Cause for op­ti­mism

Step up in qual­ity is matched by a price hike for mid-siz­er­mid- sizer

The Advertiser - Motoring - - FIRST DRIVE - CRAIG DUFF

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.

VER­DICT

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.

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