The Western world is in love with the notion of premium. Stroll down the streets of any town in Britain and where once larger models from mainstream brands dominated the parking bays, the 2012 cityscape is now peppered with interlocking ring quartets, blue and white roundels and three-pointed stars.
The death knell for the non-premium large car in the UK chimed when the Blue Oval didn’t replace the Scorpio; it was all but confirmed a few years later when GM Europe’s Omega wasn’t superseded either. It hit lower volume sellers hard too: Nissan once had four saloon ranges larger than the then-Escort rivalling Sunny, yet now doesn’t offer a single booted model in its crossover-dominated line-up at all.
A few persevered and sold large saloons in ultra-low numbers; if one’s being charitable, these bit-part players simply brought a handful of grey porridge four-doors from their domestic markets to flesh out otherwise uninteresting stodge in the showrooms. Customers tended to be more fascinated with an interior button count than criminally low residual values; others became the trouble free and thoroughly dreary staple of minicab fleets.
How does Kia fit into this scenario? Well, it’s probably best to gloss quickly over the Clarus and various generations of Magentis that graced (or greyed?) its range over the past decade… Good, you’d forgotten anyway.
Enter the Optima, essentially the replacement for the last Magentis and sister car to Hyundai’s i40. It’s such a leap forward that it may as well be considered Kia’s starting point in this market segment?
I’m still struggling to believe the Optima’s a Kia – it looks almost like a Jag.
How deliberate the Jaguaresque styling elements that drip seductively from the Optima’s panelwork are is anyone’s guess. Certainly there’s a fusion of XF and XJ themes all over the body, with sharper edges replacing the Coventry marque’s curves. The overall effect is one of instant glamour, no doubt aided by the bright metallic blue hue of this 2 Luxe specification test car.
What Kia has bestowed on the Optima is a genuine kerbside appeal. We’re already used to a range of bold and attractive models from the Korean brand, stylistic magic created by the wand of Peter Schreyer is now firmly ensconced on dealership floors and makes customers feel good about their more financially humble purchases. Drive the Optima along the High Street and it’s one of those rare moments where you can see people turn round and mouth “what’s that?” in your rear view mirror.
Like the latest Jaguars, in silhouette the Optima eschews that traditional notch at the meeting point betwixt rear windscreen and boot lid, forming a proper four-door coupé body style. If a proper coupé can have four doors, of course. The effect is elegant, although with front wheel drive and necessarily being based on existing platform architecture, it suffers the pinched-in wheelbase/long overhang conundrum that also befalls Volkswagen’s CC.
Attractive details abound and broadly add to the Optima’s visual experience rather than look like unnecessary glitz. Brightwork adornments are slender, not heavy handed and have been applied with restraint. The silvered band running along the top of the side windows before blending down the rear screen is a particularly classy touch.
Cast your eyes across the metal work itself and those subtle pressings and creasing add an athleticism to the design that prevents the Optima looking like a well-used bar of soap. The concave depression above the sills reduces the apparent height of the window line, itself framed on the lower edge by a shoulder ridge. Wheel arches are suitably pumped to house those bold alloys with a near flush finish to the tyre; liberal use of gloss black paint makes the spokes appear slimmer than they are.
Do you open the door to a Jaguar-like interior too then?
No, not exactly. Or not at all to be honest. Lest we forget, Kia is not a brand that can (yet) get away with charging high prices for cars which its ovoid badge is attached to and for £21,695 in mid-range 2 Luxe specification, you are getting a lot of metal for your money. But, cost savings have to be achieved somewhere and the interior is that somewhere.
What is clear is that Kia’s core values of offering a comprehensively equipped and well-built interior remain and for those familiar with other models in its range, you’ll coo with surprise as your fingers get to grips with materials that resemble soft-touch plastics over many surfaces. Unfortunately elsewhere the expanses of grey, textureless polymers seem omnipresent and those slithers of dark finished ‘wood’ won’t fool any dendrochronologists into unpacking their equipment to examine them.
There has been some effort to deviate away from the straight-laced set up of the Sportage and Sorento, the Optima’s dash is broad and curves around the driver’s arm sweep in a way that will look somewhat familiar to Saab pilots.
The interior’s biggest problem is that it simply doesn’t wow you like the exterior does. It’s like turning up at an exclusive restaurant you had to reserve 18 months in advance, only to be a served a cheese omelette and a cup of tea. In non-matching porcelain. Switchgear works as it should but lacks a delicacy in its refinement; there’s little damping or rubberising to the feel. A few pence shaved off the development bill here and there add up in the minds of consumers.
Aside from being tricked by the glamorous exterior into expecting a cabin of wonder, the rest of the Optima’s innards are exactly what you would expect. It’s a spacious saloon that can carry five adults with ease in safe surroundings. In spite of the narrow window height and dark plastics, it feels light and airy, boosted by a fashionable glass roof.
2 Luxe specification also brings dual zone climate control, LCD multifunction computer, Bluetooth compatible stereo, LED day running lights, reversing camera built into the rear view mirror and leather upholstery that curiously looks like it has a band of material made from a discarded pair of fishnets around the seat perimeter.
Hang on, the Optima’s a big car – but with a 1.7-litre diesel engine. Seriously?
