Taking on the Wild Atlantic Way in a Kia Picanto

Kia Picanto Ireland front lead

In many ways, the Picanto is perfect for such a journey

The Wild Atlantic Way is 1500 miles of sinuous roads with breathtaking views – we challenge it in a Picanto

When I found a packet of French Fancies in the Co-op reduced to 57p on account of their rapidly approaching best-before date, I had a good feeling about this trip.

As well I might have. Spoiler alert: Ireland is my new favourite driving destination. How have I not driven these roads before? There’s all the talk of Scotland’s North Coast 500, of which I’ve driven and ridden large parts, batting off midges and taking in sensational views. But this, part of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, tops it.

I think this tops all other long drives I’ve had too. I’ve driven a Land Rover Defender to Portugal; taken a Honda NSX across Route 66; ridden a motorbike to Berlin in a day; driven the Pacific Coast Highway, the national parks of Victoria, Australia, France’s most noted Cols, the best bits of Spain and Portugal, some unrestricted and closed roads on the Isle of Man… and yet one evening, for a solid, unstinting, unrelenting hour and a half, close to my doorstep, comes easily one of the best drives I’ve ever had. In a Kia Picanto.

We like the Picanto a lot here at Autocar. And me more than most of my colleagues. The Picanto and the Dacia Sandero occasionally vie for the title of the cheapest car on sale – not quite as aggressively as two nearby supermarkets undercutting each other on unleaded prices, but there’s some to and fro and resulting pride.

At the moment, it’s advantage Picanto, at £13,665 versus £13,795 for the Sandero, doubtless to the annoyance of the good people that the to its spaciousness because ising in harm; part a city car – my preference, to drive, is the Kia.

That’s not to denigrate the Sandero, you understand. I recently drove one around the world. See how I achieved this without ever leaving the UK in the 6 April 2022 issue.) But the Kia is, to my mind, more fun. More precise, more agile, more together, and yet still easily refined enough for a long journey.

This is how I come to find myself at Holyhead, Anglesey, on a sunny afternoon, waiting for the three-and-a-half-ish-hour ferry journey to Dublin. I’ve already spent four hours and 240 miles at the wheel of the Picanto with no complaints.

It’s not the cheapest Picanto variant. Instead, it’s the range-topping GT-Line S, at £18,295 including its metallic paint, which brings with it a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engine driving through a five-speed manual gearbox, more on which later.

It makes 99bhp and 127lb ft and the car weighs only 1030kg, so it can do 0-62mph in 9.9sec and tops out at 112mph. Neither of those performance numbers is a shabby figure, and nor is the 53.3mpg it returns on the combined drive cycle – and which you can have in the real world without effort.

But, moreover, the seats are comfortable, you can set and forget the climate control, the infotainment, mirrors, my phone – and there’s straightforward cruise control.

Bigger cars would have less road and wind noise, a more ass-kicky stereo and more in-gear motorway oomph, certainly, but I’m as happy in a Picanto as I would be in most cars, with the exception – common to most small cars – that the mean kids in Audis don’t respect city cars on motorways.

Maybe the angrier-looking Picanto facelift (with a 1.2 rather than a 1.0 turbo) will help. Holyhead to Dublin is one of a few ferry routes into Ireland.

Some mates tell me that Northern Ireland has great roads too, but the Republic of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – or part of it, given time restraints – is my interest for the next couple of days.

The Wild Atlantic Way is one of the world’s longest defined coastal routes, running a full 1553 miles (so I won’t have time for it all), from the Inishowen peninsula in the north, down the entire west coast and then east along the south coast as far as Kinsale, County Cork.

More Irish friends – we often end up in the same place as Irish motoring hacks – have told me that if one keeps going from there, Wexford, in the south-east, has more great roads again, so perhaps a circumnavigation of the whole island, starting and finishing in Dublin or Belfast, both terrific cities, is the dream driving trip.

But today I land in Dublin and head pretty much west, then down a bit, to Shannon, crossing the country in under three hours, from where some of the best roads – and, crucially for photographer Jack Harrison’s camera, views – are within easy reach.

