The Kia Picanto TA was a very good car to start with, and receiving the 2015 MCOTY’ Budget Car Of The Year does say a lot. The reason why I got my Picanto at the time was that it was and still chuffingly fun to drive on the daily, and very cheap to run, too. The interior felt better than most cars in its class, which even in my third year of ownership still look, feels and smells kinda new-ish.
However, there are some drawbacks; the steering is comically large for a car this size and is as responsive as a ship’s wheel. The rear passenger space is miniscule, and the audio system is as powerful as a musical greeting card. What’s most annoying is the lack of Bluetooth connectivity in the simpler Manual variant, which is mine.
I was assigned by the Editor to attend the Media Drive organised by Naza Kia Malaysia to sample the all-new Picanto 1.2 EX (JA) down to Melaka, which I am happy to report that there are plenty of improvements done to the all-new entry-level Kia. The only side affect I got is that I almost wanted to trade my TA Picanto in for this new JA. Here’s why.
The Kia Picanto JA is more of an evolution rather than a revolution to the previous model. It still has those cute looking headlights with LED daytime running lights, this time with LED signal repeaters all housed in a single headlamp cluster. Being a Kia, it has the “Tiger Nose” upper grille design and the large grille below – much like the old model, now in a glossy black finish with chrome trimming. The newly designed front bumper now comes with side air vents that channels air into the front wheel arch for better aero efficiency much like its larger siblings.
Its side profile appears a lot cleaner as well with a less rakish profile, which makes the JA appear a lot more matured than juvenile.
The rear has been completely reworked, with slightly shorter LED rear combination lamps. The reverse light is located at the same spot at the lower left side of the bumper. The tailgate is now wider to allow loading of wide items, and there’s a sharks fin antenna finished in body colour.
And, the only thing that is inherited from the TA is the electric folding side mirror with integrated LED signal repeaters. They are wide enough to see what’s hiding in the blind spot and does the job as well. If it isn’t broken, why replace them.
The dashboard is an all-new design and a new three-spoke sports steering wheel that is a little smaller than the previous model – which is great! The dashboard layout has been tidied up with all of its controls located in the right places, and there’s no struggle in reaching every single one of them. The Picanto JA has an impressively upmarket aura with all of the switches offer solid tactile feedback and within the driver and passenger’s reach.
Interior build quality has seen the most improvement as well; you may not find any soft-touch materials, but the dashboard and interior panels made with high quality plastics, which is sorely lacking in this segment. The synthetic leather wrapped steering wheel feels pleasant to the touch and not overly bulky to hold in your hands with the steering buttons controls and toggles are easy to function.
Ergonomics has been improved as well; the driver gets a height-adjustable seat, plus a tilt only adjustable steering wheel that would fit drivers of different heights and sizes comfortably, and this time able to accommodate drivers with long legs comfortably.
That said, those at the front enjoy a lot more space around their legs, helped by the lower edge of the dashboard being raised by 15mm. The front occupants have a comfortable sitting position and driving position very good all-round visibility.
The seats are comfortable and by class standards they’re pretty good, and even long journeys are tolerable and get to enjoy a little more room at the rear, which has a noticeable difference in interior space.
When it comes to boot space, this is where the JA has now a larger boot compartment with 255-litres, eclipsing the TA’s 200-litre boot capacity previously.
This is an area where the old TA severely lacks; the all-new JA gets a large 7-inch LCD touchscreen with Apple Carplay, Android Auto with the usual radio, USB, AUX and Bluetooth connectivity. The screen is crisp and clear and responds well to inputs.
The software installed is proprietary – unlike clunky and tacky looking third-party software in this class – which is easy to understand and uncomplicated to access all of its apps and functions; even setting up the Bluetooth connectivity to your phone is extremely easy.
No, it’s not elevator music quality anymore in the JA because it now comes with six speakers – two tweeters located at the A pillars and four midrange speakers located in all four doors and are far from sounding like a bedside mono FM radio clock. The speakers can take a lot of abuse without rattling the door panels out to kingdom come with Grime, Trap and EDM streaming from my ageing Samsung Note 3 without any signs of distortion, which I believe majority of the Picanto’s clientele would most likely rock their heads to.
Sound quality is clear, crisp and surprisingly faithful; with Hidden Orchestra’s East London Street (Edit) streaming in extreme quality from Spotify, it goes low providing plenty of punch, and clarity at the top end without signs of clipping at high volumes. The drums are impactful while the percussions did not drown the birds chirping in the background.
