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First drive: Kia Optima comes of age

Halo effect: Kia hopes the Optima premium model will boost its brand image.

Class-leading design, value, space and efficiency – Kia gets mid-sizer right at last

28 Oct 2010

A HEADY mix of low-slung concept car-like styling, advanced engineering boasting unique Australian suspension tuning, class-leading powertrain efficiency and a standard equipment list as long as your arm, are the pillars of Kia’s renewed assault on the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Mazda6.

The successor to the long defunct MG Magentis, the Optima nameplate returns in January after almost seven years, as a bold – even daring – rethink of the Korean company’s midsized family car proposition: one that moves away emphatically from low prices while raising the value stakes.

Pricing for the TF series will not be revealed until closer to the launch date, but Kia hints at a circa $35,000 starting point for the single-specification (for now) Optima Platinum.

That model has the Mazda, Ford Mondeo and Accord Euro in its crosshairs, and so is equipped accordingly with a sophisticated and powerful GDI direct-injection 2.4-litre petrol engine paired with a six-speed automatic gearbox with Tiptronic-style sequential shift. No manual will be imported for now.

17 center imagePart of Hyundai/Kia’s Theta II family of powertrains, this Euro 4-emissions rated 2359cc twin-cam unit with CVVT continuously variable valve technology delivers a class-leading 148kW of power at 6300rpm and 250Nm of torque at 4250rpm.

Tipping the scales at a hefty 1473kg, and aided by an aerodynamic drag co-efficiency of 0.29Cd, the Platinum with the 2.4L GDI engine takes 9.0 seconds to hit the 100km/h mark, on the way to a 210km/h top speed. It effectively takes over from the old 2.7L V6 petrol that the Magentis offered.

Australian buyers will not see the 132kW/231Nm non-GDI version or the soon-to-be-replaced 121kW/198Nm 2.0-litre CVVT engine available elsewhere in the world.

No official fuel consumption or carbon dioxide figures have yet been released, but Kia says the 2.4L GDI is about 10 per cent better than the 8.1L/100km and 194g/km that the non-GDI model manages.

Better economy is possible via an ‘Eco’ button on the steering wheel, which alters the transmission’s shift points and constrains fuel delivery to maximise efficiency – to the tune of 7.5 per cent in the GDI.

The Platinum’s roll call also includes a dual-pane sunroof, a heated and cooled driver’s seat with memory settings, leather upholstery, reverse camera with parking sensors, 18-inch polished alloys, LED lighting, body kit, High Intensity Discharge headlights with static cornering functionality, Bluetooth connectivity, high-end Infinity audio and keyless entry and start.

Beginning later on in 2011, the range will gain more Optima models, starting with a different 2.0-litre variable-valve timing powertrain.

Featuring the all-new NU engine family unveiled earlier in the year, it will bring the Kia much closer to the mainstream Camrys and Hyundai i45s of this world in terms of price, but it will not necessarily skimp on equipment, a Kia spokesman said.

By 2012, we might see a turbo-diesel, turbo petrol and even Hybrid variations too, with the latter described by one Kia insider as a ‘top priority’ for Australia, but no specific dates have been revealed.

A ‘Sportwagon’ style carryall is also on the cards – perhaps by the end of next year.

Right now, though, there is just the one TF Optima – the first full Kia passenger car design overseen by former Volkswagen and Audi stylist Peter Schreyer.

Already creating a stir for his latest Sportage effort, and just signed on for another term with Kia, the German has created a modern “coupe-like” effect that – in the company’s own words – banishes the ‘blandness’ of previous efforts forever. Exterior design work was done at Kia’s Frankfurt studio.

“Breaking through with great design is the only way,” Kia Motors product manager Ji-Hoon Han told GoAuto Media at the global launch of the TF Optima in Dubai.

“The old car lacked distinctiveness and suffered from weak brand awareness,” he said, adding that “stand-out styling” gave buyers a compelling reason to reconsider a Kia.

This is deemed especially important to the main target audience for the Optima – men in their 30s and 40s who need a practical yet dynamic family car.

The latter also dictated what Kia calls “mainstream” dimensions, so the TF has amongst the longest wheelbase (2795mm) in its class. That’s also 75mm longer than the Magentis, while the newcomer’s length (4845mm), width (1830mm), height (1455mm) and ground clearance (135mm) are +45mm, +25mm, ¬–25mm, and –25mm compared to its predecessor, making for radically altered proportions. Overhangs are up to 20mm shorter too.

“Our new Optima is more than one step ahead of the car it replaces – it’s a clean-sheet design that owes nothing to (the Magentis),” Mr Schreyer said.

