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Car reviews - Kia - Optima - Platinum sedan

Our Opinion

We like
First-class design inside and out, spacious interior, massive standard spec for the price, huge value for money, long warranty, roomy boot, eager handling
Room for improvement
Firm ride, twitchy steering at speed or on loose gravel, some steering rack rattle, low-speed acceleration is a tad flat, tight rear headroom for taller

21 Jan 2011

IN THE action/comic flick Kick-Ass, a weedy teen thinks he’s a superhero after putting on a slick outfit and a bolshie attitude to match – but then quickly realises crime can’t be fought effectively without the aid of an unlikely pair of assassins.

In Kia’s case, the new TF Optima is all set to be the company’s defender against Camry and co, with standout design its deadly weapon and ex-Audi stylist Peter Schreyer the assassin. Providing able assistance are deadly value and a killer arsenal of standard equipment.

Frankly, Kia’s previous medium-car form has been woeful at best – remember the medieval Credos (1998-2001), dorky Optima I (2001-2006) and pretty but half-baked Magentis (2006-2008)? In contrast, they all make the latest Optima seem like a superpower indeed.

But beyond the dazzling exterior and glitzy hype the TF has garnered over the last few weeks, there is a Hyundai i45 chassis lurking underneath. And on recent past experience the Optima’s mid-sized fraternal twin’s eye-catching clothing has far eclipsed its dynamic capabilities - much like Kick-Ass’, in fact…

Well, the news is much, much better for Kia, since the company has spent time and money tuning the TF for Australian conditions and buyers’ tastes. The changes haven’t created a total transformation as we shall see, but even as it is we like this car plenty.

And why wouldn’t we? Right now no medium sedan is as striking or well proportioned. When first driven at its global launch last year, we described the profile as an edgy fusion of Lexus ‘L-Finesse’ and Ford’s Kinetic design languages, with VW Scirocco up front and hint of Jag XF out back – yet all still looking like an original piece of work.

The result is a car that looks like a $50,000 Audi competitor. Just the 18-inch alloys alone look a million won. But the Koreans also include Xenon headlights with washers and static cornering lights, foglights, LED daytime running lights, tail-lights and wing-mirror indicators, chromed exhaust outlets and door-handles, and illuminated door scuffs. Snazzy.

The Optima sits on a long (2.8-metre) wheelbase that not only promotes the elegant aesthetics but also liberates lots of space inside. Only the sloping roof in the rear half obstructs entry slightly.

Once ensconced in the low seats it is clear Kia has spent as much time fashioning the interior’s aesthetics.

The dash is a good looking piece of architecture, mirroring some of the external styling motifs in the way it is angled towards the driver, and offering a level of fit and finish alien to the brand up until now. Only the low-level, out of sight stuff serves to remind us that this is an inexpensive (as opposed to cheap) Korean car. Too bad Kia hasn’t been able to get that bargain-basement smell out, though.

But despite the flashy and comprehensive TFT electronic instruments, Audi-style sliding cup-holder lid, banging high-end Infinity audio, heated (and cooled for the driver) leather-faced electric front seats with memory function, colour reverse camera set within the rear-view mirror, dual-pane sunroof, classy wood inserts, sporty aluminium pedals and a comprehensive trip computer that even warns you that the front wheels are not pointing straight when the car is started, everything operates as you would expect in a Camry.

For example, the trio of face-level air vents help the very effective climate-control system do its thing. With a big centre console bin and (chilled) glovebox among other receptacles, there are enough storage spaces to lose stuff in for days.

The driving position is first class, the dials are super clear and few steering wheels are as nice to hold as well as behold (with very expert placement of buttons). And the ambience is one of upmarket quality.

Somebody within Kia has obviously graduated from the Ergonomics School of Excellence – nothing is too obscure to understand or operate – and almost everybody is accommodated very comfortably, even after a couple of hours of being sat there.

Almost everybody? That dipping ceiling and massive sunroof robs rear-seat headroom, especially if you are taller than tween-sized and perched up in the centre. But that’s the price of glamourous style, we suppose.

And who thought that having a 1950s-style foot-operated park brake in something as modern and daring as this was a good idea? We hear that Kia will switch to an electrically operated lever before the end of the year.

But we have a more serious gripe with rear vision. Yes, visual and audible aids abound, but that kicked-up C-pillar does its darnedest to make reversing difficult, especially when you don’t want to scuff those pretty alloys.

Luckily, the Platinum has a sunroof to quell any feelings of claustrophobia (though future cheaper Optima variants probably won’t).

The rear console contains another set of air-vents and Kia provides grab-handles, a place for the phone, map pockets, two armrests, a pair of cup-holders and a reading light for each outboard passenger.

Seriously, to get all this stuff in similarly sized competitors the price will start with a ‘4’, ‘5’ or even ‘6’.

Moving on to the boot (a long, wide and fairly deep affair complete with split/folding back-rest access into the cabin that is only operable via a pair of levers within the luggage area for valet parking security), it is commodious enough for most families needs, yet still manages to house a full-sized spare wheel. A 12-volt outlet is a surprising omission, though.

