MY MAMMA Maria says the best way to judge a pizza place is by its Margherita.
Get that humble classic’s tomato, mozzarella, basil, olive oil and salt recipe right and the rest of the menu invariably follows.
Experience suggests that the same rule applies to car makers.
If the base model delivers then the ones with extra toppings should too.
Kia is driving proof. Back in 2004 the original Picanto actually did have the power – as well as the packaging and dynamics – to surprise finicky European city-car buyers, being the brand’s first genuinely class-competitive offering and its entree to international respectability. Eventually most other models followed suit, and the forthcoming Stinger GT heralds an exciting next chapter.
The Korean baby took 12 years to get here, but when the (second-gen TA-series) Kia Picanto did finally did appear, it made waves with keen pricing ($15K drive-away with auto), smart styling and a generous equipment level.
The surprises keep rolling in from Kia because barely 12 months on there’s already a new Picanto, with only the previous model’s powertrain carrying over. Same length and width as before to meet home-market tax regs, but the body and cabin have been overhauled and the wheelbase stretched for improved rear seat and cargo space. Also new are a reversing camera and speed limiter functionality for its cruise control system, while four-wheel disc brakes, rear parking sensors, auto headlights and an industry-best seven-year warranty remain segment exclusives.
Probably the Picanto’s most interesting addition is a manual offering at last, and not only because it ought to be more fun than the four-speed auto alternative. Starting from $14,190, adding on-road costs nudges that towards the auto’s $15,690 drive-away, though Kia insists its dealers will talk turkey at “under $14K drive-away” for the Pic with a stick. Confused?
Not as much as the beguiling MF-series Ignis, which revives a badge previously seen last decade on a cheerless hatch. Inexplicably, it’s also classified as a ‘light’ SUV because there’s 180mm of ground clearance. That’s 38mm – or two fingers’ width – over a Picanto’s.
The manual Ignis GL (the 70s themes don’t end with the design) kicks off from $15,990, but does usher in this trio’s only integrated sat-nav (instead of relying on smartphone apps via Apple CarPlay/Android Auto tech), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the largest luggage capacity here at 271 litres.
Both newbies are here to battle the MP-series Holden Spark, which in LS auto guise edged out the previous Picanto and charming Suzuki Celerio in our last micro-car stoush. Korean-built, German-engineered and Aussie-enhanced (by a significant amount, scoring local suspension, steering and powertrain tunes), Holden’s sub-B supermini has still yet to fire on the sales charts despite enticing pricing ($13,990) and recent spec improvements, gaining cruise control but still no reverse camera (it’s a $550 option).
So is The General’s moppet fit enough to fend off fresh challengers from the same brands this time around? We’ll see.
The Picanto’s nuggety exterior styling is reflected inside, majoring in all the functionality fundamentals such as space, seat comfort, driving position, instrumentation clarity, switchgear ease, ventilation effectiveness and storage capability, while excelling with many of the minor details as well. That chunky wheel’s feel. The clarity and consistency of all the markings. The simplicity of the central touchscreen. The trim’s appearance. They’re all deftly executed. The same applies out back, due in no small part to wide doors that allow unencumbered entry, a substantial cushion, sufficiently angled backrest and mood-lifting brightwork.
Whining about the forward-protruding front headrests and sheeny dash top seems like nitpicking. Nobody would feel short-changed in Kia’s smallest.
Size, meanwhile, is the Suzuki’s strongest suit, outstripping all with the longest wheelbase here at 2435mm (35mm and 50mm up on the Picanto and Spark respectively); along with a tall turret and expansive glass, it all translates into the largest and roomiest cabin of the trio. Arguably the company’s most mature to date, the chic dash also wins praise due to a welcoming mix of the interesting and the instinctive, blending uncomplicated design and pleasing textures with everyday usability. Clearly much thought went into making a favourable impression inside.
But not even English tabloid readers are gullible enough to believe they’re in an SUV, particularly as the driver won’t be able to raise the GL’s seat to take advantage of all that headroom. And while the rear is generous in its padding and knee space, there just isn’t enough cushioning to keep posteriors from being pounded by the stiff suspension. It’s a real lost opportunity for the Suzuki to hammer home its dimensional advantage.
The Holden Spark, too, is a cabin of two halves, but for different reasons to the Ignis. All grown-up and with a solid, Germanic ambience with Opel rather than Daewoo written all over it (unlike the previous version), the Holden’s dash offers an appealing no-nonsense sturdiness. Getting comfy behind that familiar GM parts-bin steering wheel is a cinch, nothing is too much of a stretch, the flow of air is fierce via massive vents (with the force to freeze fingers), the front seats are supportive and the six-speaker audio the best on test.
