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Review

First Drive: Kia Optima car review

16/01/12

IN A few short years Korean car company Kia has gone from being on the periphery of the UK sales chart to being a rapidly rising star. Once ridiculed by press and public alike, this very public transformation has produced a growing range of increasingly desirable cars.

From city cars to sports utility vehicles, Kia’s line-up spans all the important models. Well, not quite. Since the departure of its Magentis, Kia’s range lacked a medium-sized saloon. And, if you want to make strides in the all-important company car sector you still need to have one of those in the showroom.

Enter the Optima, which is Kia’s response to the likes of Vauxhall’s Insignia and Ford’s Mondeo. The company car reference is an important one, as ‘solus’ deals where a company secures its entire fleet from one car maker are a key part of this complex business. Spanish car maker Seat found this out prior to releasing its Exeo. Since its arrival the firm has done a roaring trade in the fleet environment.

And an increased presence in the fleet world is something Kia is actively seeking. So much so that the firm has opted to put all its eggs in one diesel basket, as for the UK the sole engine option for the Optima will be a 1.7-litre turbo oil-burner in 134 horsepower guise.

The engine’s official figures support Kia’s bold decision, with it posting 57.mpg and 128g/km for combined fuel economy and CO2 respectively. Factor in a stop-start function and it’s clear that this is a serious effort.

It’s also clear once you step inside the Optima that Kia’s not cutting any corners with the overall ownership experience. Immediately obvious is the amount of space available; front seat occupants won’t be bashing elbows and those in the rear benefit from enough legroom to rival that from a car in the class above.

Cabin fit and finish is also impressive, with good quality plastics everywhere and familiar, sturdy switchgear plus supportive seats for those predictably long journeys that company car drivers undertake every day.

The value-added proposition continues with a generous helping of kit throughout the range. Like other Kias the Optima is available in trim levels labeled 1, 2 and 3. With alloy wheels, Bluetooth, air conditioning, electric windows and cruise control available in base trim, you could easily stop there. Move up the range and you can choose between a ‘Tech’ or ‘Luxe’ theme and more kit: sat-nav, reversing camera, Infinity-branded audio unit, parking assist system and a panoramic sunroof on Luxe models.

Clearly Kia is out to tempt owners of well established cars with this treasure trove of kit. It’s a smart tactic as items like the touch screen sat-nav unit and MP3 player compatible audio system are impressive and easy to use.

No doubt there are people who still think that a Kia can’t possibly be as polished a performer on the road as its more experienced European rivals. After all, throwing the kitchen sink at the car must be a diversionary tactic, right? Wrong.

The truth, which the opposition might find hard to stomach, is that the Optima is indeed a fine car to drive. Kia’s progress in on-road dynamics has been rapid in recent years. The firm has taken developing cars for Europe very seriously indeed, and the Optima copes well with the various levels of broken surfaces that pass for UK roads in this day and age.

Given its target audience, it’s true that the Optima will spend many miles sat on the nation’s motorways. In this environment it feels stable and the cabin is a pleasingly hushed place to be. The car’s steering boasts a noticeable self-centering feel, which helps it track straight with little driver input.

Away from the nation’s highways the Optima continues to impress when there’s a bend in the road. Kia isn’t promoting the car as a Korean alternative to something from BMW but it does deliver a pleasing and reassuring experience when driven enthusiastically. Ride comfort is also good, with pitch and roll kept to a minimum.

Performance-wise Kia’s familiar 1.7-litre diesel unit performs admirably. It’s a surprisingly quiet unit even under load, yet delivers plenty of thrust when you need it and is flexible enough to adapt to changing terrain. And although available with a six-speed auto gearbox, the default six-speed manual boasts a gear shifter with a decidedly sporty and accurate short-throw action.

So, is Kia’s Optima worth a punt? Countless American buyers can’t be wrong, as the car has been flying off the shelves since its launch over there, and helps to explain why we’ve had to be patient for it to hit the UK shores.

On balance the Optima is impossible to ignore. It’s a stylish, spacious, refined and practical mid-size saloon boasting a wealth of standard kit, low running costs - don’t forget Kia’s trademark seven year warranty - and a pleasing driving experience. If it’s not on your company car list, find a job where it is.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi 2 Tech, from £21,695 on the road.

Engine: 1.7-litre diesel unit developing 134bhp.

Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.

Performance: Maximum speed 125mph, 0-62mph 10.2 seconds.

Economy: 57.6mpg.

CO2 Rating: 128g/km.

  • Enginesdiesel
  • Power3 (average performance)
  • 0-60 mph
  • Economy4 (better than average fuel economy)
  • CO2g/km
  • Insurance groups3 (average costs)
  • Airbags
  • Seats5

Motors.co.uk value verdict:    stars

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