For those of us that still remember the bland old days of Kia, the last few years have seen it's rise right up to the top. Can the new Optima continue Kia's success?
Photos: Low Fai Ming
When it comes to the flesh, the new Optima features a much sleeker, coupe-like profile designed by the new Kia design chief, Peter Schreyer. It also appears to have grown to be as big as some of the popular mid-size sedans from Japan, as well as receiving nice details such as the small side vents and the interesting windscreen frame that mirrors the grille design. The whole car sits low and with an aggressive stance, completed with flashy chrome wheels.
Things can only get better on the inside, we've always liked cars that make you feel cocooned and the Optima delivers that sensation with the instrument panel canted towards the driver. The dark interior does look and feel similar to the Cerato Forte thus it won't gain style points here, but everything is tightly screwed together. The chrome-surrounded instrument cluster houses a small LCD screen that displays the fuel consumption levels and is also capable of showing other useful information such as distance to go before you need a refuel. And then there's the “Eco” button, which makes the car shift though the gears quicker to help reduce fuel consumption. Kia says this car will do 13km/L at best.
More impressive though is the level of standard equipment: Keyless entry and ignition, cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity, a driver's memory seat that slides back after your turn the ignition off for easier access and a sound system that features USB and iPod connectivity. There are also steering-mounted shift paddles for instant liberation from the automatic monotony. The amount of space you get in the rear is also impressive with adequate headroom. While the loading area for the boot is quite small, you will find that the cavernous boot can actually swallow a lot of stuff.
Kia says that the Optima's 2.0L engine produces 163hp and 198Nm of torque. On the road though, it feels a tad bit underpowered with a civilized right foot behaviour. Noise isolation in the Optima is however good as you will hardly hear the engine except during heavy acceleration. Stomp that race-car like accelerator and it gets a bit throaty past the 4,000rpm mark, but it feels much more lively. The six-speed auto gearbox is pretty good at deciding which cog works best, although it's strange to see the lack of an automatic “sports” mode.
However, you can nudge the shift knob into manual mode if you desire some control over your gears through the steering-mounted shift paddles. The paddles also work even if you're in the full auto mode. Instead of having to wait for the automatic transmission to realize that you want to drop the gears, you can simply pull the down shift paddle and it will shift, reverting back to automatic mode after you are done accelerating.
The MacPherson struts and multi-link suspension is set up to be on the slightly sporty side. While this translates to a rather unsettled ride on bumpy roads, this car behaves itself on twisty roads, with body roll kept in check. Also worth mentioning is the good old hydraulic-assisted steering that feels very progressive and gives more feedback than most electrically-assisted systems. The steering feels a little on the heavy side at low speeds, but it's better at higher speeds.
It stops very well too, the 18-inch rims hide 280mm disc brakes in the front and 262mm in the rear. They stop this charging car with finesse and the brake pedal feels great to stomp on too, providing a firm feel. While we weren't mad enough to make the stability controls kick in, this also boiled down to the good grip that the tyres provided.
After a day with the Optima, we are totally convinced that this car can beat its immediate market rivals when it comes to handling and looks. While it doesn't do interior design, refinement or power that well, you're still getting a lot of good car for the money.