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Car reviews - Kia - Optima - SE V6 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Good value, quality finish by Korean standards, relaxed gait
Room for improvement
Ride and handling can get ruffled over Aussie roads, silly remote locking fob

7 Sep 2001

WE'VE heard a lot about reVolvolution now that the big Swede's been taken over by Ford, and plenty about Nissan's revival under the direction of Renault too. But what about Kia?

Yep, in its own small way the Korean has gone through a rebirthing since Hyundai assumed control in 1998. Okay, okay, we're not talking about groundbreaking stuff here, but the company's low rent, low cost, low budget efforts were for the most part laughable in the years after the company's Australian debut in late 1996.

Hard to blame the people in charge in those days - if you haven't got decent product to sell then there's only so far you can go.

Enter the Optima. This medium sedan puts the cap on a tumultuous year or so in this country for Kia, which included the franchise being swapped from one importer to another and the arrival of a whole bunch of new metal, including the Carens mini people-mover and Rio small hatch and sedan.

The Optima is no revolution, but as it borrows its mechanicals holus-bolus from the Hyundai Sonata introduced here in 1998, it's a pretty solid and dependable device.

That's right: 2.5-litre quad-cam V6 engine, five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission, double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension. All come straight from parent Hyundai, along with the platform on which all these pieces are bolted.

The Kia input is in the interior design and the exterior styling, and the thought that's gone into it all.

And that's probably the most pleasing and promising aspect of this car. There are neat touches indicative of attention to detail and there's a level of quality not previously associated with Kia.

We're not talking about groundbreaking stuff here - because that is something the Optima most definitely is not.

But things like the neat under-bonnet installation which includes colour coding for refillables, well-insulated piping and wiring, and a plastic surround for the bonnet prop-hole say someone was paying attention.

Inside the cabin there are appropriately weighted, spring-loaded covers for cup-holders, kick boards on every doorsill and the boot is fully lined.

The quality of finish is good too, there's not too many odd panel gaps or loose, squeaking bits. In fact, as we've noted n the security section of the test, the remote central locking fob is one of the few shoddy and poorly executed parts of the car.

The Optima is a comfortable, relaxing car to sit in with big seats, good visibility, enough space for adult passengers to fit okay in the rear and an interior presentation which is grey and a touch plasticky, but clean enough.

Combine that with a keen entry price - this is a Kia after all - and you're looking at a tempting package for those who want a six-cylinder engine but maybe not the bulk of a Commodore or Falcon.

The only real drawback is some equipment which is simply not available. No passenger's airbag - let alone side airbags - and no anti-lock brakes are significant safety omissions. You do get standard air-conditioning and an AM/FM stereo with a single in-dash CD player and six speakers, although it must be said that the head unit is totally undecipherable. Pass the manual please!

The driving experience is terrific for someone looking for a cruiser. The V6 produces 127kW of power at 6000rpm and 230Nm of torque at 4000rpm, and is ample for town and suburban jousting. It also teams smoothly with the "fuzzy logic" four-speed automatic gearbox with sequential manual shift function.

The ride is also well-controlled in this environment and the steering direct enough to do the job when at parking speed or cruising home through the freeway traffic. It's a very easy and civil car to live with.

It's when the tempo rises and the more typical Australian country roads are encountered that the Optima loses its sparkle.

The V6, which copes so well around town, now needs to be thrashed quite hard beyond 5000rpm to get real response, and second gear is required for quick overtaking - that's where the manual-shifting "Tiptronic" mode comes in handy, because the auto box can get confused when engine loads dramatically and quickly.

To its credit, the engine doesn't lose its poise, it just gets noisier, and not in an unpleasant way either.

The ride and handling are less assured, with the damping struggling to keep up with the constant jostling, some rattle and shock coming back through the steering rack and a degree of wheelspin and understeer becoming noticeable when corners tighten up at speed.

It's also noticeable that the brakes, which initially do a fine job of providing feel and retardation, lose some of their effectiveness if consistently worked quite hard.

Noise levels are well contained. Tyre noise is the most consistent intrusion, but there are also some rear suspension noises which surface over rougher roads, some wind whistle does generate off the A-pillar/rear view mirror area intermittently and also occasional driveline whine.

Get back into town or onto smoother roads and the concerns fade away again, however, as there's enough torque and refinement to impress most Commodore/Falcon/Camry buyers.

The Optima is a credible alternative for those in need of reasonably refined everyday transport at a truly accessible entry price. Although a recent run-out price reduction for Sonata sees it actually undercut Optima, Kia's competent mid-size sedan remains a relative bargain and, as such, a worthy addition on the local market.

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