The A-segment is a world away from the A-list, but the tiny Kia Picanto is about as close as it gets. Often derided for being on the extreme outer limits of real motoring, A cars needn't necessarily be poky little things that compromise style and speed for small-car practicality.
The Picanto illustrates this perfectly. Unquestionably the funkiest little offering in the segment - even if it would never get its tyre print on Hollywood's Walk of Fame - its new face and features have immediately marked it out as a star. And clad in a range of eye-catching colours, the looks will appeal to the bright young things as much as its starting price of just more than Dh30,000.
First appearing in 2004, early generations of the Picanto were a world away from the current offering. Known in other markets by some bizarre names - the EuroStar in Taiwan and the New Morning in Vietnam - the Picanto, while certainly worthy, was the car equivalent of The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis, in that it was squat, plump and had a face only its mother could love.
Much changed when the all-new model was given its premiere at this year's Geneva Motor Show, boasting a full redesign with completely re-engineered platform and powerplant. This new confidence reflects Kia's international growth, which has resulted in almost a doubling of sales over the five years to 2010.
The past couple of years have also seen a new corporate look to the Kia range that is centred around the "tiger nose" grille that every model boasts. Clean lines and a modern look are also a big part of this image, with the Picanto a close adherent in spite of the traditionally awkward shape of A-segment minis.
The marketing men have worked alongside the designers to take the baby Kia from a "value for money" position to "exciting and enabling", as they like to put it in funky speak. They have also added all the buzz words beloved of Hollywood, including environmentally aware - a new 1.2L, four-cylinder Kappa engine is rated at just 5.3L/100km on the combined cycle. While it probably won't prise the stars from their Prii, neither will it cost its less well-heeled owners very much to run.
Istanbul has welcomed more than its fair share of A-listers over the last century, with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Jacqueline Kennedy and Greta Garbo having regularly travelled to the city on the Bosphorus. As the host of the launch of the Picanto, this mysterious metropolis of urban hillsides and traffic-choked highways that bridges Europe and Asia provided a perfect environment for this car to stand out.
The exclusive marina district of Fenerbahçe was an excellent proving ground for the Picanto. A maze of narrow, two-way streets boarded by upper-crust apartment blocks and villas, double-parked cars and steep gradients was every bit as useful in judging the merits of the car as a tough proving ground would have been. While the 1.2's 87hp is more Screenwriter's Guild than Oscar, it is still sufficiently capable to tackle dizzying roads like these. A top speed of 161kph and a zero-to-100kph time of 13.6 seconds hardly makes for an ideal script, but you have to put it into the context of the car. Just as you wouldn't cast Al Pacino in an American Pie sequel, neither would you need an engine that outperforms in such a small Kia.
Four cylinders never sound overly enticing, but when you make best use of the Picanto's 119Nm of torque, it might be shrill but it's on your side. It is willing and sprightly enough to keep you in the lead as you climb steep roads. The steering is light yet precise, while the four-speed automatic box is able to channel what limited power there is to the wheels without any fuss. Even with three well-fed bodies in the test car, the Picanto made no fuss. Inside, it is hardly the Roosevelt Hotel, but it is easy enough for a six-footer to get comfortable behind the wheel. You can even stick someone slightly smaller behind, pull the seat forward and still not feel overly inhibited. True, it is a tiny car, but it has been innovative in terms of interior room - especially with luggage space up 27 per cent on the last edition, to 200 litres.
Kia has given it such good interior proportions by extending those on the exterior. Wheelbase is up 15mm, length by 60mm and the all-important height is now a centimetre above the last edition. The car maker has also given the Picanto some nice touches, with attractive cloth seats, soft-touch surfaces, a neat dash and a good interior colour scheme. It is well stocked with six airbags and electric windows, while remote locking and touch-button starter are nice touches.
The new Picanto adds something special to this market. Pint-sized and glamorous, like Tom Cruise, it has the ability to make it big. It will certainly make its owner feel like a star.
Base price Dh32,000
Engine 1.2L, four-cylinder
Gearbox Four-speed automatic
Power 87hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque 119Nm @ 2,800rpm
Fuel economy, combined 5.3L/100km