The motorways are good. Quiet and smooth, they feel a bit like France’s (only the tolls are cheaper) and allow you to engage cruise control and ease the miles away with minimal traffic, which you’re not often able to do in England.

It’s getting late by the time I arrive at what must be about 30-40% up the Wild Atlantic Way route, but if you wanted to start at either end, you could catch an afternoon ferry and still arrive in time for late supper and a pint.

Harrison thes in early the next morning and the plan is to have two days exploring the south-west. Earlier this year, a property section of a newspaper ran a feature on why south-west Ireland would be a better spot than Cornwall for one’s holiday home – not a dilemma that will be troubling your correspondent – and many of the below-the-line comments agreed heartily save for one thing: the weather. Ireland, and this bit of it, where Atlantic meets land, is one of the wetter parts of the world.

But not today. Nor tomorrow. It is a dry, bright, early summer’s day, warm and by any standards not overly breezy, as we make our way west and south, through Killarney (to where we will return for the night later), towards the quaintest coves in the toe-like peninsulas that point into the Atlantic, on some lovely, quiet and twisting roads that are surfaced much better than I had been led to believe.

Ireland has N (national) and R (regional) roads of varying classes, a bit like UK A-roads and B-roads, you can get a really good version of the technically inferior one that’s nicer than a bad better one. If you follow. 

Either way, the driving is good and the views are better. Speed limits are 100kph (62mph) on dual carriageways, 120kph (74mph) on motorways, 50kph (30mph) in towns and 80kph (50mph) on out-of-town single carriageways.

But in a Picanto – or even performance cars, to be fair – that’s unlikely to be a frustration. The longest straights on the best roads aren’t that long, corners are often tight, and traffic’s light. There’s agricultural traffic, and slower drivers don’t mind being overtaken – it’s more like Scotland than England that way.

And if you do want a breather, the views are among the best there are, although dotted among the lush greens of early June are vivid pink blooms of rhododendron, ever so pretty, but an invasive species that strangles local flora. The Irish Times calls it an “ecological disaster”.

But what strikes me is how many other places the roads remind me of. Forgive me if you’re more accustomed to the locality and this sounds daft. But one drives on the left so it feels a bit like my home.

Yet there are yellow diamond road signs and road paint, which can make it feel like Australia or New Zealand, or a Californian canyon road. And then the scenery changes to a middle-European hillclimb pass or Wales, and then it opens out like the best, wildest bits of Scotland.

I spend two days being generally, genuinely, blown away by both the beauty and the roads: south-west of Killarney; the Ring of Kerry and the N71 south of it; Moll’s Gap (rally stages worth watching online); getting lost, getting found, and then having the drive at the end of day one, from Eyeries, County Cork, on a seaside hilltop, back to Killarney.

An hour and a half of twists, views, bumpy roads, smooth roads, little traffic; the kind of place that if you set up a sports car for these roads, it would perform everywhere.

Harrison – as big a car geek as you will find – and I wonder what would be the best car for roads like this. Nothing too fast, too supercar-ish. The fastest might be a Toyota GR Yaris.

But a hot hatchback would be ideal: a Renault Clio 182 perhaps, or a Honda Integra Type R, or an Alfaholics GTA-R or a Ford Focus ST – the old five-cylinder one.

Something whose suspension breathes, which turns willingly, and I’m not over-egging this when I say you wouldn’t have to get too far down the shortlist to settle on something like a Picanto, which steers sweetly, pivots nicely, has a willing engine and – I’ve said this before – perhaps the greatest gearshift in production.

Eventually, we get back to Killarney – a town with good hotels, good food and seemingly a hundred pubs with live music wonderfully advertised from “Zish” or “9ish” on chalkboards.

The Wild Atlantic Way, then. It is like the best bits of the North Coast 500, only there are fewer motorhomes, fewer midges, all the towns have great pubs and nobody takes a crap by the side of the road.

Quite often I visit a location on a job and think: “One day I must go back.” And often I then forget, or don’t quite get around to it. This time I’ve already booked it.

Source: Autocar

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