KIA scored a surprise victory in our annual Top 12 awards, scooping the 2005 Best Budget Car (under R75 000) category with its little Picanto. In the process it beat the likes of Volkswagen’s iconic CitiGolf and Toyota’s trusty Tazz. But where does Hyundai’s refreshed Atos fit in? It is, at just under R70 000, the cheapest car on the market with air-conditioning, and also packs many other features. We lined it up against our Top 12 trio, to see whether cold air can blow its rivals away in this comparative test…

Comparative Test DESIGN

Atos               3 stars
Picanto           4 stars
Tazz               3.5 stars
CitiGolf            3.5 stars

OK, so none of these cars is going to win any beauty pageants, but out of the bunch, the Picanto is not only the most modern, but with its chunky details and squirrel grille, also the cutest. The upright and narrow Atos looks like a toaster on wheels, the Tazz like a cleverly refreshed ’80s hatch (which it is) and the CitiGolf like a funkedup ‘70s hatch (which it also is). The alloy wheels you see on the CitiGolf here are optional extras.

But buying a budget car is hardly about style. You want the most car for your money. In that sense the Tazz remains hard to beat. Being based on a larger platform, it is the most spacious of the bunch. Rear legroom is still tight, but good compared with the competition. The Atos is essentially a four-seater because it is so narrow. Rear legroom is also very cramped but, courtesy of its high roof, headroom is very good, which is great if you’ve got a Marge Simpson hairstyle. But for rear passengers the most uncomfortable of the lot is the CitiGolf. The rear seat is mounted very high, with the result that heads are very likely to knock against the roof. And the Picanto? Well, it can’t quite match the Tazz, but it comes a fair bit closer than you’d think.

In terms of interior design, the most modern car, the Picanto, is the best. Its facia hangdown section is tilted slightly towards the driver, and contains smart rotary controls for the ventilation system and, if fitted, the optional radio/CD player. There are many hidey holes; an open shelf just above the cubby, a hole on the hangdown section, and another next to the steering wheel, as well as a larger tray underneath. Although the steering wheel, is not adjustable, and the seat’s height is fixed, the clever placement of the controls mean that the driving position will be comfortable for most. It also has a driver’s footrest. The tiny boot measures 112 dm³, and can be expanded to 776 by folding the one-piece rear backrest.

The Tazz’s facia is the only one here to have a soft-touch moulding, which does counter the dated looks with a higher quality appearance compared with the rivals. The latest models also have an attractive steering wheel. The controls are as you’d expect, but the Toyota does not have a dipping rear view mirror, or door and seatback pockets. In fact, it only has small storage spaces on the hangdown section and in the centre console. It has the biggest boot (216 dm³), and total utility space measures 968 dm³.

As mentioned before, the Atos is very narrow, so rubbing shoulders with your front passenger will be impossible to avoid. The facia is basically unchanged from the previous model, and is still executed in cheap-looking grey plastic. It is also the one most likely to leave the driver feeling cramped, because the seat doesn’t go back far enough, and lacks bolstering. It does have enough storage spaces, though, with door pockets fitted all round as well as seatback pockets and trays underneath the front seats. The rear seats are split 50:50 and don’t only fold, but tumble forwards separately. The boot measures 176 dm³ and can be expanded to 888.

Volkswagen gave the CitiGolf a new facia last year, and this dramatically improved the car’s cabin appearance. The centre console has two drinkholders and a 12V power outlet. The CitiGolf’s boot measures 200 dm³, and the nonsplit rear backrest folds to increase usable space to 752. A parcel shelf provides some protection against the sun… and prying eyes.

Comparative Test COMFORT AND FEATURES

Atos               4 stars
Picanto           4 stars
Tazz               3 stars
CitiGolf           3 stars

The Atos is the clear winner here. Not only does it offer air-conditioning (which was very welcome on the particularly scorching test day), but also electric front windows, front foglights, remote central locking, power steering and a rear window wash/wipe. However, the central locking feature was problematic – it locks the doors as soon as the key is inserted in the ignition. And it left us stranded, with camera equipment left in the boot, when the car decided to lock itself while being washed. The Atos also has adjustable front seatbelts, remote adjustable side mirrors, and grab handles in the roof.

