Car reviews - Kia - Picanto - GT
Sporty styling, pleasing cabin materials, surprising pulling power, relatively sporty steering, city-friendly dimensions, decent body control, well-balanced ride, industry-leading warranty
Room for improvement
Awkward positioning, no automatic transmission, limited advanced driver-assist systems, tight cabin, high road noise, slow straight-line performance, tall gear ratios, understeer
Kia adds some much-needed spice to its dominant Picanto with turbocharged GT
21 Jan 2019
IT’S the model that was destined to fail for Kia, the one that made rival brands giggle when its launch was announced, but nearly three years later, it is the Picanto that’s having the last laugh as it rules the sales charts.
This micro car’s dominance cannot be understated, having commanded a massive 69.0 per cent share of its segment in 2018, which is reason enough for the Korean brand to capitalise on the success and add a new flagship to the Picanto line-up.
The GT is not quite entering hot-hatch territory, but it is armed with a turbocharged petrol engine and a manual transmission, so its foundations are seemingly strong. To find out if the cream really does rise to the top, we put the spiciest Picanto yet through its paces.
The bones have always been there with the pint-sized Picanto for something greater, but its lacklustre engine and transmission combinations have always held it back … until now.
With the arrival of the GT, the Picanto is now available with a legitimate performance focus, according to Kia, and given the upgrades that the flagship variant brings, it’s hard to argue against this point.
Out is the regular Picanto’s lethargic 62kW/122Nm 1.2-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder, with it replaced by a more engaging 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder that produces 74kW at 4500rpm and 172Nm from 1500 to 4000rpm.
This significant boost in output is immediately felt, with maximum torque noticeably arriving early and holding throughout the mid-range, providing a surprising amount of pull all the way along.
However, once peak power quickly comes and goes thereafter, the engine runs out of puff as it approaches its 6000rpm-plus redline, so it pays to stay away from the top end.
While it weighs only 1007kg, the GT doesn’t develop enough power and torque to be truly considered a hot-hatch sleeper, or to even mix it with the warm hatches. Frankly, it’s just too slow in a straight line.
Therefore, the pressure is on for the GT’s engine to have a good dancing partner, and the five-speed manual transmission it takes from the regular Picanto doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.
The GT’s clutch is light and smooth and has a low release point, which are all perfectly acceptable traits for a performance car, but its overly long gearshift throw is the least of its problems.
With only five gears to play with – yes, the year is 2019 and this is not a six-speeder – the GT’s ratios are correspondingly spaced out, which puts a damper on performance.
Shifting to second or third gear is first met with shock as the engine speed drops seemingly too far and forward momentum is stunted.
As a result, if spirited driving is to be approached with any sort of consistency, each of the lower gears must rung out … but then you run the risk of playing in the sluggish top end. You simply cannot win.
So, the obvious solution to this problem is to option the GT’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission … but Kia hasn’t engineered this combination for the Picanto, despite it being frustratingly available in the one-size-larger Rio.
The GT also sets itself apart from the regular Picanto with its sports-tuned electric power steering and MacPherson-strut front and torsion-beam rear suspension, which drops ride height by 15mm.
Kia’s Australian ride and handling team then took to this set-up and remapped the steering for improved responsiveness and stability when under load, while the suspension gained a stiffer spring rate and a more aggressive tune for the shock absorbers.
The end result is pretty good, with the steering proving to be relatively quick, direct and well-weighted while offering decent feel. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
Thanks to its city-friendly dimensions, the GT features a tight turning circle that aids manoeuvrability in all scenarios, such as darting in and out of traffic or negotiating a busy carpark.
The suspension is no different, providing a well-balanced ride despite the baked-in extra firmness. The GT is definitely not as supple as the regular Picanto, but it does manage to soften most bumps and lumps on country roads.
This, of course, sets the GT up to be quite the keen handler through the twisty stuff, with it exhibiting decent body control when pushed hard.
However, understeer continues to be a front-wheel-drive occupational hazard, with dynamics further curbed due to the insufficient grip provided by the stock tyres.
The GT signals its intent with sporty styling that’s punctuated by a red-accented bodykit, which will excite most would-be racers. While the regular Picanto is often viewed as a being a bit cutesy, it certainly still holds visual appeal.
Inside, it’s a familiar story as the GT doesn’t attempt to stand out beyond its branded leather-accented seats with red stitching, piping and accents.
That’s not say it isn’t a pleasant space, as while the GT is undoubtedly built to a price, it uses some of the nicest hard plastics going around today, mimicking a premium look without the material quality.
Nonetheless, being a budget-conscious vehicle, the GT feels a little tinny, especially when opening and closing its lightweight doors. This goes some way in explaining the high level of road noise that penetrates the cabin when cruising at highway speeds.
Being a micro car, the GT does not offer a lot of space, with only adequate legroom and limited headroom provided in the narrow second row, behind our 184cm driving position. Cargo capacity is also compromised, at 255L.
Just like the regular Picanto, the GT is not fitted with reach adjustment for the steering column, a digital speedometer, rain-sensing windshield wipers or satellite navigation, although Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support go some way in making up for the latter.
Furthermore, the GT’s suite of advanced driver-assist systems only extend as far as autonomous emergency braking, a reversing camera and hill-start assist. Granted it is a cost-related move, however lane-keep assist should also be on this list in this day and age.
Speaking of the price, the GT checks in at a very sharp $17,990 driveaway. This is $700 more than the GT-Line that features the aforementioned naturally aspirated engine and a four-speed automatic transmission and misses out on the steering and suspension upgrades.
However, when you consider that the two-sizes-larger Cerato is available for just $2000 more, in entry-level S form, with a more potent (112kW/192Nm) but naturally aspirated engine and a six-speed manual transmission, the GT starts to make less sense.
As always, though, Kia’s industry-leading seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with seven years of capped-price serving and roadside assistance adds plenty of appeal.
It’s evident that the Picanto is a micro car that was designed for the city first, while the GT’s performance focus is secondary in all regards. As such, the GT often presents itself as something it’s not.
Make no mistake, the GT is still a very enjoyable steer, even on less forgiving roads, but it’s just crying out for a better transmission option that will give it the edge it desperately needs.
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Model release date: 1 January 2019
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