Car reviews - Kia - Optima - GT
Value, luxury feel, great ride, cabin layout and comfort, fuel-efficiency, decent dynamics
Room for improvement
Cheap-looking touchscreen surround, tight rear headroom, engine needs more low-down punch
17 Jun 2016
Price and equipment
TOPPING the two-variant Optima range at $43,990 plus on-road costs, the GT is comprehensively equipped and is differentiated from the entry-level Si by its bi-Xenon active headlights, LED tail-light clusters, red brake callipers behind 18-inch alloys with Michelin tyres, chrome door handle trims, illuminated aluminium tread plates, and a sports bodykit with a more aggressive grille, rear diffuser, sportier bumpers and black gloss side skirts.
Inside is an 8.0-inch touchscreen, a 4.2-inch TFT LCD multi-function trip computer display, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, dusk-sensing headlights, high-beam assist and lane-departure warning, along with blind-spot detection, lane change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, steering-wheel-mounted buttons for the Bluetooth phone, audio system and adaptive cruise control, satellite navigation, a 60/40 split-fold rear bench, a flat-bottomed and leather-wrapped sports steering wheel (with reach and height adjustment), a leather gear selector, paddle shifters, auto-folding electrically-adjustable mirrors, a self-dimming interior mirror, rain-sensing wipers, two 12V power outlets and dual-zone climate control.
There is also a wireless smartphone charging station (for compatible devices) tyre-pressure monitoring, a panoramic sunroof, rear door sun-blinds, a choice of black with red stitch or red with dark grey stitch leather-upholstery, eight-way power driver’s seat, heated and ventilated front seats, real aluminium trim, automatic boot release and a 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio system.
Standard safety equipment includes six airbags, electronic stability control, emergency stop signal and hill-start assist.
The only options is premium paint for $595 and our test car was fitted with the no-cost option of red leather upholstery.
Were it not for the nasty plastic surround to the Optima’s touchscreen and ill-fitting front-centre speaker grille, we could have forgiven anybody for thinking they were sitting in a $70,000 car, not a sub-$45K machine. Finally the Optima’s innards match the classy exterior look.
The no-cost-option red leather upholstery of our test car really added some pizazz to the interior, lending it an even more luxury feel than a plainer hue could achieve. Attention to detail such as the colour-matched door trims and ruched map pockets really helped lift the ambience, as did quality soft-touch surfaces, plus the upholstered pillars and ceiling throughout.
Comfort in the perforated, heated and ventilated front seats is exceptional and we easily found the ideal driving position behind the Optima’s uncluttered, logical, attractive dashboard and one of the best steering wheels in the business.
Storage around the cabin ticks a lot of boxes too with a generous glovebox, well-designed cupholders with sliding cover, a central armrest bin and smartphone tray with charging points – including wireless charging for compatible devices – and while the door bins are rather thin and shallow, they are conveniently shaped to hold drinks bottles.
Rear passengers get their own air-conditioning vents and nicely illuminated USB and 12V power outlets plus another pair of cupholders in the fold-down centre armrest. The privacy glass and integrated roll-up sun-blinds were a boon for transporting an infant in hot weather.
Being 10mm longer, 25mm wider, 10mm higher than its predecessor, with a 10mm-longer wheelbase as well, the big Kia delivers both up-front and in terms of rear legroom, but the coupe-like profile eats into headroom for back-seat occupants and the central position is reserved for the small or unpopular.
Cargo space is also a more than acceptable 510 litres with the rear backrests in place (for comparison with other popular mid-size sedans, a Mazda6 offers 483 litres, while a non-hybrid Toyota Camry has 515 litres of space). Top marks for the presence of a full-size alloy spare wheel under the boot floor too.
Apart from the aforementioned touchscreen surround, the infotainment itself functions well and compliments the large, intuitively placed buttons, excellent rotary air-conditioning controls and lovely multi-function steering wheel in terms of usability. The instruments and multi-function trip computer display between them are similarly clear, attractive and logical.
