Stylish new Optima Sportswagon is lined up to take on the might of BMW, Audi and Mercedes, but have Kore­ans done enough this time?

Belfast Telegraph - NI Carfinder - - Front Page - BY DAR­REN CASSEY

WHAT’S NEW? The Kia Optima has been, by Kia’s own ad­mis­sion, un­der-per­form­ing in the sales depart­ment. Part of the prob­lem is that the small com­pany hasn’t had the fac­tory ca­pac­ity to of­fer Europe-spe­cific mod­els — but that’s all changed now.

Kia has pledged to build new mod­els for new mar­kets and the Optima Sportswagon is part of ful­fill­ing that goal.

In Europe, es­tate cars make up twothirds of sales and 75 per cent of fleet sales in this seg­ment. Kia wanted in on the ac­tion, which is why it’s built its first D-seg­ment es­tate.

Aside from be­ing 5mm taller, it’s mostly as you were with the sa­loon. Dy­nam­i­cally the only change is in the sus­pen­sion — damper rates and align­ment set­tings have been tweaked to ac­com­mo­date a rear­ward-shift in weight dis­tri­bu­tion and to cope with the po­ten­tial for heav­ier loads.

LOOKS AND IM­AGE Beauty is in the eye of the be­holder, but it’s fair to say Kia has hit the nail on the head stylis­ti­cally. The look is clearly in­spired by Euro­pean ri­vals, but it has a unique char­ac­ter that’s of­ten lack­ing from high-vol­ume man­u­fac­tur­ers’ cars.

In an Olympic year, it’s per­haps apt that the Korean man­u­fac­turer has a big hur­dle to over­come. Brand im­age is some­thing that takes time to build and in this seg­ment it’s al­most as im­por­tant for buy­ers to be able to say they own a BMW, Mercedes-benz or Audi as it is to have a de­cent car. Kia’s in a good place to leap it, though.

Open­ing the Optima’s door, you’ll no­tice it’s heavy and closes with a sat­is­fy­ing thud. The in­te­rior is mostly on a par with the Ger­mans; the wheel feels good in your hand if a lit­tle un­com­fort­able in Gt-line spec, while the centre con­sole and but­tons have the look and feel of more pre­mium ri­vals.

The only let-down is the shiny, cheap-feel­ing plas­tic that’s splashed across the top of the dash­board. It’s an odd ad­di­tion to an oth­er­wise up­mar­ket in­te­rior.

For those who put qual­ity, or just be­ing a bit dif­fer­ent, above show­ing off to oth­ers, the Kia won’t feel like a com­pro­mise.

SPACE AND PRAC­TI­CAL­ITY In the D-seg­ment, space and prac­ti­cal­ity are big sell­ing points — it’s why es­tate vari­ants are so pop­u­lar.

The Optima Sportswagon’s cargo space mea­sures up at 552 litres with the rear seats up and 1,686 litres with the seats down.

This mea­sures favourably against many ri­vals in­clud­ing the BMW 3-Se­ries and Audi A4, though it’s a good chunk less spa­cious than a Volk­swa­gen Pas­sat. Added prac­ti­cal­ity comes in the form of a pow­ered tail­gate, one-touch fold­ing seats and on ‘3’ and Gt-line S trims, ad­justable lug­gage rails.

BE­HIND THE WHEEL Kia’s been big on its new fun-to-drive ethos and it’s shown ad­mirable com­mit­ment to this cause.

Cars in this seg­ment will never be light and wieldy, but the Optima’s sus­pen­sion tweaks do a good job of reign­ing in the rear’s ex­tra heft. It gives a com­posed ride that finds a pleas­ant com­pro­mise be­tween feel­ing soft and com­fort­able with­out the un­set­tled wal­low­ing that’s of­ten a by-prod­uct of such a set-up.

The steer­ing, again, is a great com­pro­mise. Too of­ten, mod­ern elec­tri­cally-as­sisted set-ups can feel feather light or have en­gi­neered ‘weight’. How­ever, the Optima’s steer­ing feels nat­u­ral.

The real let-down from a fun-to­drive per­spec­tive is the en­gine. With 139bhp and 340Nm of torque it was never go­ing to be light­ning quick, but it feels slower and less re­spon­sive than those num­bers sug­gest, es­pe­cially in the man­ual. It also lacks the smooth­ness and surge of torque found in the best mod­ern diesels from the likes of Mazda.

The en­gine feels like diesels of old; noisy and unin­spir­ing. Go for the DCT auto though and re­spon­sive­ness at low revs is im­proved, even if the of­fi­cial per­for­mance fig­ures con­tra­dict that.

Driv­ers less con­cerned with pick­ing a Kia be­cause it’s en­joy­able to drive will be pleased to know that the man­ual is of­fi­cially rated at 64.2mpg and 113g/km of CO2, while the au­to­matic is of­fi­cially 61.4mpg and 120g/km — all de­cent num­bers for a car in this seg­ment.

VALUE FOR MONEY The en­try level Optima Sportswagon starts at £22,295 and that feels like great value when you’re sat be­hind the wheel. It would be fair to say the Optima’s in­te­rior is al­most on a par with the likes of BMW and isn’t as far be­hind more pre­mium man­u­fac­tur­ers as you might think

Con­sid­er­ing it un­der­cuts both by a few thou­sand pounds, those look­ing to save the pen­nies re­ally only have badge snob­bery to over­come. It costs a frac­tion more than a Ford Mon­deo es­tate, which of­fers sim­i­lar cargo space and slightly bet­ter fuel econ­omy from its also-unin­spir­ing diesel.

The Optima’s trump card, how­ever, is Kia’s seven-year or 100,000-mile war­ranty. It helps bring run­ning costs right down and gives wel­come peace of mind.

WHO WOULD BUY ONE? This car has fleet own­ers firmly in its sights. First and fore­most, this es­tate model was added to the line-up so Kia could get a slice of that sweet fleet own­er­ship pie.

Com­pany car own­ers will be pleased to know Ben­e­fit-in-kind tax­a­tion is 19 per cent for the man­ual trans­mis­sion cars and 21 per cent for those with an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion. This un­der­cuts most ri­vals by one or two per cent.

Cou­ple that with de­cent fuel econ­omy and you’ve got a solid al­ter­na­tive to the es­tab­lished Euro­pean mar­ques.

The Optima Sportswagon will also ap­peal to those with large fam­i­lies and per­haps a large dog. It pro­vides enough space to keep the lit­tle ones com­fort­able on long trips and the large boot is ideal for keep­ing a pet away from your nice seats with­out feel­ing guilty about stuff­ing it in a claus­tro­pho­bic boot.

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