Kia Optima EX 2011 Review

First there were the days of Kia vehicles being a no-frills low cost alternative to the major Japanese brands, but that didn’t last. Kia then became a genuinely viable option against Japanese competitors albeit at a lower price point. But Kia isn’t content just to stop there and with models like the new Optima it’s making an ambitious play at moving ahead of the pack. However, getting the formula exactly right in medium sedan segment comes with a high degree of difficulty. Medium sedans aren’t increasing in popularity in this country so Kia is hedging its bets with a single model offering; the well equipped EX. Does this Korean cruiser have the mechanical package to back up its striking looks? After a week piloting the 2011 Optima, Car and SUV thinks so – here are the reasons why.

Exterior Design – Dead Set Stunner
The Optima’s dimensions and wheelbase are larger than its predecessor but its styling is much tighter. There’s plenty of Euro influence, from the chrome trim around the window line to the vents on the front wheel guards. The Optima also showcases the best elements of Kia’s current design language lead out by the now distinctive ‘tiger nose’ grille. Bordered with chrome the grille sits above a wrap-around lower intake, recessed fog lamps and LED running lights. A coupe-like roofline and scalloped lower door panels define the Optima’s flanks. Upswept C-pillars and an advanced stance finish off the dynamic bodywork.  Filling the guards are distinctive 18-inch alloys retained from the concept version of the Optima, they will divide opinion but are unique and certainly add extra bling.

Interior – Spacious and Practical
Inside the Optima gets a look that’s more conservative than the exterior but still has plenty of sports sedan appeal. The centre control stack angles towards the driver and the instrumentation is presented in a twin dial arrangement with a central colour display. Dark plastics dominate the cabin atmosphere and a broken up by contrasting silver trim. The soft touch dash and door trims are tactile and high quality but flat, harder plastics are also used in some areas. The mixed quality of the interior materials is the only area in the Optima where cost cutting measures are noticeable. General fit and finish is hard to fault and moving parts are exact. The audio and climate controls are well presented and while there are more ergonomic button layouts around, after a few days in the Optima you’ll be working by touch alone.

The leather-trimmed seats are broad and supportive up front, with good back bolstering and 8-way electric adjustment on the driver’s chair. With a very long 2795mm wheelbase there is generous legroom for all passengers in the Optima, with the front seats doing best. Headroom is surprisingly good for rear passengers and isn’t compromised by the raked-back roofline. In the boot there is a cavernous 505-litre capacity and the rear seat back splits and folds forward for transporting longer items.

Equipment – More for the money
Like all Kia product the Optima strives to offer more standard kit than its direct competitors. Notable inclusions are an 8-speaker 6-disc CD stereo with USB input and iPod integration, dual-zone climate control, proximity key, cruise control, Bluetooth capability, multifunction trip computer with colour display, automatic lights and wipers, cooling glovebox and parking sensors. There’s also a reversing camera that shows in the rear vision mirror. This is a clever system and while the display is small it remains a handy feature.

Powertrain – No fuss frugality
In the current climate, fuel consumption is highly important in all car segments, even med/large sedans. But performance is important as well and Kia has found a good middle ground with the Optima’s 2.4-litre GDI four-cylinder petrol engine. The high-pressure direct injection unit delivers 148kW of power and 250Nm of peak torque. Fuel economy is rated at an achievable 7.9litres/100km combined, which is thrifty for a car with the Optima’s size and power. Part of the reason for this impressive figure spawns from Kia’s efforts to keep weight down in the Optima and tipping the scales at 1551kg it’s not as bulky as the exterior design may suggest.

Mated to the petrol motor is Kia’s six-speed automatic transmission that is apparently the most compact six-speed box in the world. Another fresh piece of tech is the Optima’s ‘ECO’ mode which once engaged through a cabin button adjusts gear changes and reduces air-conditioning use, to reduce fuel usage by a further 7.5 per cent.

Driving – Some go to match the show
The Optima is no hardcore performance machine but it is a very capable cruiser that’s fun to push through the bends. Off the line it will take 9 seconds to reach 100km/h but it feels quicker than that figure would suggest. The motor is smooth and shows no signs of the coarseness that plagues some four-cylinder sedans. It performs best above 3000rpm and remains quiet until it gets near its redline. Once up to speed it’s got plenty of mid range ability for open road overtaking and is a very relaxed motorway cruiser. Around town, it’s got enough pep to dart through suburban streets and with a 10.9 metre turning circle the Optima is easy to manoeuvre as well. Gear changes are slick and the six-speed auto feels tightly synced with the motor. If you want to work the Optima in a manual mode click down a couple of gears on the steering wheel paddles, or alternatively the sequential shift option at the gearstick.

While the motor and gearbox are modern and handy it’s the Optima’s driving dynamics that make it that little bit special. A unique suspension and handling package was developed by Kiwi and Australian engineers for downunder roads, and the results are excellent. The chassis feels taut and there’s plenty of feeling through the hydraulic power-steering system. It will especially appeal to drivers who like their steering firm and direct. Body roll is minimal with the Optima staying flat even when cornering at higher speeds. The stability control system works away under the surface and keeps the vehicle straight but can intervene a touch early at times. That said, it’s an entertaining steer, it can’t match an AWD Subaru Legacy but the Optima’s front driving wheels pull it through the bends with confidence.

Despite the firm suspension and low-profile rubber, ride comfort hasn’t suffered and coarse surfaces rarely disturb the cabin. There is tyre roar on some roads but wind noise is non-existent making the Optima a tranquil cruiser.

Safety – Obsessively covered
The Optima is a tough car to crash with active safety systems like stability and traction control, a brake assist system, hillstart assist control, ABS brakes and electronic brakeforce distribution. If things do go pear-shaped there are front, side and curtain airbags and seatbelt pretensioners at the front. To keep it family friendly there’s also passenger airbag deactivation, kiddie locks and three point seatbelts for all.

Conclusion – Segment Frontrunner
The Optima is a total all rounder with very few weak points. Once you consider the specification level and the price it’s a tough act to match in the medium sedan segment. Its main strengths are in the bold exterior styling, smooth and economical powertrain and engaging driving dynamics. It’s no fireball in terms of straight-line performance, but it’s not meant to be, it’s a cruiser and cruising is something it does very well. If you’re in the market for a medium sedan, don’t turn your nose up at the Kia badge; take a good look at the Optima. Once you see it in the flesh it will be difficult to dismiss.

Price: $46,990

What we like:

  • Stunning exterior design
  • Interior space and trim
  • Economical and smooth powertrain
  • Handling ability

What we don’t like:

  • Stability control can intrude
  • Supply constraints
  • Some interior plastics aren’t high-grade

Who will buy this car: Private sales will make up Kia NZ’s limited supply of Optimas. Could suit a broad range of lifestyles and applications. Badge snobs need not apply.

Cool Factor: High, that exterior styling has the power to change how people view Kia vehicles and that makes it a special machine. Retaining the wheels from the concept car give it extra street cred.

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

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