The Tazz has almost no features at all – you have to put your hand out of the window to adjust the mirrors, there is no remote fuel flap release and its rear window is heated, but has no wipe/wash facility. It does have adjustable seatbelts and an immobiliser, though.

The CitiGolf fares little better and offers a manual gearlock, immobiliser, remote adjustable mirrors, rear-manual view mirror with dipping function, heated rear window with a wiper, and adjustable instrument brightness. It has no grab handles in the roof.

The Picanto cannot match the Atos for comfort equipment, but does have one ace up its sleeve… a driver’s side airbag, which, combined with its more modern design, should make it the safest car here. It also has central locking, an immobiliser, adjustable side mirrors, a rear foglight, and a latch to open the rear hatch from the outside.

Do the added features make the Atos a significantly more comfortable car to drive? It certainly is on a hot day! The air-conditioner works very well, and, combined with power steering, it means driving, and parking, are not sweaty jobs. In the CitiGolf, however, a hot day is a nightmare, because the steering is heavier than the others, and the facia’s revised ventilation outlets still don’t get enough fresh air to the occupants, even if it’s hot air... The Tazz is a little better, because the steering is not so heavy and its ventilation system more effective. The Picanto’s steering is so light that some testers thought it had power assistance.

Save for the air-conditioning, and perhaps the power steering, there is, however, nothing that makes the Atos more comfortable to drive. Its high seating position, combined with the car’s narrow and upright proportions, gives a top-heavy feel. The seats have almost no lateral support, and tall drivers will struggle to find a comfy seating position because the seats do not slide back far enough. But you can’t deny its features, and, as a result, we’ll call it a draw between the Atos and Picanto.

Comparative Test PERFORMANCE AND BRAKING

Atos               3.5 stars
Picanto           4 stars
Tazz               4 stars
CitiGolf           4 stars

The engine-room battle is split into two camps; the modern minis are powered by small 1,1-litre fourcylinder engines and the older cars by 1,3- and 1,4-litre carburettor- fed four-cylinder units.

The Hyundai’s engine develops 45 kW at 5 500 r/min and 87 N.m of torque at 3 000. The engine that powers the Picanto has figures of 49 kW at 5 500 r/min and 99 N.m at a nice and low 2 800.

The second most powerful car is the CitiGolf – its engine develops 54 kW at 5 600 r/min and 108 N.m of torque at 3 800, which is actually better than the Tazz’s 103 N.m at 4 200. The Toyota, however, has more kilowatts (55 kW developed at a fairly high 6 200 r/ min). All the cars send their power to the front wheels via five-speed manual transmissions.

Performance-wise, the cars are pretty closely matched. The Tazz and Picanto are the fastest (top speeds of 159 km/h), followed by the Citi (156 km/h) and the Atos (150 km/h). The Atos, however, already reaches its top speed in fourth gear, meaning fifth is mostly there for economy. It also means that the Atos struggles on overtaking acceleration at around 120 to 140 km/h in its top gear. But up to fourth it actually manages to keep up with the others.

Our performance times for the CitiGolf are estimates, as we were not able to secure a test car, and had to make do with a dealer demo. But even so, our calculations show that the Volkswagen is likely to be the fastest to 100 km/h, in just over 14 seconds. Then it is the Tazz (14,11 seconds), the Picanto (14,46) and the Atos (15,42).

All the cars have a front disc/ rear drum brake set-up, but the Atos and Picanto have ventilated front discs. Still, the Atos performed the worst of the bunch! The two right wheels locked up easily during our emergency brake test routine (10 stops, 100 km/h to zero), and the times were not very consistent either – ranging from 3,34 to 4,02, and achieving an average of 3,66 seconds.

The Picanto and Tazz achieved identical times (3,6 seconds) and the CitiGolf was marginally better (3,54 seconds). Its time is taken from the Citi.com we tested in February 2004.

From behind the wheel, the Picanto has the most grown-up and fuss-free feel – gearshifts are slick, and although the power output doesn’t look like much on paper, it is spread well between the gears.

The Tazz has a very sporty engine sound, but still has the occasional flat-spot when accelerating hard. Gearshifts are fine, but the lever will baulk through the gate if very quick changes are attempted.

