In this cut-throat segment everything seems mediocre to drive, and excellent to buy. Except one or two cars. Or just one... wheels’ Dejan Jovanovic finds out where the 2014 Kia Optima stands
Ithink the problem with Kia cars (and Hyundais) is that they started too big. From nowhere they were suddenly everywhere. That sort of expansion prioritises international manufacture, the supply network (a massive home advantage with the group’s Korean suppliers), global relevancy and all sorts of other big words. A massive industry-leading warranty helps with brand image and buyer confidence, and whether it’s 10 years like in the US or five years in the UAE, honouring it costs Hyundai-Kia very little. The fact that Hyundai tinkers with off-shore rigs and all sorts of other big industries, such as ship-building, means that transport of thousands of new cars is only a matter of hitching a ride. Then there’s the design that has won Kia so many fans thanks to Peter Schreyer and numerous studios around the world.
Kia and Hyundai have thought of everything. Except vehicle dynamics, which, to me, is everything. I’m just assuming here, but it seems this entire corporation doesn’t employ a single chassis expert anywhere in its global network. Someone who understands what a steering wheel should do would also come in handy. It’s not that hard: start headhunting and draw your guy out of his eightto-six Porsche hole. They did it with Schreyer, who famously left his cosy gig in the VW group to take up an enticing position with ‘clean-sheet’ design opportunities being his main motivator. It would be the same with Kia vehicle dynamics. Really, you’d be starting from a clean sheet.
But in true Kia fashion, when it comes to this 2014 Optima they really did think of everything… else.
It’s been around for a couple of years, already having come out around the same time as Hyundai’s latest Sonata – they’re sibling cars – so it’s bigger and more spacious than its predecessor with more cargo room. There’s a lot of all that. But they’ve facelifted it for the next model year and added more standard features, so that the top-spec model truly has everything you can think of and nothing you don’t actually need. The most recognisable feature is the fog-lamp housing now split into four rectangular lights each instead of one big round single lamp.
There’s no change in the powertrains offered – I would stay away from the buzzy 160bhp 2.0-litre, even if it’s one of the stronger engines in this class. Mazda’s new 2.0-litre Skyactiv four, for example, comes up about 10 horsepower short but is infinitely smoother with less vibration. In any case, this loaded model on test has a 2.4-litre 178bhp and 231Nm engine (more power and torque than even the Honda Accord’s four-cylinder, but way less than Mazda’s 2.5-litre) mated to a six-speed automatic and its best attribute is the good fuel economy. It also makes the car go.
Any attempt at hustling the Kia vividly through some corners takes you back to maximising your fuel economy – the steering feel is just appalling at best and culls any fun you might want to have. It’s an electric system and you’d think the parameters for setting it up would be infinite, but they’re not. Three driving modes affect its weight and all three are bad (the steering has no realistic spring-return-to-centre at all) – keep it in Eco.
The best car in this segment is the new 2.5-litre Mazda 6 – there’s no arguing there. Unless you arm your argument with standard features and value for money (the 6 is at least Dh10,000 more expensive trim for trim). In that case, your fight for the 2014 Optima wins. But if you actually like cars and enjoy driving, the Mazda can’t be beaten.
Everything else in class is basically just as ordinary to drive as the 2014 Optima, yet falls short on kit and appointments – the Kia’s interior is just excellent, really, and they haven’t skimped on materials either. It’s got heated and cooled seats and multizone automatic air conditioning, and a massive sky-roof, giving the whole cabin airiness and a feeling of luxury.
It makes rivals like the Camry, Chrysler 200 and the lot feel like cheap furniture stores selling office goods. The navigation system is excellent too, with 3D mapping if you’re zoomed in and colourful graphics. It’s a smidgen under Dh100,000, and considering how forgettable this entire segment of cars is, the 2014 Optima easily stands out as the best car in the class. Or if vanilla isn’t your preferred flavour, second best.
The interior, particularly the steering wheel (but not the steering feel) is very impressive