If you’re still dwelling in the land of denial about small-capacity engines being up to the job these days, then you really need to consider emigrating to the real world.
It’s an engine that’s easy to be impressed with, which is good seeing as for British buyers this is the only choice for Optima propulsion. There’s little hiding it’s a tad clattery on start up but it soon refines out into a throaty thrum, delivering surprising alacrity through each of the six gears of the manual gearbox. With well-chosen ratios able to maximise the potential of the torquey unit, progress is swift and enough to keep many a warm hatch driver within easy reach, much to their annoyance.
While progress through the gears of the manual was pleasing, less so was the action of swapping between cogs. The box itself isn’t notchy or unwieldy, the changes themselves felt like some of the switchgear controls – underdamped. Unlike the majority of manual cars, as you cross over the neutral gate, there’s a more than simply perceptible sensation which robs the Optima of outright slickness between gears. It doesn’t slow the Kia down at all or lengthen the time to get from third to fourth, it’s just a regular reminder of its non-premium status. Personally I’d consider sacrificing a little performance and economy for the automatic version, which is more in keeping with the nature of the car anyway.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that with relatively few cubic centimetres under the bonnet that the four-cylinder engine would be enduring quite a workout to maintain such respectable levels of performance, but not a bit of it. My initial journey along the M3, M25 and A1 at typical speeds prompted a message of over 50mpg on the instrument display, a figure which never dropped below 45mpg during a week of very mixed driving. It’s someway short of the ambitious 57.6mpg of the official claim but as most of us accept, those published test figures seem as likely to happen as both Sheffield football clubs making it back to the Premiership.
Economy in the Kia is also boosted by the stop-start function to save fuel when the Optima’s at a standstill. Restarting is instant and barely perceptible, permitting rapid progression away from lights and junctions. Would be nice for Kia to make that EcoDynamics badge on the bootlid look a little more refined and a little less Fisher Price green.
Have Kia’s cost-savings for that bargain price meant that handling and ride leave a lot to be desired?
If you’re expecting to have fears confirmed of a wallowy, rolly road barge lolloping from one roundabout to the next, then think again.
Okay, the Optima might look rather athletic but it never pretends to be a sporting saloon despite its ‘Inspired by Browns Lane’ suit. This is a large, family orientated coupaloon that cossets its passengers without inducing floaty levels of sickness. Ride comfort is one of the Optima’s strengths, remaining composed and essentially level at low and high speeds, soaking up bumps and ruts with surprising ease.
Yet, Kia have struck a happy medium in that such suspension compliance hasn’t delivered a car that corners with its door mirrors scraping the asphalt, with body roll and pitch being kept well in check. It’s a car that’s much more at home pounding dual-carriageways but when you do venture onto those winding B-roads, the Optima does its best to play ball. Grip remains strong around tighter corners, the brakes retarding speed progressively and with little fade and the chassis displaying very little by way of recalcitrance urging you to slow down. For a car not claiming to have sporty ideals, it performs well, apart from the steering, which is ordinary at best.
Kia’s given the Optima a steering rack that not only would benefit from being a little quicker to respond to inputs at the wheel, but also one that lacks sufficient feel. Many will find it too light and over assisted, which doubtlessly make it easy to manoeuvre at urban speeds but dials out the joy-factor when out on longer expanses of road. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the Kia and how it reacts to wheel inputs, you drive around the relative lack of sensation and discover that it corners rather well, the combination of not too much power and grippy rubber ensuring breakaway into understeer territory is a more distant possibility.
The Optima is another Kia where you don’t have to hide behind the banner of a 7-year/100,000 mile warranty to justify your decision for ploughing your hard-earned into it. In fact, it’s another model from one of the fastest growing brands that some will buy based on looks alone. And it is a great looking car.
As a package beyond that it reflects Kia’s growing stature in being compared with mainstream European and Japanese marques and whilst it doesn’t outshine them in terms of dynamics and drivetrain refinement, neither is it disgraced.
In this sector, the Optima’s trump card remains its value for money, offering metal and an equipment count that few can touch. Ford’s Mondeo, now grown to fill the Scorpio’s shoes, might offer more pleasant furnishings, a better driving experience and arguably stronger residual values, but the base Edge specification is just £200 less than this comprehensive mid-range Optima 2 Luxe.
Still not convinced? When was the last time you looked over your shoulder having been wowed by an entry-level Mondeo?
Thumbs Up: A-list looks, comprehensive equipment, compliant ride, economy, price/warranty.
Thumbs Down: C-list interior, dull steering, gearbox feel, residual values.
Kia Optima starts at £19,595 for a 1 1.7 CRDi with manual transmission, rising to £25,995 for the 3 1.7 CRDi automatic.
Model Tested: Kia Optima 2 Luxe 1.7 CRDi EcoDynamics
Top Speed: 125mph
Combined cycle fuel consumption: 57.6mpg
CO2 emissions: 128g/km
VED Band/Cost: D/£100pa
Engine size: 4/1685cc common rail fuel injection, turbocharged diesel
Boot space: 505l
Kerb weight: 1637kg
Price: £21,695 (January 2012)
All photographs © Kia Motors 2012