The Volkswagen Up is one of our favourite city cars, but it faces a tough challenge from the well-equipped new Kia Picanto
*** Note : £1 = $1.33 (correct at time of post)
Kia Picanto 1.25 3
List price £12,650
Target Price £12,265
Latest Picanto has loads of equipment, including a swanky infotainment touchscreen.
Volkswagen Up 1.0 TSI 90 Beats 5dr
List price £11,905
Target Price £11,377
Funky new Beats edition packs a punchy stereo and a powerful engine by city car standards.
City cars seem to be forgetting their place. Models in this class used to be slow, impractical and poorly provisioned, and really only suitable for buzzing around town. To be honest, easy parking and low costs were the only real reasons you might have considered one.
Well, you can still pick up a basic runaround for £7000, but push your budget to around £12,000 (or £180 a month on a PCP deal) and you’ll get five doors, a willing petrol engine and a healthy roster of standard kit.
So, just how capable can the modern city car be, not just in town but also out on the open road? To find out, we’ve lined up two of the most spacious, powerful and generously equipped cars in the class: the new Kia Picanto and the long-standing Volkswagen Up.
Driving – Performance, ride, handling, refinement
Think of the Up as the Usain Bolt of the city car class. Okay, that’s perhaps a little generous, but it will easily outsprint any of its peers, including the Picanto. And because the tiny 1.0-litre petrol engine is turbocharged in this range-topping TSI model, you don’t even need to rev it hard to keep pace with some of the bigger boys of the road.
Swift progress in the Picanto isn’t so effortless. Venture onto the outside lane of the motorway or encounter a moderate incline on a faster A-road and you’ll find yourself changing down a gear or two and using the lower reaches of the accelerator. Do that, though, and the Picanto isn���t actually that much slower than the Up.
Because you need to work the Picanto’s naturally aspirated 1.2-litre engine hard to get the best from it, this inevitably means it can be quite vocal. However, the fact that it has an extra cylinder than its rival (four versus three) means it’s actually smoother; you feel fewer vibrations filtering up through the pedals and steering wheel. In fact, the Picanto is the quieter companion at a steady 70mph, although chatting with your passenger will still require raising your voice. Whisper-quiet limousines these cars most certainly are not.
You won’t grumble about heavy steering or wide turning circles in either of these cars, but venture onto a winding B-road and it’s the Picanto that feels more at home. It darts into corners with surprisingly little body lean and hangs onto the road willingly, and its steering is hard to fault for accuracy. By contrast, the Up sways about when asked to change direction and its steering wheel kicks back in your hand when you approach the limit of grip. On the plus side, its steering does provide you with a slightly better sense of what the front wheels are doing.
The Up’s softer suspension gives it the more comfortable ride, too, no matter what speed you’re doing. That said, wider experience tells us that upgrading to 16in or 17in wheels (from the standard 15s) will have you wincing over sharp-edged bumps. And the Picanto isn’t at all fractious; it just jostles you around a bit more over minor road imperfections.
Behind the wheel – Driving position, visibility, build quality
You won’t relish spending hours behind the wheel of either of our contenders, because both have somewhat flawed driving positions. For starters, neither car’s steering wheel offers any reach adjustment; you’ll need to find a compromise between how close you are to the pedals and the steering wheel. To make matters worse, the position of the Up’s instrument dials means there’s a good chance your view of them will be blocked by the wheel’s rim.
The Up’s front seats aren’t as comfortable as the Picanto’s, either, mainly due to their shortage of lower back support. Height adjustment has recently been added to the Picanto’s driver’s seat, so it’s now on a par with the Up in this respect. Unsurprisingly, neither car is available with adjustable lumbar support, even as an option.
You won’t find any squishy dashboard plastics in either car, but that’s not to say they feel overly cheap inside. In fact, the Up hides its bargain-basement roots remarkably well, especially in this Beats trim, thanks to its two-tone dashboard and quilted seats. The sheen on the Picanto’s grey dashboard makes it look less appealing than the Up’s, but its buttons, dials and switches are just as solid and pleasant to use.
The Picanto has the best infotainment system in this class. Its 7.0in touchscreen is bright and easy to use, and the fact that it’s positioned high on the dashboard means you don’t need to divert your eyes far from the road to see it. Sat-nav, a DAB radio and Bluetooth all come as standard, but best of all you get Apple and Android smartphone mirroring; just plug your phone into the USB port and you can control it using the car’s screen.
