Minority Retort

TWO FRESH PLAYERS TAKE ON THE REIGNING CHAMP TO SEE WHICH TOPS OUR NOW-ANNUAL MICRO CLASS MATCH-UP

WORDS BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS PHOTOS NATHAN JACOBS

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) 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 driveaway” 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

THE KIA AND SUZUKI NEWBIES ARE HERE TO BATTLE THE KOREAN-BUILT, AUSSIE-ENHANCED HOLDEN SPARK

Lens flair

Cameras are the new black in baby hatchbacks, with each car here boasting one (albeit as a $550 option in the Spark) plus Apple CarPlay/ Android Auto and cruise control (with speed limiter on the Ignis and Picanto). Too bad none offer a digital auxiliary speedometer or AEB – even though the Volkswagen Up did as standard in 2012.

Calling all sub-Bs…

MG returned to Oz last year with the intriguing MG3, and we requested one of the 78kW/137Nm 1.5-litre test – but were politely limitations. Many brands elsewhere, including Twingo), Toyota (Aygo), Brio), Ford (Ka), and 108). The unavailability suitable auto prematurely the VW Up and Panda’s chances in Australia, while the Picanto’s Hyundai i10 cousin was considered but rejected on cost grounds. Shame.

KIA PICANTO

Picanto’s surprise and delight features include Volkswagenesque retractable cupholders, actual buttons on the centre touchscreen and soft cloth seat inserts that add warmth.

Aluminium trim, damped grab handles and long door armrests further contribute to a delightful ambience, while out back this is the quietest of the trio. But the new Picanto has lost the previous version’s front seatbelt height adjustment and the rear cushions no longer tip forward for a super-flat floor. Boot space is 255 litres.

SUZUKI IGNIS

Stylish, contemporary dash with tablet-style floating central touchscreen and vivid contrasting colours lift an already spacious interior, with wide door apertures providing easy entry and egress.

Terrific vision, crisp dials, a classy wheel and storage galore are further cabin plus points. But no driver’s seatheight adjustment seems provocatively stingy. Stepping up to the GLX brings this, and a two-seater rather than three-seater split rear bench with individual sliding capability. Boot size is 271 litres in GL, 264 litres in GLX.

HOLDEN SPARK

Functional, mature dash makes Spark feel very grown up in this company. It also introduced now-widespread Apple CarPlay/Android Auto to the segment. Minus points include a small glovebox, no auto-down function for the driver’s power window (at least they’re electric, unlike the rears), difficult-to-read instrumentation markings and a luggage cover that won’t always drop when the tailgate closes, blocking rear vision.

Holden is now alone with a rear cushion that tips forward for a deeper cargo area. Boot volume is meagre 185 litres.

THE SPARK FEELS ALL GROWN UP, WITH A SOLID GERMANIC AMBIENCE THAT HAS OPEL WRITTEN ALL OVER IT

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 shortchanged 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 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 firstrow 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

Wheels baby annual

This is our fourth baby comparo in as many years, so we’re not about sexy cars. In 2015 the then sanely priced Fiat 500 pipped sweet Suzuki Celerio and crushed lacklustre Nissan Micra, while Spark versus previous-gen Picanto and Celerio match-up saw the win – just. The only other micro contender nowadays – Mitsubishi’s underachieving Mirage – came a distant last in our 2014 B-segment shootout, we couldn’t revisit that car again. aro just hen the shed the e last year’s anto Holden ro class ishi’s e such gment sedan

THE KIA’S 62KW 1.2 BELIES ITS AGE WITH FIZZY WILLINGNESS UP TO NEARLY 7000RPM

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 equally sure-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 stillimpressive 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.

HOLDEN SPARK LS KIA PICANTO S SUZUKI IGNIS

Power-to-weight: 62kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/6750rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 96 Speed in gears* 48km/h @ 6500rpm 89km/h @ 6500rpm 142km/h @ 6500rpm 165km/h @ 5750rpm 165km/h @ 4600rpm Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.1sec 0-40km/h: 2.5sec 0-60km/h: 4.9sec 0-80km/h: 7.6sec 0-100km/h: 11.7sec 0-120km/h: 17.4sec 0-140km/h: 25.2sec 0-400m: 18.0sec @ 122.0km/h Rolling acceleration 80-12Okm/h: 9.8sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 40.9m

