Farewelling the pint-sized ‘hot hatch’ Australia forgot

Electric cars are accelerating the demise of the small, light, affordable and fun 'hot hatch'. We pay tribute to one of the last new, oft-forgotten examples... and it's a Kia?

It goes without saying that as what buyers expect from new cars has changed over the past few decades, the definition of a ‘hot hatch’ has too.

The original breed of hot hatchbacks in the 1980s – the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Peugeot 205 GTi, et cetera – mixed tiny, sub-1000kg bodies with keen, revvy petrol engines mustering less than 100kW, and a focus on simple, lightweight, agile and affordable fun.

Their modern equivalents, in contrast, are vastly quicker and twice as powerful – but often twice as heavy, twice the price, a lot bigger, and far more comfortable, technologically-advanced and complex. That’s only set to accelerate as the motoring world goes electric.

It is natural that cars of all types have become bigger, more expensive, faster, better equipped, more complex and heavier (as well as safer), as buyers demand bigger cabins, the latest technology, lower fuel bills, sharper performance, and five-star safety.

If you still subscribe to the original concept of a hot hatch, surely the days of finding that recipe in a new car are over? Almost. But not yet.

And what may be more surprising to most – if the sales figures are any guide – is one of the final car makers offering a new hatchback in the mould of the sporty 1980s greats is… Kia.

Meet the Kia Picanto GT. Is it really a successor to an original Golf GTI or 205 GTi in terms of driver engagement and cult status? If we're being honest, not really. But whether the designer that penned the first sketch planned it, it’s about as close to that original hot-hatch recipe as you can get in a new car in Australia in 2023.

The 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder engine under the stubby bonnet develops 74kW and 172Nm, for 0–100km/h in a claimed 10 seconds. Modest outputs, yes, but it only weighs 1012kg – with a five-speed manual and front-wheel drive in a 3.6m-long body on a 2.4m wheelbase.

For some context, it’s slightly less power but more torque than an original 1.6-litre Golf GTI (81kW/140Nm), in a slightly heavier body (810kg for the Golf) that’s 100mm longer bumper to bumper (3705mm Golf), on the same wheelbase. The Golf’s 0–100km/h claim is 9.2sec.

But, like many small, affordable and fun cars that came before it, the Picanto GT is about to be killed off. It only accounts for six per cent of Picanto sales – perhaps no surprise given it’s the most expensive model, and manual-only in a price-sensitive, auto-loving market – and demand isn’t much higher in Europe, the Picanto’s main global market.

We felt one of the last proponents of the original ‘hot-hatch’ formula – and the one Australia forgot, or perhaps never knew existed – was due a proper farewell before the final examples arrive on local shores in the coming weeks.

A 'hot hatch' is meant to be as at home on a winding back road as it is in the city on the daily grind. But with a body that can fit between the front and rear wheels of a Ram pick-up, this is more of a city car than any other hot hatch you can buy – and isn’t really suited to a weekend away to find your favourite driving roads.

So we set ourselves a challenge: how much fun can we have, and how many nice, winding roads can we find, without leaving the borders of metropolitan Sydney?

What is ‘metropolitan’ Sydney? Based on the definition used during COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s bound by the Hawkesbury River to the north, Penrith and Liverpool to the west, and a line drawn through Waterfall, Campbelltown and Camden to the south. (Click here to see a more accurate map of what I’m referring to.)

Focusing on sealed tarmac with marked lanes and a modest speed limit, we cut the list to four roads: General San Martin Drive through Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Galston Rd up Galston Gorge, and the Old Pacific Highway (south of the Hawkesbury River) in the north, and Sir Bertram Stevens Drive through the Royal National Park in the south.

Are these the world’s best roads? Not exactly. Their twists, turns and proximity to Sydney makes them a favourite among cyclists, and their scenic views sees them littered with slow-moving family SUVs and dual-cab utes travelling 10km/h under the speed limit on sunny weekends.

In most cases these roads are governed by low speed limits, and so heavily policed on weekends that the mere thought of breaking the limit will have your licence taken away. Rightly so, you could argue, given the tarmac is often narrow and twisty, and it lends itself to drivers travelling a bit quicker than they otherwise should (and, of course, speed limits are speed limits).

These roads are not for maximising the capabilities of the latest Porsche 911, then. But on the right day, in the right weather, if there’s a car you can enjoy these roads in, I reckon this Kia Picanto GT is a great candidate.

Before that: there’s the drive to each road.

Beyond the engine, changes to the Kia Picanto GT including retuned electric power steering, reworked dampers, and stiffer springs tuned by the Kia Australian engineers that have set up the suspension on all but three Kia models launched here over the past 15 years.

Ride comfort over bumps isn’t what you’d call plush, but it’s not stiff or harsh either – particularly for a tiny car with a short wheelbase on large (in relative terms) 16-inch alloys.

