressions suggest it is. You see, the very best contenders in the city car segment offer either a measured maturity (think VW Up!) or outright value (like the well-equipped yet aggressively priced Suzuki Celerio). And the third-generation Picanto has found a pleasing middle ground thanks to an even wider spread of derivatives than before and a notable improvement in comfort, build quality and overall refinement.


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