Going from a year in a 150 bhp Ford Focus Ecoboost to a 1.0 68 bhp Picanto could have been a culture shock. However, the first journey in the little Kia on a motorway proved to be a relief. Of course, it is noisier than the Focus, mainly because the smaller engine has to rev a lot higher, but it is bearable at any vaguely legal speed. The refinement means you are not reaching for a sixth gear that isn't there: fifth gear provides decently refined cruising.
Back in its natural habitat of city driving, the Kia Picanto has one killer advantage for London drivers – it is congestion charge exempt. All you have to do is pay £10 to register it and then you can smugly drive past all those cameras while thinking about the daily charge of £10 you have not paid. The driving experience around town is good, but it is not perfect. The one issue we have is the clutch. It is light but vague which, combined with an over-sensitive throttle pedal, means the first few starts tend to feature a badly slipping clutch as you vainly try to balance clutch against accelerator. You get the knack of divining the clutch's hidden biting point, but a more precise clutch would definitely be high on our list of priorities for the facelift in a couple of years.
Apart from the clutch, the Picanto is as easy to drive as you would expect from a Kia. The ride is reasonable for a small car and the steering is light, but not totally disconnected from the road. Most of all, we like the fact that it does not feel like a budget product: the styling both inside and out looks and feels more sophisticated than you would expect for the money.
Our '2' trim level also includes a surprising amount of kit. Air conditioning, Bluetooth, rear electric windows and electric mirrors are all included for a list price of £9,595, which is extremely impressive. However, it took a while to realise the Picanto also comes with a trip computer. The 'control' for the computer is actually the tripmeter reset button set into the speedometer. We are glad to have a trip computer at all, but that is like selling a computer with no facility for a mouse.
So we are big fans of the Picanto then? Well, there is a particularly unpleasant elephant in the room: fuel consumption. The theoretical figure is fantastic: 67.3 mpg which would suggest a real-world figure of around 55 mpg, given that the fatuous EU test cycle always over-allows by around 20%. Yeah, right. Driving around London, the first tank-full disappeared at the horrifying rate of 35 mpg. The second tank-full, which was used half on motorways and half in town, provided just 38.4 mpg. That compares to 37 mpg overall for the Focus 1.6 Ecoboost in the same conditions, which has more than twice the power of the 68 bhp Picanto.
A friend who bought a Picanto with their own money and lives deep in the country gets 45 mpg, so it is not just our example that has an issue. As it happens, I used to have a 1980s Lancia Y10 – a 1.0 litre car based on the first-generation Fiat Panda. It had none of the Picanto's technology (or safety, to be honest), but it had similar performance, and economy that was between 40 mpg and 50 mpg. So has economy really improved as much as has been claimed, or have certain cars just got better at passing the EU tests?