To go with its sharp looks, the Kia Optima now has a hard body. Now all it needs is a stout heart
SINGAPORE — Behold the new Kia Optima K5. Here’s a car that’s as big as a Volvo S80 but cheaper than the Swedish brand’s cheapest car. The catch, of course, is that it doesn’t come with a premium European badge.
Or even a Japanese one, for that matter.
But let’s strip the badges off and consider the Optima in all its naked glory. What you ought to see is a big, reasonably plush machine.
It’s the kind of fatcat car that tended towards the far side of squishiness in the past. You know the kind. Suspension like a water bed. Seats that could absorb a goodly portion of your buttocks. Acres of wood in the cabin, nearly always fake. Steering light enough for a toddler to twirl with his pinky. And as disdainful of corners as a tubby man is to treadmills.
All that’s in the past, as the Kia shows. It’s still big, but it’s actually quite a well-sorted car with good road manners and excellent road holding. The suspension somehow manages to keep bumps from jostling you, while maintaining a tidy hold on the body so that you can proceed to hoon around corners with no risk of seasickness. The steering is pretty quick, too, which helps the big Kia jink into bends like, well, like an Audi.
It’s noticeably better than the last Optima and its vague steering, and for the improvement in handling you can thank a stiffer bodyshell and revised suspension.
Indeed, even though the new Optima looks like a facelift of the last one, it’s actually the result of some heavy revision. It’s actually a bit longer, wider and taller than before, and the body is stronger because there’s more high-strength steel (150 percent more) and three times as much hot-formed steel in it.
The styling may make it hard to discern the new model from old, but look for headlights that stretch further back towards the front wheels, and a front bumper with more aggressive air scoops.
Kia says the cabin room’s been improved in just about every dimension, thanks to 10mm stretch to the wheelbase, and it’s hard to argue. In spite of the sporty way the roof swoops down toward the back, there’s no shortage of headroom in the rear, while legroom is pretty generous.
Inside, the build is surprisingly solid, too. Though there are hard plastics here and there, the Optima doesn’t feel nasty or cheap (not that it ever did), while the controls look very contemporary and are almost Teutonic in their neatness. Not an ounce of fake wood, too. It’s still a bit austere overall, but the Kia’s interior is a place you can relax in.
A lot of that is because it’s quiet, at least to a point. The engine is the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder from before, and under gentle prodding it’s a reasonably quiet device. If you’re in a hurry you have to rev it hard, at which point it raises its voice noticeably, and it’s not the smoothest engine around.
That means the Optima might have the handling of a champ, but it’s no performance car. Its heart really isn’t in it.
Instead, you tend to drive it around lazily, in which case the well-insulated nature of the cabin is something to sit back and savour.
Apart from that, value for money is still a Kia mission, and the Optima duly delivers features that were once found only in far pricier cars. It might have been easier to list what’s not there (GPS navigation, for one), but the noteworthy stuff includes keyless entry and engine starting, automatic headlamps and wipers, dual-zone climate control, steering wheel controls for the sound system, and a powered driver’s seat.
There are little touches that really bump up the feel-good factor, too. If you have the key on you, standing near the boot makes it open automatically after three seconds, so you don’t have to fumble with a button with grocery bags in your hands.
As a matter of fact, as you approach the Kia it switches on a number of lights to welcome you, and the driver’s seat slides back Lexus-style to make it easier for you to slide your rump in and out of the car.
If anything, it’s as if Kia is aware that the bigger the car, the more important the small details are. Spritz the windscreen with the washer jets, and you’ll be surprised at how quiet they are.
Overall, if there were a Volvo badge on the Optima, you’d pay tens of thousands more, and feel that you got a bargain. It’s spacious, well-equipped, comfortable and good to drive, and the build quality’s solid. It leaves you with very little to wish for, especially given the price.
That said, the Optima’s capable new chassis does make you wonder what it would have been like with a bit more firepower under the bonnet. Some markets get a 1.6-litre turbo version with 178 horsepower and a twin-clutch, seven-speed auto, for instance. The Optima we get is a good car, but one suspects that that version would have been great.
NEED TO KNOW Kia Optima K5
Engine: 1,999cc 16V in-line four
Power: 163hp at 6500rpm
Torque: 196Nm at 4800rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Top speed: 208km/h
0-100km/h: 10.5 secs
Fuel consumption: 7.8L/100km
Price: $112,999 with COE