Decisions, decisions. Ninety grand is a lot of money, right? You could go on a month long party to Ibiza, or you could fill your garage with 12800 odd cans of beer. Or you could buy a brand new car. What to do, what to do? The reality is that in today’s terms, ninety grand doesn’t buy you a lot of metal, but having a wide selection to choose from does allow for a proper democratic process. On the multinational ballot paper are offerings from Korea, India, Italy, Germany, France and China. Yip, the Chinese have arrived en masse and mostly at rock bottom prices too. And a few models come packed full of the little luxuries we South Africans can’t seem to live without. But do the goodies justify an inflated price tag? We pitched one of the pricier entrants against a refreshed favourite to get some perspective. Benni boy, meet Salsa boy.
The Picanto’s been around a while, so the recent facelift’s most welcome. Distinctive new headlights add youthful charm. The best change however, has to be the inclusion of the company’s new corporate grille, replacing the ‘mouse sings opera’ look of the old car. The redesign is a good example of Kia’s newly-acquired proficiency in car styling – something most Chinese manufacturers have gone to great lengths to avoid. Yet from a distance, Benni’s alright. Even up close, he looks professionally penned with inoffensive lines and European detailing. A tall, classic monovolume in the best city car tradition. Or he’s a giant rugby ball on a St Patrick’s Day parade. Whichever, Benni’s an original, clean sheet effort.
Open the door though and things get ugly. Plastics are a few grades down from Hong Kong toy spec, emitting more chemicals than a cow with gas. In the likely event of intoxication, gas masks will fall from the roof lining. The variably cushioned seat squabs are covered in fabrics that look barely able to outlast a snowman in the Namib. I’m convinced the radio/CD combo is the original 1983 prototype and most of the controls have a ‘brand new, already broken’ feel. Even the electric windows are variable speed, slowing to a complaining creep before finally wedging shut. Other anomalies are a rear window demister graphic on one of the blanked off fascia buttons. It’s not all a complete disaster though, the steering wheel, instrument cowl and the main gauges are decent enough and the boot is bigger than the spicy Korean, but in short it’s so far off it makes the Picanto’s pleasantly redesigned but ultimately unremarkable cabin feel truly special.
AT THE LIGHTS
In neither car can you afford to feel cocky at a robot, unless you’re up against an old-school diesel bakkie. The Chana has a bigger capacity, more powerful 1.3 litre engine and so we expected it to be faster in the dash, but actually there was not much in it. Benni’s 16 valve engine’s a thrashy unit. Put your foot down while on the move and it just makes more noise. The 1.1 litre motor in the Kia is no technical marvel, but it is sweeter and feels more responsive. Braking times were acceptable, but only the Picanto felt stable when standing on the middle pedal. The Chana pulled distinctly to the left under emergency braking. Despite the presence of ABS, it simply did not inspire confidence. Our test engineer Peter called it the ‘scariest’ car he’s ever put through its paces.
AROUND THE CORNERS
But Benni’s not a car, he’s a time machine, teleporting you back to the late seventies when driving was much more of an adventure. It’s best not to take talkative passengers along with you as just keeping the car in a straight line takes great concentration. The long-travel suspension and tall body make it a handful in crosswinds, while each degree of steering wheel angle seems matched by a degree of body roll. The Picanto drives just fine. It’s easily controlled and relatively refined for the market it competes in. The gearbox throw may be of Olympic proportions, but it’s the only real complaint in a competent package.
Forgive me if this comparison sounds one-sided, it’s just that cars as easy to rip off as the Benni don’t come along too often these days. For starters, I can’t get my head around the name. In my neighbourhood, that’s what they called people who did stupid stuff. They may as well have called it the Chana Tappet.
At first glance the R89900 Benni Exclusive – with its aircon, electric windows, central locking, mag wheels, ABS and radio/CD – seems well-equipped, but it’s all a facade. The 1.3 litre engine started when it felt like it, the wipers broke, freezing in a two-fingered salute during one of Cape Town’s week-long rainy spells, the electric windows were slow and erratic, the radio would only excite a Neanderthal, and ABS can’t make up for poor brake feel. It’s a car that just meets the criteria for mobility and nothing more. Even if the Benni laid gold-plated eggs or spat the occasional diamond from its exhaust pipe, it still wouldn’t be worth the asking price.
Although the Picanto tested here is the top line EX model, costing R108 995, the LX version will only set you back R91 995. Sure you won’t get alloys, ABS (an almost cynical omission these days) or power windows in the rear, but you will be buying a car that is light years ahead in every other department. There’s no decision here. Like a robot, I’ll tell you what to do. Go for the Picanto, don’t go for the Chana.