Unfortunately, while all of the Optima’s occupants will enjoy a well-built and superbly presented cabin of German car standards, they will also suffer from Audi-style ride-quality issues on their gorgeous 18-inch alloys.

Not so obvious up front as it is on the rear bench, the suspension constantly pitter-patters over anything other than the smoothest roads, with the occasional jarring jolt when surfaces get really scarred, accompanied by a loud thud transmitted through the tyres.

Good-looking wheels come at a price, folks. We look forward to assessing smaller-wheeled Optima variants in the not-too-distant future.

And, whether it is the Optima’s low-slung prowling visage or that promising GDI (Gasoline Direct Injection) badge on the boot, we expected stronger performance from the class-leading 148kW 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.

For some reason, it needs a hefty stab of the accelerator before it will hustle, leading us to check the kerb weight (a reasonable 1551kg). Maybe it’s the gearing.

Once on the move, however, the drivetrain really shines, with a steady dose of power for a strong turn of speed right up through to the 6300rpm redline. It’s quiet and refined too, further underlining Kia’s upmarket aspirations.

Smooth and unobtrusive, the six-speed automatic features a Tiptronic-style sequential shifter that is much better to use than the squidgy gate on the Cerato, but it won’t hold your chosen gear once you touch 6000rpm (which is often).

Uniquely, Kia installs an ‘Eco’ button that is said to improve fuel economy by up to 7.5 per cent by optimising air-conditioning and drivetrain power use. We admit we couldn’t really tell the difference.

What we can say is that the 12.7L/100km average we saw in city/urban traffic was not too bad considering how hard we drove, but it is adrift from what the PR guff states.

Of just as much interest is the Australianisation of Optima.

Kia Motors Australia says it tested pre-production TFs since May last year, resulting in ZF Sachs ‘high performance’ dampers and customised suspension and steering parts tailored to local tastes. Crucially, Aussie Optimas also benefit from a hydraulic-powered rack-and-pinion steering system for improved feel and consistency over the electric set-up offered abroad.

And, yes, compared to the global launch car GoAuto drove in Dubai last October, the changes seem a massive step forward.

Turn the wheel and the Optima will corner eagerly, with none of the vagueness or inertia that previous larger Kias have inflicted. It allows for zippy, light-footed handling, backed up by impressive levels of body control and a set of brakes that bite hard when you need them to.

On even gravel roads, the ride is surprisingly supple and isolated, with the car riding over potholes and other surface irregularities with ease.

We applaud the company’s efforts in striving to supply us with a more suitable driving machine. However, there are some issues that – while not deal-breakers – do need addressing.

As soon as we encountered the first corner in the Optima, we were taken back by how reactive the steering was. It seemed a tad too sharp – and remained so for the duration of our time with the car.

At low speeds, it tips into a corner so quickly you may have to be poised to over-correct it slightly. Fine if you’re a confident and experienced driver - disconcerting for everybody else. That said, it won’t oversteer or lose composure beyond a slight twitch, thanks to a very alert stability control system, which keeps everything safely in check, so there’s no danger here.

However, at freeway speeds above 100km/h, the steering can feel nervous to some during a sudden lane change as a result of its directness. And that’s doubly so if you’re driving fast on a dirt road.

Again, while the car always remains on course, there is a slight sway and constant correction needed, meaning that the driver always needs to concentrate.

That’s not a bad thing and we don’t want to sound like whingers - we welcome lively steering – but the Optima’s super-direct steering could be a bit more measured in its response and we’d also like some more sensory feedback.

As the Optima lacks both, it is outclassed as a driver’s car by a Camry – let alone a Mondeo. A lively helm is nothing without feel and confidence.

We wonder whether the fitment of better rubber might help out here. The Solus tyres scrambled and scrubbed for grip with the traction control turned off, and – as we said earlier – did not do much for ride suppleness either.

One more thing: rough roads – especially through faster corners but also on slightly corrugated surfaces such as on Melbourne’s Victoria Parade – will reveal rack rattle – not as much as in the i45, granted, but more than in most rivals. It’s heard as well as felt too.

Our advice is to take the Optima for a long test drive before signing on the dotted line.

Yet every rival also had foibles and none of the issues outlined above should stop you buying this car if everything else is to your liking, which is something we’ve never said before about a Kia sedan.

We can name a few past Audis that were also less than brilliant on our roads, so if you are not a demanding driver and don’t mind the occasional bump and thump from the suspension or steering, the Optima should fill your medium family car needs amply.

And while, like many Audis, this Kia has real design kudos, unlike most prestige brands it absolutely soars in terms of standard equipment, value and practicality. And its five-star NCAP crash-test rating is also par for the course these days.

Yes, better modulated steering and more suspension finesse would have been the icing on an Optima cake that also brings exquisite styling and a sweet drivetrain, but we could live with what’s on offer.

Kia’s latest Optima does most things right and nothing too badly, but its chassis doesn’t kick ass as much as its sexy body.

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