What is it?
It’s a mid-life overhaul for Kia’s answer to the Ford Mondeo, the Optima saloon, a car that's fighting for sales in the highly competitive family car class.
In an effort to make it more refined, classier and more engaging to drive, this refresh is more than skin-deep. The Optima is now 8.6kg lighter and 50% stiffer than before, with major revisions made to its suspension and steering set-ups. It has also grown by 10mm in overall length and wheelbase and is 25mm wider.
The Optima retains its previous good looks with only a tweak to the bumpers and light clusters while the dashboard has been completely redesigned. Power from the 1.7-litre diesel engine is up by 5bhp to 139bhp, resulting in a decent 0-60 time of 9.7sec, yet is now 25% more economical.
Trim levels are changed to 2, 3 and 4, each of which now provides more goodies for your money. Later in 2016, GT and GT-Line trims will be added, followed by an estate in the autumn.
What's it like?
It’s certainly classier inside. The new dashboard architecture is very pleasant indeed, providing a more premium feel with added satin trim and piano black inserts. An 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system dominates the top of the dash and is well positioned to stop the driver looking away from the road for too long. The screen does reflect onto the top of the windscreen at night, though, which can be distracting. Opting for the automatic gearbox introduces a stylish T-shaped gearlever.
There’s plenty of room in the front with lots of storage for keys, wallets and phones while the deep central bin offers space for much more. Four drinks and a pair of sunglasses will also find a home. Taller drivers will have plenty of head and shoulder room, too. The steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake while the eight-way electrically operated seats provide plenty of adjustment.
You can stretch out in the back because there’s plenty of leg and knee room and it's spacious enough for three adults. Taller passengers may need to take care getting in due to the curved door opening, and they may feel the pinch from the sloping roofline.
At the rear, there’s a large boot with a flat floor, although the boot opening is a little narrow due to the raked rear screen, which takes up the space where the boot lid would normally start. Under the boot floor is a space saving spare wheel.
The engine’s increased power certainly makes it easier to live with day-to-day. It pulls from low down in the rev range and has a large enough power band to avoid regular cog shifting. The six-speed manual gearbox is slick and offers a feeling of mechanical solidity while promoting a relaxed approach to changing gears, which befits the general character of the car.
We’ve also tested the seven-speed automatic, which shifts gears smoothly but is often slow to react when a sudden burst of acceleration is required. The standard steering wheel mounted paddles are a bonus, though, and make things a little more responsive.
There is little to engage the keener driver, though, and while the Optima fundamentally handles well and has good grip, it’s never entertaining. The steering is the main culprit, feeling disconnected from the front wheels while mid-corner, there can be a sudden change in the steering resistance making it feel vague and inconsistent.
In a class where the Ford Mondeo and Volkswagen Passat offer excellent ride quality, the Optima fails to deliver. Unless you’re on the smoothest of surfaces, it will bob and rumble along, rarely becoming composed or settled. Road noise intrudes into the cabin and vibrations from the engine can be felt through the steering wheel, pedals and gear lever. At a motorway cruise, the engine is quiet, but it becomes noticeably raucous under anything other than gentle acceleration.
Should I buy one?
If you can live with the scrappy ride, the Optima has much to offer. It is a good-looking car with a classy cabin, plenty of standard kit and more than enough room for four adults.
Having experienced range-topping 4 trim, which brings a panoramic sunroof, automatic transmission, leather seats, we think we'd stick with 3 trim instead. It's cheaper and better value for money because it still offers heated seats, an 8.0in touchscreen sat nav, auto lights and wipers, a reversing camera and a seven-year 100,000-mile warranty as standard.
On paper, the 1.7 CRDi's running costs are impressive, with a claimed 67.3mpg and CO2 emissions of 110g/km, meaning it falls into the 20% BIK banding. Ultimately, however, a similarly equipped Skoda Octavias cost around the money, but it is faster, more efficient, emits less CO2 and delivers a more comfortable ride with better handling. The Skoda would still be our choice.
Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi Eco 3 manual
Location Berkshire; On sale Now; Price £23,495; Engine 1,685cc, diesel; Power 139bhp; Torque 251lb ft; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1705kg; 0-60mph 9.7sec; Top speed 121mph; Economy 67.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 110g/km, 20%