Performance is not something that will spring to mind when driving the Atos, but it keeps up well with fast-moving traffic. A rev counter would have been particularly welcome in this car, because the engine sounds quite buzzy at the best of times, making it hard to figure out exactly where in the power band you are.

The Citi remains a nippy little car to drive, but with its offset gear gate and floor-mounted throttle pedal, it does remind you of its age.

Comparative Test RIDE AND HANDLING

Atos
Picanto
Tazz
CitiGolf

Your typical budget car buyer is not too concerned about gravitydefying handling or thrilling steering feedback. Here the emphasis is on comfort and safe, predictable handling. The CitiGolf has for a long time been the most entertaining to drive, but only once it gets going. At low speeds, the steering is too heavy and the ride too stiff compared with the others. With its relatively soft suspension, the Tazz is the polar opposite. It soaks up bumps and is certainly the more comfortable car to drive. But it’s not as good at providing entertainment as the CitiGolf.

The upright Atos is hampered by its narrow track, and gets pushed around by winds quite a lot. Also, cornering is not its strongest attribute. The Hankook tyres do not have a lot of grip, and the top heavy feel will quickly get you to back off. But the ride is actually good, courtesy of the relatively long-travel suspension.

The Picanto has a good compromise between comfortable ride quality and non-wobbly handling. Its steering is usefully light at low speeds, and still gives good enough feel at higher speeds.

Comparative Test FUEL ECONOMY

Atos               4 stars
Picanto           4.5 stars
Tazz               3 stars
CitiGolf            3.5 stars

The figures tell the story. The Picanto is the most frugal (6,86 litres/100 km). This gives it a range of over 500 km on its small 35-litre tank. The Atos also rates as economical, with a figure of 7,26 litres/100 km. The two older cars, with their larger capacity engines were always going to struggle to match the Koreans in this area. The CitiGolf’s 8,4 litres/100 km is, however, quite a bit better than the Tazz’s 9,24 litres/100 km, which is simply too high.

Comparative Test VALUE FOR MONEY

Atos               4 stars
Picanto           4.5 stars
Tazz               3 stars
CitiGolf            3.5 stars

At R69 900, the Atos offers quite a lot of features at the price. But there are things to keep in mind, of which the fact that it is essentially a four seater is perhaps the most important. It is also the car here that feels least substantial, and although actual build integrity seems fine (it is put together in India), the plastics look cheap and will show wear quickly.

The Tazz costs R73 242, the most expensive of these cars, and offers the least features. It is, however, the biggest car, and has proven mechanicals. The CitiGolf 1,4 Chico is the cheapest (R66 270) and matches the Tazz on features, so is a better value for money buy. Resale values for both the VW and the Toyota are good.

The Picanto also offers good value for money… particularly if you are concerned about safety. It is the only car with an airbag, and is priced at R69 995. In all measurable aspects it is a better car than the Atos. If the Picanto had air-conditioning as standard, there would be no reason to buy the Atos at all!

Comparative Test VERDICT

Atos               3.5 stars
Picanto           4 stars
Tazz               3 stars
CitiGolf            3 stars

First to fall out is, surprisingly perhaps, the Tazz. It is the most expensive of the lot, uses the most fuel, and has the least features. In the past much was made about the car’s reliability and Toyota’s legendary after-sales service. We still think it will be very reliable, but the brand’s relatively poor J D Power survey rating has shown that some complacency may have started to set in…

The CitiGolf is next to go. It may be the cheapest, but it also has very few features and is, to put it bluntly, a pain to drive in traffic. And pity the poor passengers banished to that rear seat…

Next up is the Atos, a car not many of the testers expected to perform so well, but the creature comforts of air-conditioning, power steering and electric windows, at a very affordable price, do help it to score valuable points. As a city car it is hard to beat, because it’s easy to park, has a comfy ride, the air-con keeps you cool, and it uses little fuel. We don’t like the looks, on the inside or the outside, and the handling is pretty poor, but as we’ve said, that’s hardly a priority.

The Picanto remains the best buy here. It has no real flaws, is the most modern of the lot, uses the least fuel, and seems very well screwed together, so even taking Kia’s dismal J D Power result (survey excluded the Picanto) into account, we have no hesitation in advising buyers in this price range to test drive one of these little Kias.