A Mid level saloon needs to deliver on quite a few things, but not really excel at anything terribly well. The VW Passat and Honda Accord do all of it very well, but you pay a premium. The Kizashi and Peugeot 508 are fairly left field but offer loads of spec and are quite different. Sister company Hyundai’s Sonata also plays in this space so the playground is full of old boys and newcomers.
The Kia Optima breaks into the mid-sized saloon segment with a price that scares away the rest. At R305 995 (only one model available at this stage) there’s very little from the competition that beats it on size, specifications and of course looks. The Optima was launched in April 2012, and was the second vehicle in SA to receive the dramatic styling from Design boss Peter Schreyer. When it comes to styling in this segment, the Optima is King. From the rear it looks like a Jag XF, the side profile is sleek and from the front there’s a far more aggressive stance than any of the competitors. No doubt it’ll date fairly quickly, but right now it’s shit hot, which counts fairly heavily in this segment of ‘not so exciting’ saloons.
The mid-sized saloon needs to appeal to an over 30’s male, and have a considerable amount of space (Passat, Peugeot 508, Suzuki Kizashi), in the rear as well as the boot. From the outside the Kia demands presence, it’s a big car, and thankfully that translates in the interior too. Boot should fit 3 dead hookers at a squash, and the rear seats will have ample space for kids and seat adults comfortably.
The interior is a bit of a chinzy mess in my view. The “KIA” lettering on the door-sill that lights up red, the hello and goodbye animated graphics in the dash and rotating needles on start up seem like Kia stole a bit of everything from everyone. It’s a bit tacky in my view, and it could have done without all that “jazz”. That said, the interior is well put together, with some graphite trim (Thank goodness no faux wood), while the entire layout of the very large dash is angled towards the driver. The buttons and screens are a bit larger than I expected, but the quality of plastics and functionality is easy to understand. I found it impossible to get comfortable in the drivers seat, as it wouldn’t go down low enough and I found my head rubbing against the roof, which was incredibly frustrating. The seats were flat as a school bench, but did offer heating as well as cooling! Overall though, the tactile feel of everything inside was better than I expected and a job well done from Kia. Not close enough make you think you’re in a Passat, but definitely up there with Peugeot and Suzuki.
One thing the Koreans do properly in a Kia, is throw in everything they can think of when it comes to specifications, the only option in the Optima being an electric sunroof (Which this unit came with) the rest is standard. Over and above the usual, are 8 way adjustable electric seats (heated and cooled), auto lights and wipers, Infinity sound system (I think mine was a rip off unit though), dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, reverse camera, HID headlamps, keyless entry and a very chintzy in-binnacle on-board computer. Considering the price, the standard spec list will definitely count in its favour to prospective buyers.
With it all going fairly well so far, you’d expect the engine, ride and handling to be on par … but unfortunately this is where it goes horribly awry.
The Optima is currently only available with a 2.4litre 4cylinder unit developing 132kW and 231NM. That sounds ok, but in this day and age of turbocharged smaller capacity engines and strong naturally aspirated units the Kia’s engine just doesn’t cut it. Considering the size of the vehicle the engine seems to struggle at any speed, and struggles to keep a steady pace at highway speeds. The 6speed auto gearbox (there is no manual) does its job, but it seems to slip the clutch, and take on the life of a CVT, or the 2.4litre unit is too strained, making acceleration slow, and creating a fair amount of noise in the process. (0-100km/h in 10.2seconds). A larger V6 unit or turbo diesel would complete the range, but considering the excellent units from VW and Suzuki I’m not really impressed with the engine in the Optima. There is also an “Active ECO” system to make sure it’s doing its best to save fuel – Kia claims around 8.7litres/100km, which is quite accurate as I managed just over 9.
Considering the fairly aggressive exterior styling you’d expect the Kia to handle quite well. No mid-level saloon is ever going to make the base of your penis fizz as you set it on fire around the corners but the Kia seems to lose the balance. I expect this car to be comfortable, but have a sporty bias to it considering the looks. A fairly stiff suspension and 18 inch rims (which I’m sure were designed by a school for the blind), lead to a fairly harsh ride, especially on our degrading Joburg blacktop. It also never really seems to every get comfortable, thumping over the blacktop instead of having a slightly comfortable ride like the Passat / 508. As with most of the new Kia’s the steering is as artificial as the flavouring in your Vitamin Water, being way too light to really give any tactile feedback on what the front wheels are doing. Brakes, however are sharp and get the job done. The Kia also comes fitted with Traction and stability control, as well as hill-hold assist to keep you from rolling back as you set off from the traffic lights at an incline. 6 airbags and active head-restraints are standard.
The Kia’s smoking gun is its looks and extremely competitive pricing considering all the standard kit. Where is does fall short on is driving dynamics and a lackluster engine. That said, I think there are thousands of buyers in the market for a car like this who really don’t care about ‘driving’ as such, but would rather have a good looking car with all the bells and whistles that gets from A to B.
When you look a the competition, the Passat, Kizashi and Accord are all quite a bit more expensive, but offer better engines and get the ride quality spot on, so there are definitely sacrifices either way. My money however wouldn’t go for the Kia
5year/100 000km Warranty, 5 year/90 000 service plan and 3yr/unlimited mileage road-side assistance is standard.