But why did the designers give up past the first row? Dinky back doors make access tricky for larger folk (despite ample space once seated). The surroundings are drab; the backrests too upright; the cushion somewhat flat (if quite lofty); and noise intrusion more noticeable than in the others. Conversation can even get shouty at highway speeds. A curious contrast inside then, since the Spark is both the most refined and cushiest-riding up front.
Perhaps it’s the larger-capacity powertrain that contributes to that first-row refinement. A new-gen design, the Holden’s 73kW/128Nm 1.4-litre twin-cam four-cylinder Ecotec is characterised by smoothness from low revs, with power delivered in an eager and linear manner.
Still, considering the freshness of the Spark’s heart, we hoped for a stronger showing. It’s only 0.1sec faster than the Picanto, and absolutely throttled by the speedy Ignis, which at 10.6sec is a full second quicker to 100km/h.
We suspect a dead spot in the Spark at about 4000rpm is to blame, where torque levels taper off, though it does pick up again by 5600rpm, and will pull energetically to the 6600rpm cut-out. Did GM design this engine mainly around a turbo, before spinning off an atmo version later on? Luckily the gear shift is super sure and positive, perhaps the loveliest ever in a front-drive Holden.
Almost a decade old now, Kia’s 62kW/122Nm 1.2-litre belies its age with a fizzy willingness from the get-go up to nearly 7000rpm, snapping at the Spark’s heels as long as the driver rows that slick little lever along. Which is no hardship.
There’s a consistency to the Picanto’s power delivery that reflects the rest of the car, exceeding expectations just enough to impress. Mid-range acceleration isn’t only spirited, it’s also easy on the ear as well. That the fuel consumption is 0.3 litres per 100km more miserly than the Spark means the years haven’t wearied the hatch with the oldest powertrain here.
Yet the honours for both performance and economy go to the experts in small car engineering, Suzuki.
The Ignis’ 66kW/120Nm K12C four-pot punches above its weight (resulting in 80kW per tonne against 75kW for Spark and 62kW for Picanto) and delivers its muscular yet honey-coated kick right off the line, with seamless squirt right up to the 6300rpm ceiling. Mid-range responses are equally energetic, imbuing a sheen of well-oiled goodness that makes the price premium worthwhile on its own. Particularly when factoring in a leading 6.4L/100km consumption average, garnered while wringing the bejesus out of the beaut 1.2. Who needs turbos? Or CVT autos. The fluid five-speed manual shifter is a joy, too.
Initially at least, the Ignis’ synthesis of sass, space, spec, speed and parsimony squared it up as the front runner by a country mile – an ironic metaphor, sadly, since deteriorating rural roads subsequently exposed worrying cracks. Only settled on the glassiest surfaces, the ride went from stiff to smarting, with the suspension transmitting bumps and jolts ceaselessly, provoking vociferous complaints from the back seat.
Then there’s the steering. At 3.6 turns lock-to-lock, the payoff is a tiny turning circle for effortlessly light inner-urban manoeuvrability. But beyond the tight confines, at speed, the rack’s ratio switches from relaxed to nervous, prompting constant corrections.
Finally, the Dunlop Enasave tyres are high on noise and low on grip, resulting in the worst (wet) braking distances. A fast dynamic rethink is in order, Suzuki.
Perhaps the Japanese engineers ought to visit their one-time affiliates Holden at Lang Lang proving ground in Victoria, because the Spark is nearly the polar opposite of the Ignis dynamically.
The steering, for starters, provides a sense of reassured control, for handling that’s both agile through tight city streets and four-square-secure at speed on the open road, underpinned by a decent amount of feedback and isolation in the process. Plus, upping the ante across fast rural roads also reveals a decent level of suspension discipline, most evident in the Holden’s ability to ably soak up a wide range of craggy surfaces. Sure there’s some firmness down there, but there is none of the Japanese car’s harshness. For overall finesse, this clearly feels a class up.
And the Picanto isn’t too far behind the Spark either. If anything, the helm is a little more agile and responsive, though the Spark’s satisfying poise isn’t quite there, with slightly more body movement.
Still, the Kia has a spry yet equallysure-footed nature that makes it the most fun and alert of the trio, highlighting a decent degree of Australian-road tuning going on. And because the ride is sufficiently absorbent as well as the quietest here, comfort is the best for all occupants overall.
Ultimately, the combination of the Picanto’s accommodation, performance, efficiency and dynamics haul in the still-impressive Spark, and the Kia’s exceptional design, presentation, value and aftersales support propel it ahead. What last year’s model threatened to do, the new version achieves, with verve.
Driven benignly on smooth bitumen, virtues like design, packaging and efficiency prove that the Ignis has the right ingredients. But insufficient steering and suspension development for our roads sour the Suzuki experience.
As the company’s Margherita model then, the Picanto bodes well for future Kias with lots more toppings. Let’s hope it has an, ahem ... domino effect.