The Kia Optima is a Ford Mondeo-sized four-door. A wagon will be available in the future
The Optima's closest relative is the Hyundai i45 that's offered in the US
The Optima's power steering has a natural feel and credible weighting
This 1.7-litre CRDi engine produces 134bhp and 239lb ft of torque
Heated steering wheel won't find favour with those prone to sweaty palms
Three trim levels are offered and even the most basic is generously equipped
First DrivePlug-in hybrid Optima is a practical, tax-efficient PHEV that undercuts rivals and fulfils its main remit well, but keen drivers need not apply
First DriveNew Kia estate looks the part, has good space and handles tidily, but its engine's flexibility and refinement let it down
What is it?
Shame about the bland name, shared with a now-obsolete clothes-washing liquid from Waitrose, because the Kia Optima deserves better. In Korea, where it was launched two years ago, it’s called K5, but the international branding feet went cold.
Anyway, this Mondeo-sized four-door – the wagon version, unwanted by the biggest markets of Korea and the US, won’t arrive till facelift time, if at all – is a handsome, striking machine with a fierce nose, deep flanks and a wedgy stance.
For the UK it comes with just one engine option, with both the petrol engine and two flavours of hybrid being denied to us. We get the 1.7-litre, 134bhp turbodiesel as used in the Hyundai i40, a car not as similar to the Optima under the skin as you might have expected. The Kia is longer, its greater wheelbase adding rear legroom; a closer relative is the US’s Hyundai i45.
This engine comes with a choice of six-speed gearboxes, a regular manual or a torque-converter auto with steering-wheel paddles for manual intervention.
What’s it like?
Asking a relatively small engine to pull nearly a tonne and a half of Optima with vigour could lead to disappointment, but it rises to the task with refinement and potentially excellent efficiency – just 128g/km CO2 for the manual with the standard EcoDynamics package, essentially a stop-start system.
The only snag with the manual is the enormous turbo lag when accelerating from low speeds, despite the variable-geometry turbo, prompting more downshifts than you'd normally expect in a torquey turbodiesel.
The auto masks this lag well, downshifting when needed and doing so smoothly even when you're pressing on. It's thirstier, though, as the 158g/km CO2 figure confirms. The auto comes with an electric parking brake, but we are delighted to report that the manual retains a normal handbrake to the great benefit of close-quarters manoeuvrability.
Electric power steering is becoming the norm in this class, but the Optima's system has quite a natural feel, credible weighting and a crisp on-centre response. This hefty car might not have quite the cornering bite of a Mondeo but it handles tidily, resisting understeer well and controlling its body movements in a fluent, unflustered way. The top model’s 18in wheels look great, but lesser-spec 16s or 17s would be better at soaking up sharp edges.
Trim levels are 1, 2 and 3 spanning a £20,000 to £25,000 price range, the last of these including full leather, a sat-nav with rather vague directions, a glass roof with two electric blinds, a self-parking system and much more. Even level 1 has most of what you’d reasonably need, and all versions have a handsome, well-finished interior free of cheap fittings and nasty textures. There’s lots of rear-seat space and a huge boot, while the driving position is easy to tailor with the top model’s multiple electric adjustment.
Not so clever is the automatic sliding-back of the driver’s seat, no doubt designed to benefit those of large girth. It means that those of small stature can’t easily depress the clutch, an action needed before the Optima will start. Nor will the heated steering wheel appeal to those prone to sweaty palms, and we’d have expected the glovebox’s opening action to be damped.
Should I buy one?
Fundamentally the Optima is an excellent effort fully able to compete with Europe’s best in the sector. A wider engine range would boost its appeal, though.
Kia Optima 3 1.7D
Price: £24,000 (est); Top speed: 126mph; 0-62mph: 10.2sec; Economy: 57.6mpg (combined); CO2: 128g/km; Kerb weight: 1484kg; Engine: 4 cyls, 1685cc, 16v, DI turbodiesel; Installation: front, transverse, FWD; Power: 134bhp at 4000rpm; Torque: 239lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd manual (6-spd auto opt)