This all-new Kia mid-sizer ramps up performance and polish, for a price.
WHAT IS IT?
The second-generation Kia Optima. It’s an all-new platform and body, and it’s completely fresh inside. It shares its mechanicals with the Hyundai Sonata but brings Kia flair and loads of standard equipment.
WHY WE’RE DRIVING IT
This is our first drive of the new Optima in Australia. And that’s especially relevant for a Kia, as the Korean maker continues to tune the suspension on its Australian-delivered cars for local conditions, with the aim of delivering the optimum ride on our rough and ready roads.
Mazda 6, Ford Mondeo, Volkswagen Passat, Toyota Camry, Peugeot 508, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Holden Malibu, Skoda Octavia, Subaru Liberty
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The Optima is a well-equipped, spacious sedan that’s well finished inside and handsome on the outside. However it is less polished dynamically than many of its rivals, and doesn’t offer a wagon body style.
PLUS: Steering, well-equipped, vastly improved cabin with excellent space
MINUS: Poor body control, brittle low-speed ride, higher entry price
THE WHEELS REVIEW
THE Optima set the design trend for Kia, which spruiks ‘The Power to Surprise’ as its slogan. Yet for a car that set the look and characterised the confidence, verve and difference of the Korean brand, the second-generation Optima plays an awfully straight bat visually. It seems barely related to the stunning ‘Sportspace’ wagon concept shown at Geneva 2015. It’s a good thing then that it sits on a new platform, offers more space and is a far more honed execution than its predecessor.
There are now two trim levels. The $33,490 Optima Si is the price leader, aimed primarily at fleets, pragmatists and pencil-pushers. The step up to the Optima GT we’re driving here is an eyebrow raising $10K, which makes the $43,990 GT is the most expensive Optima ever offered.
The GT gets unique bumpers (including a rear diffuser), 18-inch alloy wheels and bi-xenon headlamps. But it also gets the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that we’ve seen in the Hyundai Sonata, with which this car shares its underpinnings. It features the same 180kW/350Nm outputs and six-speed automatic as the Sonata, but uses less fuel (8.5L/100km) and is loaded with far more equipment.
It ought to be, as the 2.0T-GDI engine is available in Sonata Elite for $36,990 with the same packaging and roominess. The new Optima’s 2805mm wheelbase is 10mm longer than before, resulting in masses of rear-seat space for easy six-foot passenger comfort, and a 510-litre boot holding a full-size alloy spare.
The cabin is a significant step up from the plastic-laden, cheap and nasty cockpit of its predecessor. The overall layout is simple, neat and effective, with aluminium (not coated plastic) inlays, and a crisp 8.0-inch centre screen for the standard sat-nav and reversing camera. There are also heated/ventilated leather seats, a good driving position with ample adjustment of both steering column and seat, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel with switches for the trip computer, audio and Bluetooth, and the active cruise control. The cruise – which uses both a camera and radar – is included in a raft of standard safety features, both passive and active. There are six airbags as well as autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
On the road, the Optima GT shows dabs of talent, yet it doesn’t quite pull it all together.
The 180kW turbo donk is responsive, if a little gruff when pushed, and if you select the ‘Sport’ Drive Mode, the GT’s throttle pedal is far too toey and difficult to modulate. Best leave it in ‘Normal’ mode and enjoy crisper steering too.
The engine is reasonably quiet around town – where the Optima offers good overall refinement – and while the auto is also a little slow at getting it all together, its smoothness is admirable.
At slow speeds, the GT’s ride (on excellent 235/45R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres) is too firm, even for a pseudo-sports model. This fidgety ride is transmitted through the chassis and steering wheel, and can become tiresome. There’s also too much road noise. Yet the local input to the Optima’s rear suspension has clearly helped: at speeds above 70km/h, the ride matures into an almost supple, yet still sporting, pliancy on bumpy country roads. The electric steering, too, is a highlight, as it’s reasonably accurate and sharp enough to make a game of a windy road.
The body control, however, isn’t. That high-speed ride may be a plus, but a larger bump will see the Optima GT feel a bit spongy, and quick changes of direction aren’t its forte.
Does that mean the Optima GT doesn’t make the cut? No. While it lacks the chassis talent and overall polish of VW’s new Passat, the biggest Kia makes huge strides in the areas of perceived quality, safety, and luxury.
Model: 2016 Kia Optima GT
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 9.5sec (est)
Fuel economy: 8.5L/100km
On sale: Now