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With the rising cost of fuel and worsening traffic conditions unyieldingly burdening motorists nowadays, mini-compacts are getting so much attention that manufacturers are actually introducing newer models of the diminutive people carriers. One of the first to have a go in this class was Kia with its very capable Picanto.

The first-generation Picanto offered frugal fuel economy without utterly sacrificing usable space and relative comfort. The 2011 Kia Picanto promises to do an even better job with a host of innovations that brings this mini-compact in line with the fuel-conscious times.

The efforts of Kia Motors' chief design officer and the original Audi TT's designer, Peter Schreyer, are clearly evident with the new Picanto. It sports a distinctly simple and clean European flair. The Picanto now looks more futuristic, aggressive and sporty with its angular design needing only bigger wheels to lend it some Super 1600 rally-racing cred.

After driving the manual transmission 2011 Picanto, I immediately appreciated its improved design quality and finish, certainly when compared to its predecessor. The plastics don't feel cheap and are, in fact, quite classy in black for a car in this segment. Fabric-clad seats amply hug the sides and backs of those sitting in front. It is interesting to note, however, that six-footers will certainly have a hard time finding the right driving position even with the front seats pushed all the way to the back. It follows that the back seats, though rated to accommodate three, will require a particularly tall person to sit sideways. It doesn't help either that there are no headrests provided for the back seats to support a long, lanky passenger's neck and shoulders.

On the road, steering is light coming from idle--great for parking lot maneuvers. It gets weighed down as the car's speed reaches 20kph, giving stability to a straight line drive. Clutch travel was hardly light though as the Picanto requires some pedal travel to engage the clutch and it releases abruptly just as I start to pull back. Sure, it saves the disc from unwitting clutch drivers but it also makes gear shifting a little cumbersome and awkward--almost amateurish.

Underneath the Picanto's bulging hood, the 998cc, three-cylinder, 68hp kappa multi-point injected motor might be underwhelming for racing standards--there's a short lag in power just before 2,000 revs--but it turns around with a noticeable pull afterwards. And even after some spirited driving, the Picanto actually reveals itself as a fuel miser. Based on the Picanto's on-board trip computer, I managed an average of 12.5 kilometers per liter in the city. This figure rose up to 16 kilometers per liter on the highway. And that's normal, air-conditioned--albeit non-aggressive--driving that negotiated daily EDSA city traffic and cruised at 100kph on the expressways. Undoubtedly, this a product of a new engine-management technology as well as an 84kg weight-loss program for the Picanto. If there's any reason to buy this car, then fuel economy has to be it.

Though the spec sheet numbers state a 45mm increase in length, a 10mm bump in height and 15mm longer wheelbase figure versus the old Kia Picanto, it is quite obvious that this is still a mini-compact that's designed mainly for the daily commute to and from work. In fact, from the driver's seat, a quick glance at the back makes you realize how compact the Picanto's interior dimensions are with the trunk's tonneau cover almost within arm's reach. This made me realize that the Picanto is more like a mobile backpack, really--one you can stuff your daily-grind things in, zip up and drive away with until you get to your next destination.

For a mid-range price of P545,000 it comes with power windows on all four doors with the driver's side enjoying automatic up-and-down movement, perfect as you roll away after paying parking and toll fees. The Picanto also sports power side-mirrors and a central power lock switch within handy reach of the driver. Together with the aforementioned trip computer, it is even equipped with a useful ECO-mode setting that tells the driver when to shift up or down via a gear number display on the instrument cluster. These little touches become handy tools in managing fuel expenses.

Even if it doesn't have airbags, ABS or a vanity mirror, the Picanto does its job with reasonable and reassuring comfort especially when compared to its contemporaries in the 1.0-liter category. And that's another promise this little Kia has managed to keep.

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Mikko David
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Mikko is the team's in-house race car driver, roadtrip GPS, assignment lifesaver, calorie-counting convert and go-to writer and photographer. The only thing he likes better than shooting cars is driving them, to the limit if needed.
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