When you think of hot hatchbacks, it’s typically the Europeans that will come to mind first, with companies like Volkswagen, Peugeot, Renault, and Ford’s European-based ops being the names that helped form and popularise the concept of such fast, practical, and affordable cars.
It might come as a surprise to some, then, that some of the most fun hot hatches out there now are coming out of South Korea. While the Hyundai i30 N is the car that has really helped thrust the country into the performance car arena, its sister company Kia hasn’t been slack in delivering some hot hatches in recent times, too. In fact, the oddly-named and tragically unpopular pro_cee’d GT was arguably the country’s first real attempt at a hot hatch, and a fine first shot, it must be said.
But with most hot hatches these days becoming more technologically advanced and complex than ever – and not to mention more expensive as a result – Kia has come up with a car designed to appeal not just to those on a budget, but to the real driving enthusiasts out there who aren’t afraid to let badge snobbery get in the way of having a good time.
Conforming to the Mk1 Golf GTI’s recipe of putting a powerful engine and stiffer suspension in a small, dirt-cheap hatchback, it has created this – the adorable little Picanto GT, although that pissed-off expression on its face shows that being cutesy isn’t this car’s real aim, because despite being the cheapest hot hatch in the country, this is a car that definitely wants its performance credentials to be taken seriously.
On the surface, the sporty looks with its redesigned fascia, chunky side skirts, twin exhausts, and Union Jack-esque 16-inch wheels all look great but aren’t entirely new to the Picanto, as the marginally cheaper GT-Line variant with the same visual package has been available since last year.
Likewise, the interior is shared with the GT-Line as well, meaning the standard Picanto interior, which would be most kindly described as minimalist, with a few sporty flairs added to complement the exterior.
Its seats have been re-trimmed with faux-leather, including red contrasting strips on the front seat bolsters. There’s plenty of red contrast stitching to liven things up, too, including on the seats, steering wheel, armrests, and shift boot.
Otherwise, you get the same basic instrument cluster, a cut-price seven-inch infotainment system that lacks sat nav but does have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, and… well, that’s about it really, not that there’s much room to fit in anything else.
The interior space is well utilised, however, as you won’t be rubbing shoulders with your pillion passenger as much as you might expect, although good luck fitting adults in the back if you need the front seat as far back as I do – not that you’re buying this car for its chauffeuring abilities.
The real reason you’re buying this thing – and the main thing that differentiates it significantly from the regular Picanto S and GT-Line variants below it – is the way that it drives, as the few extra thousands you’ll spend on one of these all goes under the skin.
Weirdly, it has a smaller engine than the regular Picanto – it’s a microscopic 1.0-litre three-cylinder, compared to the standard 1.25-litre four-pot – but as it’s turbocharged it makes 74kW and 172Nm, which is a proportionally significant power increase. Its tiny engine capacity means it uses next-to-no fuel as well, it should be pointed out, as the 6.4L/100km return I saw after 600km of wringing this thing’s neck is most impressive.
Truly proving that this isn’t some fake attempt at making a hot hatch and is a proper enthusiast car, there’s only one transmission option available, and it’s a proper three-pedal five-speed manual! While personally not a hater of automatic transmissions, hot hatches are one such car where a manual is the only thing that feels truly fitting to me, so it gets a big tick from me there. The lack of basically all other driving aids aside from traction control only adds to how engaging it feels, so as to say that it’s a very retro driving experience in the best way possible.
While I’ve already tried this surprisingly punchy engine in the bigger, heavier Rio GT-Line before, it takes on a whole new character in the Picanto. Given it weighs just a hair over a tonne at a mere 1007kg, the power figures are more than appropriate for something this miniscule.
Perhaps it’s due to the Rio having a seven-speed dual-clutch ‘box that is too eager to upshift and prevent you from winding out this engine, but the five-speed manual helps it feel far more potent here, too. Once you’re past the initial hint of turbo lag, it pulls strongly all the way to redline, and it makes a great off-beat noise while doing so.
The gearbox itself feels great – sure it might only have five gears on offer, but the ratio spacing is spot on, and the click-clack feel of the shifter and the light, easily-judged and appropriately-weighted clutch makes it a real pleasure to row through the gears, whether in traffic or on your favourite backroad.
Of course, in attempting making this feel like a proper ‘GT’ model, the Picanto needs more than just a more brutish engine, and thankfully, it’s been given an appropriately aggressive suspension tune to match. It’s one that’s been done here in Australia, too, as Kia is proud to note that all cars it sells here have been uniquely set up for our roads.
Clearly, ride comfort is playing second fiddle here to making this feel rigid and ready to attack some bends, as its aggressive cornering abilities are rather remarkable. It feels incredibly tight through the corners, with its steering feeling responsive and direct, and very little body-roll to be detected despite it’s potentially top-heavy design.
With that being said, it’s far from uncomfortable, however, with the seats in particular helping to absorb some of the bumps you’d otherwise feel, but you won’t confuse it for a Rolls-Royce any time soon. The same goes in the cabin noise department – it’s far from the most serene environment with a far amount of road, wind, and engine noise intruding into the cabin.
But if you want a stripped-out, manual-shift hot hatchback, you do have to expect some compromises – especially so for the minuscule price that the Picanto GT asks for.
Just $17,990 is all one of these starts from – plus $520 for metallic paint, such as the very fun Signal Red of our tester – with an incredibly reasonable drive-away price of $18,790 listed on Kia’s website right now. If you ask me, that’s an incredible bargain given you’re unlikely to have more fun for less money these days.
Small, simple, light, and agile – if Lotus made a hot hatch, it’d probably feel something like this. If you can handle the badge and don’t mind the diminutive size, you’ll likely see just why I like this thing so much, especially when it’s part of the potential last hurrah in keeping manual ‘performance’ cars alive.
2019 Kia Picanto GT List Price: $17,990 | As Tested: $18,510
- Performance - 7.5/107.5/10
- Ride & Handling - 8.5/108.5/10
- Tech & Features - 7/107/10
- Practicality - 8/108/10
- Value for Money - 8.5/108.5/10
Pros: Punchy engine, great shifter and clutch feel, surprisingly dynamic, you won’t find anything more fun for less money
Cons: A bit basic on the tech front, small boot and rear seat, somewhat noisy cabin
In a nutshell: The cheapest hot hatch in the country is easily one of the most fun.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Kia Motors Australia for a week with a full tank of petrol. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author.