Around town the turbo engine delivers surprising punch in the middle of the rev range – with a charming, grumbly note at low revs that turns into a snarl around the 3000rpm mark – and leaves you working the gearbox less than you might expect.

When you do, the clutch is light, the friction point is easy to learn, and the shift gates are ‘notchy’ – though the travel of the shifter between each gear isn’t particularly well defined and the throw is long.

And for a six-foot-tall driver, the ergonomics are not great. On the whole, though, it’s a pleasant yet fun commuter.

After picking the car up, we make a beeline for a personal favourite of the four roads, General San Martin Drive through Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. From the Drive office in North Sydney it’s a half-hour drive through Sydney’s northern suburbs to what is a technical and rather bumpy stretch of blacktop winding through a forest and around a bay.

Over just 16km this road blends fast, sweeping bends, tighter turns with 25km/h and 35km/h recommended speeds, and a few hairpins – and shows the full spectrum of the Kia’s dynamics.

The Nexen tyres aren’t built for performance driving – and give up grip relatively easily – but with 74kW on tap you can access their limits, and drive the car at nine-tenths of its abilities without feeling too restricted by the ‘60’ printed on the signs.

Long gears mean hairpins require first gear – which tops out at 57km/h indicated – and the Kia’s lithe weight and small engine make for a keen front end (albeit one limited by the eco-focused tyres) and an agile chassis that induces smiles at speeds mortals can achieve.

Power peaks at 4500rpm, so you’re encouraged to keep the car in the middle of the rev band, riding the torque – all 172Nm it has on tap – across its broad 1500rpm to 4000rpm summit.

Come to downshift, and it’s a great car to learn how to heel-and-toe in given the close spacing of the pedals.

There’s an occasional chirp of the tyres and blink of the traction-control light – particularly on a fast change from first to second gear – but the engine’s modest power means it is rarely overwhelmed by torque steer.

Next up: Galston Gorge. You’d think a small and light car would thrive on a road that, on Google Maps, looks like it’s trying to do an impression of Italy’s Stelvio Pass. But this is a car that lacks the grunt to afford washing off precious momentum, so braking into, and powering out of, the switchbacks on this road aren’t its strengths.

Onto our third road, the Royal National Park – or as it’s affectionately dubbed, the ‘Royal Nasho’. Our metropolitan Sydney limit means we’re only covering the northern section, turning off at the side road that leads to Waterfall, and onto the Princes Highway heading back to Sydney.

Compared to the last two roads this is a less technical stretch of tarmac, with few particularly sharp turns and more fast, flowing bends – which make its primarily 60km/h limit (in sections with more corners) easier to hold and perhaps less engaging.

Still there is the terrain to explore steering that is on the heavy side for a pint-sized city car – with a hint of feedback from the road surface below, albeit with a dead spot at its centre – and a confident chassis at high speeds.

For our fourth and final road we stop by the Drive office to pick up photographer Sean and head to the Old Pacific Highway – or ‘Old Pac’.

The border for metropolitan Sydney sits on the Hawkesbury River, so we can’t go any further. But if we’re being honest, this southern section of the road might be the most enjoyable.

Most of this stretch of road is covered by an 80km/h limit, and in a light, low-powered car like this, keeping momentum is key. Still there’s a good mix of sharper 35km/h advisory bends, and higher-speed sweepers that require swapping from second to third gear to keep the engine in its sweet spot, and can put a smile on your face.

After a few back-and-forth runs down for photography, Sean and I stop at this route’s famous roadhouse – Pie in the Sky – for lunch and a few more photos before returning to the Drive office.

By the time the final cars arrive on local shores, Kia Australia will have sold about 1800 Picanto GTs – as it stands today it’s delivered 1645 cars from launch at the start of 2019 to the end of August 2023 – or about six per cent of Picanto sales over that period; a respectable result for a manual-only ‘sports’ model in an auto-dominated market.

Our drive has shown – perhaps unsurprisingly – that this is not the most engaging car money can buy, or the quickest, sharpest, most playful or most driver-focused. Nor is it as rewarding as some of those 1980s hot-hatch greats I mentioned at the start.

But at $22,890 drive-away in its final form, it’s certainly the most fun new car at its price. And more importantly, it’s a mascot for a type of light, simple and perky car that is unlikely to exist in a decade from now. Here’s hoping it won’t be forgotten.

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Alex Misoyannis

Alex Misoyannis has been writing about cars since 2017, when he started his own website, Redline. He contributed for Drive in 2018, before joining CarAdvice in 2019, becoming a regular contributing journalist within the news team in 2020. Cars have played a central role throughout Alex’s life, from flicking through car magazines at a young age, to growing up around performance vehicles in a car-loving family.

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