Even better, the Harman-Kardon audio system provides a genuine surround-sound effect with excellent separation and kicking bass. Such quality hi-fi is usually reserved for cars attracting the luxury car tax. We only cranked it up for fun as the Optima maintained acceptable levels of road and wind noise throughout our test.
We wanted for nothing in terms of equipment and customisable active safety features – including one of the better adaptive cruise control systems we have encountered – and the word that kept coming to mind while onboard the Optima was ‘classy’.
Engine and transmission
Exclusive to the range-topping GT is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder direct-injection turbocharged petrol engine producing 180kW at 6000rpm and 350Nm at 1400-4000rpm. The 0-100km/h acceleration dash is dealt with in a brisk but not brutal 7.5 seconds.
Don’t let the torque figures fool you though, for this engine is not about point-and-squirt throttle response. It takes a while to build momentum if you floor it, with full acceleration not arriving until around 3000rpm. For general driving it’s more than acceptable though.
Selecting the right driving mode is important too. Eco mode is best saved for motorway journeys but around town, forget it because we constantly felt as though we were fighting the throttle and engine in order to make progress. It was frustrating and made the engine feel laggy.
Normal mode is great and after trying Eco mode for some time, it reminded us that the engine is in fact pretty responsive unless asked for sudden full-bore acceleration.
Regardless of mode, the Optima GT engine never sounds all that inspiring under acceleration and from cold some vibration could be felt through the steering wheel and a slightly diesel-esque ticking sound was evident. Again, during normal driving duties it is generally quiet and refined.
On the dynamic part of our road-test, the engine was happy in third gear for much of the time, keeping it in the smooth, free-spinning, clean-revving sweet-spot – which is very sweet – where an elasticity to the power delivery made maintaining momentum a cinch. But, as expected from our urban experience, it never felt punchy, especially at lower revs.
As we’ve come to expect from Kia, the six-speed automatic transmission is a set-and-forget affair, doing its job capably in the background, kicking down eagerly, rarely dropping a clanger with the wrong ratio and never disturbing us with the odd low-speed clunks and thumps we have experienced on some rivals.
Official fuel consumption is 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle, which interestingly beats the Hyundai Sonata using the same engine by 0.7L/100km.
We averaged mid-to-high sevens in a mix of motorway and urban driving, while urban driving saw this figure creep into the mid-to-high nines. Impressively, our average at the end of a week with the Optima was 8.4L/100km – a tenth off the official figure.
Ride and handling
The Optima GT impressed us with its exceptional ride, which felt perfectly damped and ideally tuned for the knobbly Australian roads of our neighbourhood and road-test route. It soaks up undulations, which can be hit at odd angles and just shrugged off. Speed bumps are ironed out too.
Likewise the steering – a rack-mounted electric power assist unit exclusive to the GT – has a pleasing amount of off-centre bite that makes the car feel responsive and agile on the urban and suburban roads where it will spend most of its life.
It all adds up to the kind of thoroughly engineered feel German cars used to be famous for and demonstrates that the Optima’s sleek looks and premium cabin ambience run more than skin deep.
Continuing the German theme, on the fast-and-twisty section of our road-test circuit we never felt as though we were fully leaning on the Optima’s levels of grip. It really flowed and was easy to drive quickly yet smoothly.
On a couple of occasions we felt a little lightness around the rear of the car in tight corners – beneath several layers of electronic safety aids – and the damp conditions may explain our slight disappointment at the Optima’s ability to quickly scrub off speed under hard braking.
Conversely, the Michelin tyres offered a tremendous amount of grip, with good front-end bite on tighter corners even in the damp-to-wet weather of our dynamic drive, providing sensational levels of confidence.
Taking liberties would lead to understeer and some electronic intervention but from behind the wheel this Optima is light-years ahead of its predecessor in that regard. The GT also earned our respect for its vice-free handling balance and the way it rewarded the driver for measured feeding in of steering inputs to make the most of its flowing nature.
