Class di­vide

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

Friday - - Leisure -

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

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