2019’s best light cars

Moving Well | RACV | Posted on 21 June 2018

Australia’s Best Cars testing reveals the best light cars for 2019.

As the entry point into Australia’s new car market, the light car class is all about affordable city-focused motoring, and fierce competition in this category means there’s plenty of value on offer.

Orange Kia Picanto S micro car parked on a test track

1st - Kia Picanto S

Type: Five-door hatch
Engine size: 1.2-litre petrol
Transmission: Four-speed auto
RRP: $15,790 + on-road costs


Blue Mazda2 Maxx driving past a green field

2nd - Mazda2 Maxx

Type: Five-door hatch
Engine size: 1.5-litre petrol
Transmission: Six-speed auto
RRP: $20,080 + on-road costs


Black Kia Rio S being tested on a track

3rd - Kia Rio S

Type: Five-door hatch
Engine size: 1.4-litre petrol
Transmission: Four-speed auto
RRP: $19,090 + on-road costs


Winner: Kia Picanto S*

It might be a cliche, but the expression ‘punches above its weight’ succinctly describes the Kia Picanto S. With the abolition of the Micro Car category this year, the Picanto was elevated into the Light Car category. It handled the transition with ease, topping the points score and, in so doing, usurped the well-credentialled Mazda2 and big brother Kia Rio S. 

While understandably lacking the space and performance of a light car, the Picanto dominated value-for-money scoring, finishing category leader in standard features and insurance cost, and equal best for pricing, depreciation, and warranty and dealer access. It also scored consistently high in running and repair costs, fuel consumption, safety and braking.       

At $16,790, the third-generation Picanto delivers more than could reasonably be expected of a new car with a drive-away price (including automatic transmission) this low. The outstanding value proposition is further enhanced with an equal industry-leading, seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and capped-price servicing. And if you want to drive your dollar even further, there’s a five-speed manual transmission version for $1500 less.

The Picanto’s 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine has been carried over from the previous generation and holds its own in the city commute or zipping around the ’burbs. Kia’s four-speed auto might seem a little old school in an age where six or more ratios are common, but it’s fit for the intended purpose of an urban runabout and consistent with the budget price. As might be expected, venturing out on the open road takes the little powerplant out of its comfort zone. Cruising at the 100kmh speed limit sees more than 3000rpm dialled up on the tachometer.

Kia Australia has tweaked the latest generation’s suspension and steering, with input from their local chassis tuning team. The result is a surprisingly mature ride and handling setup, with a comfortably firm and settled ride, while steering and handling offers confidence and security. For better cornering stability, the Picanto boasts torque vectoring.

Inside, there’s quite a bit of hard-looking plastic trim, as you might expect at this price point, but it’s all neatly finished and assembled. Panel fit and paintwork are well executed, too.

Six airbags, stability control, four-wheel disc brakes, a reversing camera, rear park sensors, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, cruise control, dusk-sensing headlights, daytime running lamps, and a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system are among an impressive list of standard inclusions.

However, despite a five-star ANCAP safety rating when the Picanto was first launched some years ago, and the addition of several improved safety features on the latest generation, it doesn’t meet revised ANCAP requirements necessary to attain the latest five-star rating. Other downsides are few: the engine can become noisy when worked hard, there’s no steering-reach adjustment and only a space-saver spare wheel.

While the Picanto took the win, the runners-up also offer buyers in the category plenty to consider. On the road, the Mazda2 Maxx rules. It topped the category for fuel consumption at 4.9L/100km (0.9L better than the Picanto) and in smoothness and quietness, as well as being judged equal best for environment, seating comfort, ergonomics, performance, ride, handling and braking.  

And don’t discount the Kia Rio S. As well as boasting Kia’s seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, it measures up as equal category-leading in terms of safety and braking, and above average in running and repair costs, fuel consumption, insurance cost, environment and space.  

While the Kia Picanto S topped the score sheets, its four-star ANCAP rating meant it was ineligible to win a trophy.

Best Light Cars

Best Light Cars

WEIGHTING

Dark orange Kia Picanto S on a test-drive track

Kia Picanto S

Bright-blue Mazda2 Maxx on a road beside a green paddock

Mazda2 Maxx

Black Kia Rio S passes an orange cone on a test track

Kia Rio S

Details

Scores are weighted – critical, high, medium or low – according to their importance to buyers of cars in this class. The overall average totals reflect these weightings.

Type: 5dr hatch
Engine size: 1.2L petrol
Transmission: 4spd auto
RRP: $15,790 + ORC

Type: 5dr hatch
Engine size: 1.5L petrol
Transmission: 6spd auto
RRP: $20,080 + ORC

Type: 5dr hatch
Engine size: 1.4L petrol
Transmission: 4spd auto
RRP: $19,090 + ORC

VALUE FOR MONEY
Pricing

Critical

7

2

4

Cost of depreciation ($)

Medium

9

2

5

Running and repair costs

High

9

9

8

Fuel consumption

Critical

9

10

8

Warranty and dealer access

High

9

7

9

Insurance

Low

9

6

7

Standard features

High

7

6

5

DESIGN AND FUNCTION
Safety

Critical

6

6

6

Environment

Critical

7

8

7

Seating comfort

Medium

5

7

6

Space

Low

4

5

6

Practicality

Medium

4

4

4

Ergonomics

High

5

7

6

Build and finish quality

Medium

5

6

5

ON THE ROAD
Performance

Medium

4

6

4

Ride

Medium

5

7

6

Handling

Medium

6

7

6

Braking

Medium

6

6

6

Smoothness and quietness

Low

5

6

5

OVERALL AVERAGE

742

706

678