Kia Picanto review: tiny turbo brings big smiles in this surprising city car package

Sports-inflected version of urban runaround proves that sometimes simpler is better with its grin-inducing performance

The Kia Picanto must be one of the most surprising new cars I’ve driven this year. I got into it expecting a fairly standard version of the impressive Korean city car and got out with a grin like the Cheshire Cat and a desire to get straight back in and find some more country roads.

Previously I had driven the Picanto with the entry-level 66bhp 1.0-litre and the now-defunct 83bhp 1.25-litre but never sampled the turbocharged 99bhp “monster” that sits at the top of the range. By modern car standards 99bhp is laughable and the 1.0-litre’s 0-62mph time of 9.9 seconds positively glacial but the Picanto proves that sometimes the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

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Apart from the more powerful engine and the GT-Line S’s sporty looks, this Picanto is no different from any other example but find some open roads and it is hilarious fun. The tiny engine is revvy and willing and can be carefully marshalled via the five-speed gearbox to keep it on the boil, allowing you to dart along with surprisingly verve.

Its tiny footprint is designed to make it easy to negotiate packed city roads but let loose on a stretch of open countryside and it helps the Picanto come alive, changing direction with delightful directness and speed. There’s enough communication from the steering to make you feel properly involved and while it’s not as precise or focused as the Volkswagen Up GTI, it’s closer than you’d think.

The Picanto once again proves that you don’t need 300bhp and all-wheel drive to have fun. What you really need is a low kerbweight, skinny tyres and just enough power to make you concentrate on wringing every last drop from the engine. It offers that all-important fun without straying into dangerous speeds.

Of course, that’s well and good on a quiet Sunday when you’ve no particular place to be but this suddenly unlocked fun side to the Picanto doesn’t detract from its basic brilliance as a city car. It’s small enough to nip through traffic but big enough (just) to carry four, and comes with comforts and gadgets that would have been unthinkable in a small car even 10 years ago.

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The interior hasn’t changed since this generation of Picanto was refreshed in 2020. It’s pretty straightforward, with relatively good material quality for the class and a simple layout based around a few key controls on the centre console and an eight-inch touchscreen that’s standard on higher trim levels and offers smartphone mirroring. Also standard on our top-spec test car are faux leather upholstery with red stitching and red flashes on the seat bolsters and a flat-bottomed steering wheel that bring an air of sportiness to things. As with any city car, rear space is tight but there’s decent room up front for even tall drivers, and a class-leading 255-litre boot.

Externally, the GT-Line S gets larger front and rear bumpers with gloss black skid plates, and a rear diffuser housing twin exhaust pipes. The interior’s red trim is echoed in details on the grille, sills and lower rear bumper and there are 16-inch alloys.

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As befits the surprisingly playful sporty nature of the engine, the top-spec engine is only offered in top-spec GT-Line and GT-Line S trims. These both feature all-round LED lighting, parking camera, cruise control and automatic air conditioning, while GT-Line S gets heated front seats and steering wheel, push-button start/stop, wireless phone charger and sat nav and connected services added to the touchscreen. It doesn’t have some of the really high-tech systems of the Toyota Aygo X but leaves that crossover-inspired rival behind in the fun stakes.

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Kia isn’t marketing the turbocharged Picanto as a “proper” hot hatch but it has all the right ingredients and in a world of overweight, overpowered and overengineered beasts it’s a little breath of fresh air that also nails the basic brief of a city car thanks to its compact size and nimble handling.

Kia Picanto 1.0 T-GDi GT-Line S

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Price: £17,400; Engine: 1.0-litre, three-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 99bhp; Torque: 127lb ft; Transmission: Five-speed manual; Top speed: 112mph; 0-62mph: 9.9 seconds; Economy: 53.3mpg CO2 emissions: 120g/km