Performance Power-to-weight: 75kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/6600rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 97 Speed in gears* 49km/h @ 6500rpm 96km/h @ 6500rpm 150km/h @ 6500rpm 185km/h @ 6400rpm 185km/h @ 5100rpm Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.2sec 0-40km/h: 2.5sec 0-60km/h: 4.9sec 0-80km/h: 7.4sec 0-100km/h: 11.6sec 0-120km/h: 16.6sec 0-140km/h: 23.5sec 0-400m: 17.9sec @ 124.4km/h Rolling acceleration 80-12Okm/h: 9.2sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 42.4m

Power-to-weight: 80kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6200/6300rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 94 Speed in gears* 47km/h @ 6200rpm 87km/h @ 6200rpm 134km/h @ 6200rpm 181km/h @ 6200rpm 190km/h @ 5100rpm Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.2sec 0-40km/h: 2.6sec 0-60km/h: 4.7sec 0-80km/h: 6.9sec 0-100km/h: 10.6sec 0-120km/h: 15.0sec 0-140km/h: 23.4sec 0-400m: 17.5sec @ 129.5km/h Rolling acceleration 80-12Okm/h: 8.0sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 44.0 $13,990/Tested $14,690** Drivetrain Engine in-line 4, dohc, 16v Layout front engine (east-west), front-drive Capacity 1399cc Power 73kW @ 6200rpm Torque 124Nm @ 4400rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Chassis Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats L/W/H/W–B 3595/1595/1476/2385mm Front/rear track 1410/1418mm Weight 969kg Boot capacity 185 litres (SAE) Fuel/capacity 91 octane/32 litres Fuel consumption 6.9L/100km (test average) Suspension Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: torsion beam, coil springs Steering electric rack-and-pinion Turning Circle 9.6m (2.8 turns lock-to-lock) Front brakes ventilated discs (256mm) Rear brakes drums (200mm) Tyres Continental ContiEcoContact5 Tyre size 165/65R14 Safety NCAP rating (Aus) $14,190/Tested $14,710** in-line 4, dohc, 16v front engine (east-west), front-drive 1248cc 62kW @ 6000rpm 122Nm @ 4000rpm 5-speed manual steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 3595/1595/1485/2400mm 1406/1415mm 995kg 255 litres 91 octane/35 litres 6.6L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: torsion beam, coil springs electric rack-and-pinion 9.4m (2.7 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (256mm) solid discs (234mm) Kumho Ecowing ES01 175/65R14 Not available $15,990/Tested $15,990 in-line 4, dohc, 16v front engine (east-west), front-drive 1242cc 66kW @ 6000rpm 120Nm @ 4400rpm 5-speed manual steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 3700/1660/1595/2435mm 1460/1470mm 820kg 271 litres 91 octane/32 litres 6.4L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: torsion beam, coil springs electric rack-and-pinion 9.4m (3.6 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (230mm) drums (180mm) Dunlop Enasave EC300+ 175/65R15 Not available 1 2 3 4 5

Verdict 7.0/10 7.5/10 6.5/10

Value; handling; performance; design; comfort; aftersales care Headrests protrude forward; AEB not available; no Euro 1.0 turbo Track: Heathcote raceway, cool, damp. Temp: 13ºC.

Driver: Byron Mathioudakis.

Warranty: 7yr/unlimited km.

Service interval: 12 months/15,000km.

Glass’s 3-year resale: 46%. AAMI Insurance: $638 *Estimated **Includes metallic paint ($520) Responsive steering and handling; good ride; refined cabin; maturity Noisy in the back; rear camera not standard; AEB not available Track: Heathcote raceway, cool, damp. Temp: 13ºC.

Driver: Byron Mathioudakis.

Warranty: 3yr/100,000km.

Service interval: 9 months/15,000km.

Glass’s 3-year resale: 44%. AAMI Insurance: $626 *Estimated **Includes floor mats ($150), rear-view camera ($550) Performance; economy; huge cabin; classy dash; sweet gearshift Relatively hard ride; nervous steering at speed; AEB not available Track: Heathcote raceway, cool, damp. Temp: 13ºC.

Driver: Byron Mathioudakis.

Warranty: 3yr/100,000km.

Service interval: 6 months/10,000km.

Glass’s 3-year resale: 44%. AAMI Insurance: $761 *Estimated **Drive-away including metallic paint ($475)