The biggest deal about this Beats edition is its powerful 300-watt sound system, which includes a subwoofer in the boot to give your favourite songs a punchier bassline. By city car standards, sound quality is very good. Unfortunately, the rest of the Up’s infotainment is rather basic. There’s a small screen, but if you want sat-nav, you’ll need to download a special app and use your smartphone. Thankfully, there’s a cradle for it on the dash.
Space and practicality – Front space, rear space, seating flexibility, boot
If you’re looking for maximum space for your money, it’s worth noting that the Dacia Sandero offers considerably more for considerably less. But as city cars go, these two are reasonably accommodating. Four six-footers will fit inside, even though those in the back will have to put up with their knees wedged against the seat in front and, in the Up, likely their heads brushing the roof.
Seating three adults in the back of the Picanto is a serious squeeze, but at least it’s legal; it isn’t in the Up, because it has only two rear seatbelts. Both cars have two Isofix child seat fixings in the back.
The Up’s rear windows can only be hinged ajar, while the Picanto’s slide up and down electrically.
Both boots are big enough for a few bags of groceries and both fitted three carry-on suitcases below their parcel shelves in our tests, with the Picanto having slightly more space left for odds and ends. There’s a huge lip at the entrance of both boots, although the Up does have a height-adjustable floor to mitigate this.
Official boot capacity 255-1010 litres Suitcase capacity 3
Leg and knee room aren’t exactly plentiful in either car, but four six-footers will fit. The Picanto has the longer, wider and taller boot, but it’s still hardly suitable for family holidays. A central front armrest comes as standard.
Official boot capacity 251-959 litres Suitcase capacity 3
The Up’s boot has a height-adjustable floor, which reduces the otherwise cliff-like lip at the entrance. There are only two seatbelts in the back, so you can’t legally have a middle passenger. There’s no front central armrest, either.
Buying and owning – Costs, equipment, reliability, safety and security
City cars are much more talented than they were just a few years ago, but they’re still nowhere near as roomy, good to drive or plush to sit in as cars from the class above. That means they need to be suitably cheaper to buy and run.
Monthly PCP costs are far more relevant than brochure prices here, because most city car buyers choose to buy on a finance agreement. So, the fact that the Picantowill cost you a tenner a month less on a three-year deal – assuming a £1500 deposit and 10,000 miles a year – is definitely a bonus. For context, a similarly well-equipped Seat Ibiza would set you back a further £30 or so per month.
If you are buying with cash, the Up will cost you significantly less than the Picanto at the outset. However, add up all the bills you’re going to face if you sell after three years and there’s barely anything in it, because the Up is predicted to shed value quicker but is slightly cheaper to fuel and service.
However, the Picanto is more lavishly equipped, adding cruise control, a reversing camera, rear parking sensors, rear electric windows and climate control over the Up’s kit list, so it definitely seems like better value for money. The Picanto has the edge for safety, too, with automatic emergency braking (AEB) coming as standard, whereas this is part of a £375 option pack on the Up.
The Volkswagen Up was once the undisputed champion of the city car class. We even voted it our overall Car of the Year in 2012. Time moves on, though, and the Up, while still a fine choice, is no longer the best of its breed.
Why does it lose out? Well, the new Kia Picanto is roomier inside and sharper to drive, while its infotainment system is far superior. And when you consider it offers cheaper monthly finance repayments, despite coming with loads more luxuries as standard, the Up’s case becomes even harder to argue. That the Picanto gets automatic emergency braking as standard while it costs extra on the Up only makes the margin of victory greater.
1st – Kia Picanto
For Tidy handling; cheaper PCP payments; lots of standard kit
Against Engine needs working harder; slightly firmer ride; vague clutch biting point
Specifications: Kia Picanto 1.25 3
- Engine size 4cyl, 1248cc, petrol
- List price £12,650
- Target Price £12,265
- Power 83bhp @ 6000rpm
- Torque 90lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Gearbox 5-spd manual
- 0-60mph 10.9sec
- Top speed 108mph
- Claimed fuel economy 61.4mpg
- True MPG 47.9mpg
- CO2 emissions 106g/km
2nd – Volkswagen Up
For Punchy turbo engines; smart interior; powerful stereo; impressive fuel economy
Against More cramped inside; shortage of standard luxuries; AEB costs extra
Specifications: Volkswagen Up 1.0 TSI 90 Beats 5dr
- Engine size 3cyl, 999cc, turbo, petrol
- List price £11,905
- Target Price £11,377
- Power 89bhp @ 5000rpm
- Torque 118lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Gearbox 5-spd manual
- 0-60mph 9.6sec
- Top speed 110mph
- Claimed fuel economy 60.1mpg
- True MPG 53.7mpg
- CO2 emissions 108g/km