The engine is the same 1.25-litre Kappa naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, which makes 83hp at 6,000 rpm and 121.6 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm. But what’s different is that this one runs quieter while providing the same amount of useable grunt much like the one in the TA. The TA has two transmission choices; a four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmission. However it’s the latter that is only available in the JA.
That said, the four-speed auto in the JA is pretty good in delivering drive to the front wheels without much hesitation and drivability, albeit needing a little persuasion to drop a ratio down when overtaking slower vehicles. As tested, the JA Picanto is able to clock 6.7 L/100km combined, which is similar to the TA.
A small car does have some advantages, where navigating through tight spaces is something the Picanto just shrugs away. There’s no problems in looking out and around with minimal blind spots. Parking in and out is super easy, not only because of its small size, but now comes with a reverse camera relaying high-resolution images at high frame rate glory.
Driving on spotty and blemished road surfaces, the Picanto JA rides over them with poise and with a sophisticated sense of isolation from the road beneath. Potholes can’t be felt as much as in the TA yet each vibration is generally made to be remarkably distant, long wave consistency which keeps the occupants cocooned at all speeds made possible thanks to the JA’s 44% improvement in chassis rigidity.
There’s wasn’t much wind and road noise to be heard at higher traveling speeds, and even with the tiny 1.25-litre engine trying its best to please, there wasn’t much to be heard on what’s going on under the hood, which both driver and passenger can have a decent conversation without raising each one’s voices. Refinement is definitely high, which does feel similar to a Hyundai Elantra or a Honda Civic.
The steering is light, direct and quicker with two and a half steer from lock-to-lock, than the previous TA’s three. With a faster steering rack, there’s a little less steering effort needed to steer the little Picanto into places, resulting in a higher agility.
Entry level cars are rarely design to provide diving fun, but the Picanto is the opposite; its small size and lightweight gives it an inherent ‘go-kart’ feel to enthusiastic drivers to enjoy, an area which the TA does pretty well. There’s not much to say about the 83hp engine, which does lacks in throttle response, but with the stiffer chassis makes up that deficit.
Weighing just under a tonne (983kg) the JA does the naught to centennial in 13.2 seconds and tops out at 180km/h on a clear and straight road, with plenty of lateral stability and doesn’t get affected much by the wake generated from far larger busses and lorries sprinting past.
The Picanto JA’s capabilities are manifested on tight, narrow and winding roads through Negeri Sembilan and Melaka. For a small car, having a stringent body control is essential to carrying high speeds through multiple gradient changes. The shocks now limit oscillations a lot tighter without sacrificing compliance, which the roll leading into corners is better contained better as a result. That said the TA’s raucous bunny hops is a thing of the past.
The steering feels crisp and quick away from centre with some feedback from the front tyres without feeling overly weighted and artificial. The Picanto JA feels less front-driven and is balanced with plenty of mechanical grip at the rear axle. Its cat-like agility is hugely influenced from its quick, effortless and telepathic steering leveraging hugely from its stiffened chassis.
Now, if you’re going to ask a partially envious Picanto owner whether RM49,888 plenty of ask for? I think it’s worth the money and almost a steal because you’re paying close to RM7,000 lesser than the automatic TA when new. This is like a really good bowl of instant ramen; rich and hearty broth with chewy noodles all for a very affordable price. It now has a more spacious interior with a cleverly laid out dashboard in an interior that doesn’t feel cheap. The build quality and refinement is evident without having any corners being cut.
With its poised and isolative suspension that hits the right balance between comfort and body control, and with a faster steering rack are the right ingredients for an engaging driving experience, and being a small car, the Picanto JA is a very impressive little car oozing with desirability. Kia has come a long way and I feel that this little Picanto might be in the running for this year’s MCOTY award, and would I actually trade my old TA in? Well, I’m not ready to give it up just yet.
+ Massively improved build quality
+ Above average multimedia system
+ Engaging and fun to drive
+ Handles like a dream
+ Improved body control
+ Slightly more room in the interior
+ Bigger fuel tank
Kia Picanto 1.2 EX (JA)
Price Msia: RM49,888.00
Engine: 1,248cc Kappa MPI DOHC
Fuel Economy: 6.7 l/100km (Tested, Combined)
Transmission: 4-Speed Steptronic Automatic