Kia adds a real eyecatcher to the fleet

Wed, May 16, 2012, 01:00

ROADTEST KIA OPTIMA:AS TWO HOODIE-CLAD teenagers approached the Kia in the rain-sodden Quickpark car park at Dublin airport, my first thoughts were not that this was going to be a discussion about the growing popularity of the Korean brand. It was a dirty, wet night and, with my luggage in the boot I resorted to the usual middle-aged response: frantically look for the central locking switch.

Of course, I needn’t have bothered. These were genuine teenage petrolheads, back from a mid-term break abroad with their parents, who were busily lugging the luggage off the bus. They talked of the Ferraris and Porsches they’d spotted in Spain, the crappy car their dad rented, and then moved on to praise the Kia. The general gist of their commentary: Kia is making some funky looking cars. And to prove that I’m not totally out of sync with the youth of today, I’d tend to agree.

There’s a new generation of car fans for whom Korean car firms are making their marque felt. They don’t carry the baggage of budget fare, much the way that those who started motoring in the 1980s and 1990s came to look on Japanese cars as solid sensible buys and even sporting alternatives to the old European brands. More wizened motorists still cock their noses up at the Asian offerings, but they are the same folks who regarded mobile phones as the death knell of civilised society.

There’s no point in reiterating just how far Kia and Hyundai have come in the last few years. Their journey has been well-documented to date. Suffice it to say they’re now fully-fledged, mainstream players with better styling than many others and warranty packages that put rivals in the shade.

On the whole, Kia’s model range is arguably the most attractive on the mainstream market. Car firms talk of a “family look” across the range, but few manage to pull it off. Kia has done just that and, alongside this, developed some truly funky cars. The Rio is one of the best superminis on the market, while the Soul oozes character. The Sportage and C’eed don’t impress when it comes to driving dynamics, but they are good-looking alternatives to the regulars.

Now Kia is making a great leap into a segment of the market where traditional players such as Ford, Toyota and VW hold sway. In fairness, Kia’s not so much leaping forth as dipping its little toe in this market. The Optima has been developed with Asian and American markets in mind. It has arrived here several months after it was launched on those continents and even then with limited European supply.

On top of the supply restrictions, we get just one engine option, the same 1.7-litre 134bhp turbodiesel you’ll find in the Hyundai i40. It comes with either six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. That’s pretty much it in terms of powertrain options, so the opportunity to give chase to the likes of the Ford Mondeo or VW Passat is very limited.

It’s a pity, but it also highlights some of the areas where Kia still needs to improve. It now offers a range of great looking cars. It has Kia’s impressive seven-year/150,000km warranty package that’s transferable to used buyers and which has set a trend for others to follow.

Our test car was the range-topping Platinum version, with all the bells and whistles that can feature on the Optima, but a quick perusal of the options list reveals that even the standard EX version is pretty well equipped.

Yet the €2,000 extra to move up to Platinum offers features such as reversing sensors, electrically-adjustable driver’s seat, a smart-looking panoramic sunroof and those eyecatching propeller alloys that may well pay-off when it comes time to trade in. It also comes with Kia’s innovative reversing camera screen that’s built into the rearview mirror. It’s a little feature that still wows me, even in the age of iPads and self-driving cars. As for interior space, the Optima does not disappoint. There is ample room in the back, while the boot offers enough space for any family’s needs in a saloon.

If Kia’s model range ticks all the boxes in terms of styling, equipment and reassurance these days, its cars are sometimes let down by performance and handling.

With the Optima, the 134bhp engine should, on paper at least, be up there with the best. It does pack something of a punch when pushed, but our test car was an automatic and the transmission takes a rather sedate approach to life, not in keeping with the car’s sportier styling.

We’ve read elsewhere about turbo lag on the manual, but it can be as much of an issue on the rather unresponsive automatic that doesn’t hold its gears as long as we would have liked. While the autobox is the better choice for comfort and town driving, it throws the car two tax bands higher than the manual, and that means €256 a year more. Unless you are an avid fan of automatics, the manual is the one to choose.

The Optima’s handling is sharper than we’ve experienced on some of the firm’s other models, most notably its Sportage small SUV, but it’s still woolly and doesn’t match the precision of the likes of the Mondeo. The ride quality is again tuned for comfort, a trait that perhaps demonstrates its target market of North American buyers who spend a great deal of time in town traffic or long interstate routes, rather than on the zigzagging roads of Europe.

Overall the Optima is a comfortable car to drive, lulling you into a sense of ease that’s particularly attractive for long motorway runs but less so when you want to have a little fun on more twisting or challenging routes.

Given Kia’s limited ambitions for the Optima in Europe, it’s unlikely to challenge the dominance of the Toyota Avensis, because the latter has received a smart facelift and its dealer network is much more advanced. A similar situation applies to the Volkswagen Passat. The Ford Mondeo is still the benchmark for driving dynamics, if not for image.

The i40 has been a monumental success for Hyundai, and, even if Kia is not being as aggressive with the Optima, this car proves the Koreans can deliver and should have more confidence to do so. Of the two, the Optima is a better looking car.

As for the rest of the family saloons on the market, this is the one that catches the eye, even in a dark and dank airport car park.


ENGINE1,685cc four-cylinder 16-valve diesel putting out 134bhp @ 4,000rpm and 325Nm of torque from 2,000rpm

PERFORMANCE0-100km/h 10.2 secs

L/100km (mpg) 5.1 (55.4)

EMISSIONSautomatic version: 158g/km (€481 motor tax); manual version: 133g/km (€225 motor tax)

FEATURESABS with EBD and brake assist, electronic stability control and vehicle stability management, twin front, side and curtain airbags. EX comes with 16” alloys, LED daytime running lights, front and rear foglights. Platinum with either 17” or 18” alloys, also adds UV reducing solar glass, panoramic sunroof with tilting sliding function, auto headlight control, reversing sensors and camera system (with screen built into rearview mirror)

PRICE€33,195 for auto Platinum version (18” wheels); starts at €26,995 for manual

RIVALS(MOTOR TAX) Toyota Avensis D-4D 2.0 125 Aura – €26,495 (€160); Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDI 140bhp Comfortline – €30,130 (€160); Opel Insignia 2.0 CDTi 130bhp S – €28,280 (€160); Hyundai i40 1.7 CDTi 115bhp Executive – €26,495; Ford Mondeo 1.6 TDCi 140bhp Style 5dr – €30,495

OUR RATING 7/10– great looks if mediocre performance, but pricing and warranty make it worthy of consideration