Anyone who’s ever played Gran Turismo has a soft spot for turbocharged Kei cars like the Suzuki Alto Works or Daihatsu MIRA TR-XX Avanzato R – sub-1000kg ankle-biters that never came to Australia but aroused the fast car imagination regardless.
It was with these cars in mind we learned of the new Kia Picanto GT, a micro-class car with a turbo three-cylinder, direct-injected, twin-cam engine, five-speed manual, front-wheel drive and a dash of styling mongrel. With a GT badge comes expectations – after all, in the world of Kia, the GT moniker has been reserved for properly respectful devices such as the 272kW twin-turbo V6 rear-drive Stinger, or the late, Michelin-shod Proceed GT, one of the most underappreciated hot hatches we’ve driven in recent times.
In giving its pint-sized Picanto the GT treatment, Kia has fitted a 1.0-litre triple with an itty-bitty single-scroll turbo, stiffened the suspension and remapped the electric power steering. It only comes with a five-speed manual, no auto, which works to the Picanto GT’s advantage in our books, but will seriously limit its sales potential. Outputs are 74kW and 172Nm, and you might guess that it does weigh 900kg, but actually it’s 1007kg, quite portly for a car this size (a Suzuki Swift Sport is a class of car larger and 970kg). Indeed the Picanto GT’s 73kW/tonne is the lowest power-to-weight ratio of any car we would ever test in MOTOR magazine – by quite a margin.
But that’s okay. Cult classic performance cars are born when the engineers sneak a cheeky chassis tune past the execs, and it was with this optimism we slid into the Picanto’s compact and neatly laid-out interior, rubbing shoulders (literally) with our passenger (who was not helping the power-to-weight ratio).
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Our mind raced with optimism. Perhaps the puny Picanto has a playful chassis and loves to dance? Perhaps the engineers have really brought the personality out of that turbo triple? Could Kia have snuck a cult new-age Kei car on to the Australian market, a car that will have its own forum and owners’ club in five years?
Well, we quickly learned the answer to all those questions, and it starts with an “n”.
Let’s get one thing out of the way early, the Picanto GT is fun – once you’ve got it moving. It is seriously slow; Kia doesn’t quote a 0-100km/h time and for good reason – you’d need a calendar. We would estimate well over 10 seconds, somewhere around the 11.0sec mark. A Toyota 86, a supposedly underpowered car, will hit 100km/h in about 7.2 seconds. Mums in V6 RAV4s will be picking you off at the lights while smacking their kids in the back seat and not even realising.
There’s a thrummy, characterful three-cylinder engine that sounds great, right? Sort of. There certainly is a nice thrum low in the revs, and a bit of turbo whistle under load, but the Picanto GT shuns any sort of rorty exhaust. What engine noise does exist is soon drowned out by the tyres and wind as speed rises. Cracks, pops on the overrun? No chance. However, we steadfastly believe an awesome three-cylinder note is buried in there somewhere – an aftermarket exhaust on this car would be worth the money.
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Once the little five-door Picanto has piled on a bit of speed, it’s fun, in a hire car kind of way. The 195/45R16 Nexen N’Blue eco tyres hang on optimistically, but it’s always the fronts that give up first. If you enjoy friendly, easy understeer, you’ll enjoy belting this car. And you’ll never wear out the tyres or brakes given how much it weighs.
We asked Kia’s Australian suspension guru Graeme Gambold about the chassis tune, and why it wasn’t more playful, and he said they were limited by the stock rear torsion beam which can’t be stiffened easily – limiting the possible stiffness of the front end, too. And so an understeer bias was unavoidable.
You also can’t turn the ESC all the way off and it has a very conservative tune, intervening aggressively when you try to poke the Picanto GT into doing something a little naughty. It’s well before this point the Picanto is wondering what it’s done to deserve such abuse, but also it seems to secretly enjoy it.
It’s a shopping trolley with a bit of grip, basically.
GALLERY: See more of the 2019 Kia Picanto GT in the gallery above
How to improve the Picanto GT for a keen driver? Where do we begin? More power (an 88kW version of this engine exists in the Rio, but possibly with a bigger turbo), better tyres, a more neutral chassis balance, ESC with a Sport mode or that can be turned off, a sports exhaust. Better gearing, too, as the five-speed manual’s first two ratios are short and close, but there’s a yawning gap to third seeing you fall right out of the power band every time you shift into this gear. And this is not a car in which you want to be falling out of the power band…
In fairness if you made all those changes, you’d have a $25K car without anywhere near the polish of even the worst baby hot hatch. And that’s one thing to really dig about the Picanto GT, its price – $17,990, driveaway, is pretty sharp.
You get a good amount of gear for that. Nice leather steering wheel (most of the interior materials are hard, scratchy, cheap plastics), seven-year warranty, it looks kind of cool, active emergency braking, six airbags, reversing camera, cruise control, automatic headlights, alloy pedals, 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto… there’s a lot of kit for the money. And it would be seriously cheap to run, with a claimed combined fuel consumption of 4.8L/100km. In fact, of all the things you could do with a Picanto GT it might just be the most fun seeing how low you can get the fuel economy. Maybe that’s just us…
The Picanto GT would be a good, honest runabout car that fits five people at a pinch, is comfortable enough, is easy to get into parking spots and gives you a little cackle when hurled through a roundabout. But modern day turbo Kei car – future cult classic hot hatch – of the ilk that might appear in a future driving game? Unfortunately not.
2019 KIA PICANTO GT SPECS
Engine: 998cc inline-3, turbocharged, DOHC, 12v
Drivetrain: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power: 74kW @ 4500rpm
Torque: 172Nm @ 1500-4000rpm
0-100km/h: 11.0sec (estimate)
Top speed: 180km/h (estimate)
Price: $17,990 (driveaway)
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars