Cause for optimism
Step up in quality is matched by a price hike for mid-sizermid- sizer
PRICE-CONSCIOUS buyers can cross the Kia Optima off their shopping lists. The company that built its reputation on cut-price cars is now trying to carve a place among the mid-sized market leaders such as the Mazda6, Ford Mondeo and Toyota Camry by backing a big list of standard features with the best warranty in the business.
Kia Australia chief operating officer Damien Meredith says it is a considered gamble but points to an impressive standard specification and vastly improved dynamics to justify the $43,990 ticket price of the turbocharged Optima GT. In reality that price is $44,585 given there’s a $595 premium for metallic paint — and white is the only nonmetallic colour.
That’s dearer than any petrol-powered rival this side of a Mazda6 Atenza and helps explain why Kia is predicting modest sales of about 3000 a year, split evenly between fleet and private buyers.
Even the fleet-oriented Si costs $34,490 with a less responsive naturally aspirated 2.4-litre engine. That puts it well above the entry level prices of its rivals, though a six-speed auto and an impressive list of goodies, including the insurancepremium friendly autonomous braking, is standard.
“The seven-year warranty has helped the brand and our resale values, now we’re moving up to the next step which is for the cars to represent the best value in each segment, rather than the lowest price,” Meredith says. “We’re not expecting huge numbers but we are expecting it to appeal to buyers who want an executive standard of features and style.”
Standard gear on the GT — which is expected to account for the bulk of private sales — includes an eight-inch touchscreen with satnav and a reversing camera, 10-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, autonomous emergency braking, blind spot and lanedeparture warnings, rear crosstraffic alert, adaptive headlamps and tyre-pressure monitors.
Both front seats are powered and fitted with heaters and fans and the cabin quality steps up to challenge the best in class in terms of soft-touch materials and button layout. There’s also inductive charging for (selected) Android mobile phones and a panoramic sunroof.
The Optima shares its underpinnings and drivetrains with the Hyundai Sonata but is packed with more gear to help justify the $2000 premium. A lighter weight also means it uses less fuel than its sibling, at a claimed 8.5 litres/100km against 9.2L/100km for the heavier Hyundai.
Capped-price servicing over the seven years equates to just under $700 a year for the GT. The Si’s simpler engine cuts that figure to about $470 every 12 months and it only needs one annual service against the GT’s twice-yearly trips to the dealer.
The styling is relatively unchanged, with new lights and a longer, leaner “Schreyer” grille with Mercedes-like diamond effect studs. The Si stands out with a trio of LEDS making up each fog light, while the GT has larger vertical vents with chrome struts mounted in either edge of the front bumper to channel air around the front wheels and a diffuser on the rear bumper.
ANCAP has yet to rate the Optima but it is reasonable to expect a five-star rating given the Hyundai Sonata earned top marks without the Kia’s active safety suite.
ON THE ROAD
As the fastest kid in the midsized field the Optima justifies the GT tag adorning its rear end and emblazoned on the seat backs and flat-bottomed steering wheel. It’s no sports car but it is more than capable of rewarding drivers with a spirited run up or down mountain roads.
Turn-in grip from the 18inch Michelins is great and changes to the suspension have improved the Kia’s ride and handling compared to the previous model. The sportier focus for the GT means it makes minor concessions to aroundtown cosseting in favour of better response and reaction to higher speed hits.
From memory it doesn’t feel as nimble as the Mazda6, especially on quick changes of direction, but a direct comparison in the next few months will give a more definitive response.
Where the Kia lags is throttle response out of the corners, especially in sports mode which is claimed to sharpen the response of the accelerator and six-speed auto transmission. Depending on how hard the engine is revving it is either a touch too hesitant to reapply the power or too quick to react to slightly more pedal pressure. Neither is a major issue but they do detract from what is supposed to be a grand tourer.
Noise suppression is a highlight, as is rear head and legroom and the gaping boot which still houses a full-size spare. The length of the cargo area means pushing smaller items to the back may require some contorting by smaller statured bodies to retrieve them.
The Optima is a big step up in quality and driving dynamics for Kia. It is accompanied by an equally large lift in price. Kia is smart enough to expect that to put some buyers off but confident enough to predict it will still earn sales from those looking for a mainstream sedan with more than a hint of luxury.