The increased footprint equals more space inside than before, with lower-slung seating, wrap-around dashboard that is angled towards the driver, and a higher centre console helping to create a sportier ambience.

Devised in California, the interior includes paddle shifts for automatic transmission models, a lower central tunnel to liberate passenger space, and more compact rear suspension to help create a 505-litre boot.

Shared with the i45 (although overall component duplication between the two is only 30 per cent), the Optima uses an all-new transverse engine front-wheel drive platform with MacPherson struts at one end and a multi-link independent set-up at the other. The track is between 38mm (front) and 49mm (rear) wider than before.

Kia Motors Australia has been testing pre-production versions of the TF Optima since May. The result is the standard fitment of ZF Sachs ‘high performance’ dampers and customised suspension and steering parts tailored to Australian tastes.

Australian versions will use a hydraulically powered rack-and-pinion steering system offering a 10.9 metre-turning circle, instead of an electronic version offered elsewhere, for better feel and consistency.

To reduce noise, vibration and harshness, the suspension is mounted on a hydro-formed subframe with rubber bushes. Furthermore, the bodyshell makes greater use of high tensile steels in its structure for added rigidity.

Stiffer and straighter longitudinal side members are employed in the engine bay floor, an enhanced B-pillar design that links to upper and lower cross-members to form an internal rollover hoop has been incorporated and reinforced members in the rear floor.

Thanks to a special hot stamping method that adds strength without putting on extra kilos, the Optima’s panels are up to three times stronger than in the Magentis.

Speaking of safety, four-wheel disc brakes are present, as part of a package that sees ESC stability control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, six airbags, and a hill assist function that keeps the stoppers on for two seconds on an incline to stop unintentional motion.

A five-star ANCAP crash test rating is the target – one that the Optima has been, ahem, optimised for.

Known as the K5 in its native Korea, the TF has been a strong seller since launch in May, and has occasionally exceeded 10,000 units a month.

“With the all-new Optima, our global design team has created a vehicle with distinctive dimensions and proportions that stands apart from everything else in its segment. Using an all-new platform and an all-new bodyshell, Optima moves our mid-size sedan product up to the next level of Kia’s design revolution,” the vice chairman of Kia Motors, Hyoung-Keun Lee, said.

“In spite of the ongoing global economic uncertainties, Kia’s market research indicates that demand for D-segment (midsize) sedans in many countries will grow steadily over the next three years.

“We anticipate segment sales rising by 23 per cent from 4.3 million last year to 5.3 million in 2013, with significant growth in North and South America, China, Africa, India and the Asia/Pacific region.

“Customer clinics with the new Optima have generated strongly positive responses and we are confident that our latest model will greatly increase Kia’s share of the midsize sedan market around the world.” More information pertaining to Australian-bound models, including the all-important pricing details will be revealed in a few weeks time, so stay tuned.

Drive impressions:IS THE new Optima Kia’s Datsun 1600 moment?Almost 43 years ago the little sedan from Japan became Datsun’s – indeed that nation’s – first truly desirable midsized family car.

With its handsome Eurasian styling, advanced engineering and keen driver appeal, it pretty much became an instant classic that is revered to this day, comprehensively outclassing established rivals like the Ford Mk2 Cortina, Holden HB Torana and Hillman Hunter.

Now, on the surface at least, the Korean car-maker is poised to do something vaguely similar with a car that replaces what might be the most forgettable sedan to ever be sold in Australia after the Kia Credos … the Magentis. Can’t you just picture it? Thought not.

The level of competence in the midsized sector is fiercely high, thanks to the fine Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord Euro and Mazda6.

But the Optima – codenamed TF but not after the rubbish final Ford Cortina of 1980 to 1982 – pushes the type of buttons that, in today’s instant-gratification world, resonate on more than just a superficial level.

Take the aesthetics – an edgy fusion of Lexus ‘L-Finesse’ and Ford’s (via ex-Opel maestro Martin Smith) Kinetic design languages, revealing a blend of clean surfacing and bold styling. On looks at least the proudly Eurasian Optima – straight out of Kia’s Frankfurt design department – is pushed into a premium space that could easily carry an upmarket badge. Really.

Viewed from all angles we variously name-checked VW Scirocco (head on), Lexus IS (profile) and modern Jaguar (XF and new XJ: rear/side and from behind). Yet there are sufficient original touches – such as the distinctive C-pillar treatment – for the Optima to have its own personality.

Inside, the story is much the same. Styled in California, the cabin has an unashamedly American luxury feel in the top-spec Platinum model that all Aussie-bound versions will have. So we’re talking stitched vinyl on the driver-orientated dashboard, a glitzy instrumentation pack, padded fascias, multi-tone materials and plethora of storage facilities – including a posh sliding blind for the cupholders.