Unlike its pleasing urban and suburban feel, at higher speeds on challenging roads the Optima’s steering did dull some of the excitement of proceedings.
While perfectly weighted, absolutely accurate and faithful to the driver’s intentions, it was somewhat lacking in feel and feedback.
By no means did the Optima GT shame itself dynamically – even with the numb steering it was decent fun – and we came away deeply impressed by the Kia’s outstanding ride quality and tied-down feel on all surfaces.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP has yet to provide a crash-test safety rating for the 2015-on Optima. The mechanically related Hyundai Sonata achieved five stars, as did the 2011-2015 Optima the model tested replaces.
Standard safety equipment includes six airbags, electronic stability control, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, dusk-sensing headlights, high-beam assist and lane-departure warning, along with blind-spot detection, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert, emergency stop signal and hill-start assist.
Kia’s market-leading seven-year warranty, seven-year capped servicing, and seven-year roadside assistance package includes 12-month/15,000km service intervals, with the first 3000km service free of charge.
As good as SUVs are these days, there is nothing quite like a really well-sorted sedan, so it is a shame cars of this style are a dying breed.
Despite this uphill sales struggle against high-riding crossovers, Kia deserves a lot of credit for the substantial improvements lavished on the Optima – and that makes it all the more of a shame that the Korean company is unlikely to bring the more practical but still sleek wagon variant to Australia.
The evolutionary but still expensive-looking styling – which to our eye has gone backwards a little but still attracted a lot of attention from other road users – hides these leaps forward and the car deserves more visible recognition for its advancements than what looks like a comprehensive mid-life facelift.
It was one of those cars for which we handed the keys back with a heavy heart and found the subsequent test vehicle initially disappointing by comparison. It set that high a bar and did so much right.
Kia faces some sharply priced, highly capable competitors that each outgun the Optima in various ways.
But view the Optima GT as a complete package, especially with the unbeatable seven-year warranty front of mind, it is a lot of car for the money and we’d be heading towards the nearest Kia dealership with our chequebook wide open.
Mazda6 GT from $42,690 plus on-road costs
The mid-size sedan benchmark, with sharp handling and a solid, classy interior.
Compared with the value-packed Kia, the 6 has some spec omissions and while refined, admirably efficient and arguably tied to a better transmission, Mazda’s 2.5-litre non-turbo petrol engine can’t out-punch the Optima’s force-fed unit.
Subaru Liberty 3.6R from $42,490 plus on-road costs
The Liberty is seriously desirable again thanks to a sharp redesign inside and out, and an absolute bargain with a long equipment list including the clever EyeSight active safety technology and, of course, Subaru’s excellent all-wheel-drive dynamics. The 3.6-litre flat-six engine is thirsty but sounds great and provides armfuls of thrust.
Hyundai Sonata Premium from $41,990 plus on-road costs
Kia is undercut by its bigger-selling sister brand with the mechanically related and similarly impressive Sonata but pips the Hyundai on fuel-efficiency and the Optima offers arguably the more youthful, thrusting, stylish choice of the pair.
Ford Mondeo Titanium EcoBoost from $44,290 plus on-road costs
We expected more dynamically and a better interior finish from Ford’s stylish mid-sizer. However, the tech-heavy Titanium is lavishly specified and its EcoBoost 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine remains something of a benchmark for mainstream brands, shared as it is with premium marques such as Jaguar and Land Rover.
Volkswagen Passat 132TSI Comfortline from $39,990 plus on-road costs
A Euro? Comparing the Optima GT to a Volkswagen is a sincere compliment. The Passat requires a couple of options to bring it up to Kia levels of kit, but then the starting price is lower. It can’t match the Optima for outright engine performance but kills it for efficiency and is one slick and solid machine, if a bit dull to look at inside and out.
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