Designed by Peter Schreyer after Kia lured him from Audi, the debut ‘European’ Optima introduced a distinctive, snarling ‘tiger nose’ grille, a sleek, sporty silhouette, beautiful alloys on top-spec’ models and funky wraparound lights at the back. Fast forward to 2016 and the new, modestly-enlarged model doesn’t appear hugely different, merely evolving the car’s design subtly. The sleek overall shape remains, the grille has turned meaner and the bumpers, shoulders and arches have been flared-up nicely, giving the Korean saloon an even more planted stance. I must admit to favouring the rear of the original new Optima, though, its back lights much bolder and more confident instead of banal. Some say the Optima is anonymous but I’m having none of it – the thing has real road presence.
Slot someone into a new ‘4’-trim Kia Optima blindfolded and they’d be forgiven if they mistook it for a more premium car at first glance. Prodding and poking reveals some cheap plastics here and there, which is inevitable for its £28,895 price, but ‘above the fold’, the interior is a very strong effort. The 8-inch colour infotainment screen embedded into the leather-trimmed dashboard reflects annoyingly onto the windscreen at night, but is otherwise laudable and controls the thoroughly decent sat nav and Harman Kardon audio systems. The climate controls appear sophisticated, almost Audi-like, and along with the 360-degree camera with selectable views, there are even rear sun blinds and a heated steering wheel – unusual in this segment.
There’s plenty of room front and rear, although the front seats aren’t particularly cossetting, and the panoramic roof limits headroom for 6-footers. Practicality-wise, UK drivers prefer what hatchbacks offer, limiting the appeal of the Kia Optima saloon. The boot’s aperture and shape hinder its ultimate usefulness but the 510 litres of space it provides compares well against rivals. The Optima’s cabin isn’t perfect ergonomically, some controls placed awkwardly, as are the armrests, but on the whole, its luxury-pitched philosophy is commendable.
On the move, the 139bhp 1.7 CRDi diesel engine can’t match rivals like the latest Skoda Superb for quietness, proving gruff when fired into life, during keen acceleration and when overtaking. At motorway cruising speeds and when pottering around town, though, it’s a likeable unit. Road and tyre noise are slightly more evident than some drivers may expect. As an overall driving experience, the Kia’s 7-speed dual-clutch DCT transmission in the Optima feels and performs similarly to Skoda’s DSG stalwart, shifting the waft-oriented Korean saloon along smoothly on the whole but occasionally trips over itself and feels somewhat stodgy. Sport mode sharpens the throttle and steering responses but in a way that feels alien to the Optima’s character, leaving it to its own devices proving more pleasant.
Shod with 18” wheels, the Kia crashes through potholes and feels unsettled by surface imperfections at times, but takes speed bumps in its stride impressively. Zestful cornering sends it leaning and B-road excitement is further dampened by the car’s vague steering, the Optima unable to compete with the Ford Mondeo when it comes to dynamic agility. It feels as light as a feather to manoeuvre, though, and visibility is excellent, making it a fine choice for urbanites as well as motorway sloggers.
On paper, the all-new Kia Optima in range-topping ‘4’ trim returns 64.2mpg and after 400 miles of very mixed driving, I averaged 55mpg on an effectively new engine, which isn’t bad. Fleet managers and company car user-choosers understandably focus their attention on low-emission cars these days, which is where Kia’s one-trick pony approach for the Optima may backfire, the 1.7 CRDi emitting 116g/km CO2, whereas the latest Superb returns upto 80mpg and emits as little as 95g/km in some variants.
Owning a Vel Satis and yearning after an R-Class or 5 Series GT to replace it with, the Optima’s attempt at affordable luxury isn’t half bad for the price in my estimation. It offers plenty of space for occupants, the boot is pretty large and it comes with a veritable feast of technology and creature comforts. As a motorway mile-muncher and saloon for driving around town, it does itself proud on the whole, but offers little to excite when the going gets twisty, and the engine isn’t quite as refined as in a Passat, Superb or my pick, the Mazda6. Just like unusual delicacies and other foods, though, the Optima really is worth sampling and some people may become hooked – which almost happened to me.