Again, upmarket springs to mind, banishing toxic-shock interiors that were/still occasionally are the provenance of Korean cars. While hard textures are present, they’re out of the way, while there is nothing brittle or cheap about the feel or ambience of the Optima’s interior. Job well done, Kia. On the evidence of the launch press car we sampled, we could easily have been sitting in a $50,000 vehicle. Power to surprise indeed!Let’s not get too carried away, though. The Optima is fairly and squarely a Toyota Camry competitor, and you cannot get more mainstream family sedan than that anywhere on the globe. If it can’t cope with the basics (seating five plus luggage in reasonable space, safety, security and comfort) then Kia is kidding itself because execs in their Audi A4s aren’t going to jump onto the good ship Optima anytime soon.

Let’s begin with the bad stuff.

That stylish C-pillar will have drivers cussing during lane changes and reverse parking manoeuvres because it creates the mother of all blind spots. Australian Optimas are going to have a reverse camera as standard, and the exterior Mickey Mouse ears do a great job of revealing some hidden objects, but not all.

We’re no fan of the foot-operated park brake either, which sticks out like an arrow shot from the past in the otherwise gloriously Technicolor Optima’s interior. Thankfully a fix is less than a year away in the shape of an electronic button.

And then there are the Nexen tyres wrapping around our 18-inch wheeled Platinum example. These tyres are prone to road noise on anything other than super-smooth surfaces, and will not go down well on Australian bitumen. Nix ‘em Kia, we say.

That’s it (for now). We found the overseas-spec sports seats comfy and supportive over the hour-plus stint in them there is room aplenty for your averaged sized male reporter front and rear (even with the panoramic sunroof fitted as standard – an upshot of a class-leading wheelbase length), and every single switch and button is where you would expect it to be if you are used to driving a garden variety Camry, Nissan, Mazda or Hyundai.

Plus, nothing felt low-rent or nasty to operate. Accord Euro owners will not feel underwhelmed in here.

And then there is the value quotient – the one lasting Korean car attribute that the Optima has no desire of discontinuing.

We do not yet know how much Kia will be charging for the single-spec model we will receive come January, but we have heard that the $35,000 tag will include the full-throttle flagship Platinum kitchen sink items, including body kit, dual pane sunroof, Infinity audio, Bluetooth telephony, 18-inch polished alloys, reverse camera and audio sensors, dual-zone air-con, heated and vented driver’s seat and leather upholstery.

Sadly, with our appetites whetted to the point of palpable excitement, we did feel let down somewhat by the global-specification Optima’s driving experience – and this was on the mostly ultra-smooth highways of Dubai and surrounds.

Tuned for comfort rather than performance, the midsized Kia’s dynamic mediocrity really is a case of the styling writing cheques that the chassis simply cannot cash.

Feel-free steering, combined with a roly-poly on-centre feel and ponderous wide-arc cornering, all reveal a sub-standard, sub-Camry level of handling abilities. Furthermore, the unsettled ride quality means the ‘payback’ leaves the Optima occupiers short-changed. Mondeo and Mazda6 drivers would notice the difference in a heartbeat. Against such rivals being easy, quiet, secure and refined just isn’t enough.

And then there is the 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. Sufficient best describes the Optima’s performance – but that’s not good enough when the styling borders on being stunning. Combined with the 11.1L/100km fuel consumption average – as per the stylish trip computer readout – the drivetrain left us wondering if Kia bothered driving an Accord Euro at all.

Thankfully, none of this should matter to you unless you plan to buy the new Optima outside of Australia.

The fact is, we cannot tell you how OUR version will drive because the advanced (and uber efficient) Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) powerplant destined for our Kias were unavailable for the Aussie media to drive in Dubai.

Nor was the Australian-specific suspension – including roll bars, dampers and springs – that promise to transform the Optima’s handling from ho-hum to yum-yum (or so we’re promised). Our Kia spokesman claims that everything – from steering and handling to body control and ride – will be transformed by the locally developed chassis modifications.

So how does the Optima drive then? Stay tuned for when we finally find out in a few weeks time on Aussie roads.

Yet … even with the understeer prone, feather-light helmed, Nexen-tyre roaring Optima we sampled in Dubai, it is patently clear that Kia has created a formidable midsized family car in the new TF generation.

Everything we tried that was static in the car – from the styling and seating to the space and quality – signals a gamechanger for the medium sedan market in Australia.

If the Optima delivers on the road – and we are quietly confident that it might – then Kia deserves to become the fear of the rest of the car industry.

Just like Datsun was way back when the 1600 changed people’s perceptions about Japanese midsizers forever. Kia, the ball’s in your court.

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