Over the last five years Kia has undergone one of the most impressive reinventions of any brand on sale globally, and the Picanto was the car that really started it off. Launched back in 2004 and only since subjected to a subtle facelift in 2007, it’s shifted 1.1 million units globally thanks to its cut-price practicality, cute styling and solid reliability.

Those aren’t values Kia wants to shed from it’s a-segment contender, but having made dramatic improvements to style and aesthetics across its model range, it was time for the Picanto to grow up and fall in line with the rest of the stable. And again, it’s leading the way for new models, followed by the B-segment Rio due later this year and D-segment Optima in 2012. In those three segments alone, Kia says it can compete for 80% of buyers.

The growing A-segment market is vital. Driven by rising fuel costs and increasing tax pressure on high-emission vehicles, this sector is expected to account for 2.4 million annual sales globally for the next six years and has become incredibly competitive. Not only is Kia aiming for a larger share of this market, but it wants to bring in a different mix of buyers, too. The new model has to be desirable, while still offering the cost-effective practicality and reliability that made the original popular.

Though aimed at retaining existing Picanto customers at first, the styling alone should help make new buyers take notice. Fitting in with Kia’s striking new family “face”, the new Schreyer-designed body looks much more masculine than its predecessor, and consciously so. The new Picanto is designed to net a larger percentage of male drivers than its predecessor, without looking so hard-edged that it alienates the car’s largely female audience.

There’s also a three-door version, which will only be sold in Europe and is due before the end of 2011. Featuring revised front and rear bumpers, it too is aimed at increasing desirability among male buyers and is expected to account for a third of the Picanto’s European sales mix.

But the Picanto has not just undergone a styling overhaul. Although it’s the same width and height as the outgoing model, the new bodyshell is 60mm longer, while the wheelbase gains an extra 15mm. It means is there more space inside, with extra front legroom, while boot space has increased by over a quarter. The longer wheelbase also helps road manners.

Standard specification is high, but the options list is impressive for a small car, with plenty of features to help it feel grown up including keyless entry, climate control and Kia’s Intelligent Stop and Go (ISG) system, featuring start/stop technology and brake regeneration.

Despite the extra space, it’s actually lighter and more economical than its predecessor, which helps keep emissions low and fuel economy high.

There are three engines to choose from; a 69PS 998cc petrol, which uses 4.2 litres of fuel per 100km, an 85PS 1248cc engine, which uses 4.5litres per 100km and an 82PS dual fuel unit, which uses 5.9 litres of LPG per 100km. Even without the ISG system, all three emit 100g/km CO2 or less which, combined with a maintenance-reducing, seven-year warranty, makes the Picanto even cheaper to run than its predecessor.

On the Road:

As a global car, Kia had to work to make sure the Picanto was suitable for all buyers and environments. Even in European spec, the car had to be set up to drive as well on Alpine roads as it would on German Autobahns, rough Belgian tarmac or tight, twisting British country lanes.

It sounds like a compromise, but the car manages to pull it off. The Picanto feels stable and well-mannered when cruising at high speed, yet remains as lively and entertaining as a small car should feel when darting around city roads or even along mountain passes. It’s no hot hatch, but it is fun to drive.

Buyers won’t be disappointed by the engine choice, either. Both the raucous but willing 1.0-litre and the much smoother four-cylinder 1.2 manage to feel lively without sounding too thrashy at high revs. The star of the three, though, is the LPG version. Unfortunately not available in all markets, it offers the lowest emissions and almost matches the 1.2 for power, but needs working a little harder.

Inside, the cabin manages to feel roomy and solidly built, if a little plasticky in places. The chunky, two-spoke steering wheel is comfortable and the seats are supportive, even without the optional sports upgrade. It’s much more in line with European rivals than its predecessor, and the factory iPod connection is a savvy addition for its young target audience.

Standard spec aside, the Picanto offers personalisation options to rival premium manufacturers. Buyers can choose from two dashboard colours, four interior cloths and nine all-new paint colours, as well as picking from a range of steering wheel and dash inserts. The Picanto can even be equipped with a six-speaker audio system and a full leather interior.

Cleverly it manages to feel bigger and offers better practicality without expanding too far beyond the outgoing model’s miniscule dimensions. The car has grown just 60mm in length, with height and width staying the same. It means a less crowded interior and very practical boot space, which is now 25% larger and offers a flat-bottomed 870-litre load area with the rear bench folded.

Customers expect a lot from modern small cars. They have to be accomplished not only at ferrying people around town, but equally as capable for longer journeys too. The new Picanto manages to offer the best of all worlds here, feeling considerably more grown-up than the model it replaces but without losing the charm buyers want in an A-segment car.

Introducing new customers to Kia

Kia has ambitious plans to grow its share of the fleet market from 1.3% last year to 2% in 2013, and as such getting the replacement for its popular Picanto right is very important. This new model should reach a broader audience than its predecessor, both in retail and fleet sales.

It’s the first of three models, followed by the new Rio later this year and the addition of the Optima next year, which will help Kia pitch for around 80% of car buyers, and hopefully broaden its appeal across a larger cross-section of fleets as well.

Chan Uk Jun, Kia Europe’s manager of fleet and remarketing, says it’s a sector where the new car can improve over the last model: ‘Picanto is not the typical fleet car. The share of commercial registrations for Picanto in Europe is roughly 30%, whereas 45% is the average over the last year.

‘The products are not the obstacle. We just have to bring the group into the fleet market and create more awareness.’

Traditionally, the Picanto’s high value and low running costs have made it popular with rental fleets, including use as a courtesy car. With the new model, Kia is aiming for a bigger share of long-term users, with its more distinctive styling aimed at making it more attractive as an affordable proposition for company car drivers and leasing companies.

It makes a great value proposition, with low fuel consumption and emissions and a seven-year warranty to help keep costs down and reassure buyers about the car’s reliability. With higher residual values than the outgoing version, Mr Jun believes the Picanto could become a value benchmark for the A segment.

Christof Engelskirchen, manager consulting business at EurotaxGlass’s, says it could open conversations with new customers: ‘In many European markets one of the main challenges for the brand is to raise awareness for the product and service offering and to become more considered during fleet purchase decision making.

‘While the Picanto will not be the main product for the typical fleet owner, except rentals and very small businesses, it is an enabler to engage successfully with fleet customers on the upcoming model introduction, in particular the Optima and the cee’d.’

Kia is building the support network to help make this happen. To help market its vehicles to fleet buyers, the company has introduced specialist fleet staff across Europe and the numbers are growing quickly. From 38 in 2008, it now has 66 and there are more to come when its Italian subsidiary comes on board later this year.

In the same period, Kia has seen a 34% uplift in its share of the European long-term fleet market, from 1.21% to 1.62%.

Maarten Baljet, international sales director at BF Forecasts, comments: ‘The crucial part for the residual value is the brand image. Kia seems to have recognised this and has invested both time and money to get a stronger image in Europe – with success. This results in a continuation of the trend of successively increasing residual values.

‘Taking into account the lifecycle influences, the residual values exceed those of the outgoing model and are noticeably higher than average in the A-segment in a majority of the European countries.’

By focusing on improving value and bringing styling and quality up to match the rest of the A-segment, Kia has a strong contender on its hands with the new Picanto. A focus on marketing it to fleets should have the desired effect of bringing in new customers, and introducing them to the Kia brand ahead of this year’s new products.