I can pretty much guarantee that, if you buy a Kia Optima, at some point in the first few weeks of ownership, someone is going to accost you in a supermarket car park and ask “Wow, what is that?”
Their response to your answer may well depend on just how clued up they are about modern cars and the technology behind them. It could well waver between “Aaah, a Kia...” and “Ugh, a Kia?” simply because not everyone has heard about the rise and rise of Korea’s fastest performing automotive star.
In fact, since 2006, in the face of Lehman Brothers, the credit crunch, the Euro crisis and Merkosy-nomics, Kia has managed to double its worldwide sales and dramatically increase its European market share, thanks in no small part to that remarkable seven-year warranty, which, even now, no rival can quite manage to match. And now, for the first time with a truly competitive vehicle, it’s entering the closely fought D-segment of family saloon cars.
The Optima is a striking car. And it’s far better looking, and more coherent, in the flesh (so to speak) than it is in photographs. In fact, to these eyes, it has more than a hint of the current Jaguar XJ about it. Not in the details, but in the overall stance and body language. And that truly sets it apart from the class norm. The Optima’s rivals, the likes of the Ford Mondeo, Toyota Avensis, VW Passat and Peugeot 508, all play relatively safe, even staid, styling cards. The Optima is rakishly upping the ante though, and it may well scoop sales on the basis of its looks alone.
Inside, it’s got the best interior that Kia has done yet. There are a lot of buttons, depending on the spec. In fact, we counted more than 30 between the door panel and the edge of the steering wheel alone, so expect to spend some time scouring the owners’ manual for answers. The cabin designers have obviously been boning up on eighties BMWs too, as the centre console, with its optional touch screen, is angled sharply towards the driver in the manner of an old E30 3 Series. Space is excellent, with stretching room in the back for adults (helped by a class-leading 2.8-metre wheelbase) and quality levels are most certainly on the high side of good. It looks good in there too, with sharp instruments and eye-catching design flourishes.
Engine-wise, the Optima sticks to the same script as its close cousin, the Hyundai i40. The only available engine for Ireland is the 134bhp 1.7-litre CRDI diesel, which emits 133g/km of Co2 and returns, claims Kia, 4.9-litres per 100km on the combined fuel economy cycle. Given the recent changes in the motor tax system though, don't be surprised if Kia soon brings the lower-emissions 117bhp version of the engine to market.
To drive, it's almost American in feel, which I guess is hardly surprising; America is already Kia's biggest export market and a major sales area for the Optima. There's a lovely soft, springy feel to the ride, making the Optima a very comfortable car, certainly on 17” alloy wheels. The steering is light, but pleasantly so and, while you cannot feel anything of the front tyres through the rim, after a while, you realise that the Optima will go where you want it, if you show just a little faith. Grip is plentiful and body control good, so you won’t be upsetting your passengers with lurching direction changes.
Standard equipment on this €28,995 Platinum model includes 17” alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, LED daytime running lights, rain sensing wipers, a reversing camera, cruise control, leather upholstery, heated seats and much more. Quite a list of toys, even if Kia is definitely nowadays pricing its cars to compete with, rather than undercut, its rivals.
In some ways, the Optima is actually quite a remarkable car. Yes, it's conservative and conventional in its mechanical make-up, but that striking, almost avant-garde styling lifts it above the herd of similar mid-size saloons – way above in fact. No, it's not the last word in handling sharpness or engine performance, but it's more than good enough to deserve that space on your driveway. And, with that price tag, lots of standard kit, that warranty and those looks, it should provoke a lot more ‘ahhhs’ than ‘ughs’.
Facts and figures
Kia Optima Platinum 1.7 Diesel
Price as tested: €28,995
Range price: €26,995 to €33,195
Top speed: 202kmh
Economy: 5.1l-100km (56mpg)
CO2 emissions: 133g/km
VRT Band: B2. €280 road tax
Euro NCAP rating: Not yet tested