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The Kia Optima has looks, practicality and value on its side. But in a class of talented models, it is an also-ran.

The Optima name may be unfamiliar to Europeans, but the latest car is the third generation of Kia’s global saloon. Badged as the Magentis in the UK, the original 2001 model was supremely well equipped for the money, but it was as dull to look at as it was to drive. The 2006 follow-up was a better effort, but it wasn’t until the 2008 update that the car finally began to make a gentle, no-nonsense impression on value-conscious buyers.

Towards the end of 2011, we suggested that, with the arrival of its new Rio supermini, Kia had established a brand identity based on cars that were moderately pleasant to look at, moderately pleasant to sit in and moderately pleasant to drive. Damning with faint praise, perhaps, but not so long ago that approach would have been sufficient to make waves in the staid saloon-sized D-segment. Not any longer.

Wary of the fiercely competitive (and unashamedly aspirational) executive market above it, mainstream manufacturers have spent the past decade turning their starchy four-door stock options into veritable blue chips. If Kia hopes to win buyers in this saturated marketplace, the new Optima will have to live up to the current high standard and give fleet buyers a reason to switch from the established class leaders. Quite a challenge, but the car has already established itself as the top seller in Korea and has apparently garnered quite a lot of attention in the US. Time to find out if its fledging reputation is deserved.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Kia Optima front grille

It would be easy to overstate the importance of design in a segment awash with subtly different variations on the same three-box theme, but under its chief design officer, Peter Schreyer, Kia has strived to alter public perception of its cars through bold styling, and the manufacturer’s return to the D-segment is clearly intended  to impress, following the ignominy of the oft-forgotten Magentis. Blessed with all the advantages of a clean sheet of paper, the design teams from Frankfurt and California have drawn sharply and sensibly from their respective ‘mood walls’. With high, hunched shoulders, a low glasshouse and that snarling ‘tiger nose’, the Optima is appropriately in vogue, but Schreyer’s gift for restraint means that its wedge-like stance is unadorned with superfluous lines.

Beneath this pleasing body lies an all-new platform that eclipses Kia’s previous effort to comfortably accommodate four adults. Closely related to the Hyundai i45 sold in the US, the Optima is longer and wider than the Magentis, but it’s the 75mm of extra wheelbase that mostly accounts for the expanded cabin and enhanced legroom.

INTERIOR

Kia Optima dashboard

With motorway-bound businessmen at the core of the car’s customer base, the quality of its interior is of paramount importance. The Volkswagen Group (with the VW Passat and Skoda Superb) arguably sets the standard in both form and function, and that high mark is the first hurdle at which Kia falls with the Optima.

Practically, it is fine. The car’s dimensions are too generous for it to feel anything less than spacious, and although the cockpit-inspired dashboard brings the unfortunate Saab 9-5 to mind, the design is logical and inoffensive. Centre stage in the likely best seller (the 2 Tech tested here) is a seven-inch touchscreen that encompasses sat-nav, reversing camera display and various media functions – and that’s all fine, too.

The issues arise when a congestion-stalled driver takes the time to study the details or run a free hand over the trim. All too often, the eyes and fingers are chaffed, abraded or gently offended by inferior materials or an incongruous finish. Close inspection will reveal the economising in any D-segment model, but the Optima is needlessly hindered by elementary mistakes.

USB connectivity and 12V power sockets are welcome additions, but without tucking them away in the centre console they become as visually appealing as the back of a desktop PC. The saloon doesn’t get an electronic handbrake; that’s not a problem, but using a conventional handle that wouldn’t have cut the mustard in Daewoo’s parts bin most certainly is.

Faced with such criticism, most hardened Kia fans will point to the bountiful kit list – eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, dual-zone air-con, 12-speaker stereo, Bluetooth and parking sensors are all standard in the test model – and the robust build quality. But for the neutral observer well acquainted with the competition, the Optima’s impression of a bargain is likely to smack a little too smartly of the basement.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Optima rear quarter

In case there was any doubt that Kia intends those legs to belong to white-collar workers, it has opted to dispense with the petrol engines and hybrid version in the UK altogether and is offering the Optima with its downsized diesel motor only, mated to either a six-speed manual or optional automatic. The four-cylinder 1.7 CRDi engine made its debut in the Sportage, but the saloon gets the more powerful 134bhp version already seen in the Hyundai i40.

Common-rail injection and variable-geometry turbocharging are both features of the German-engineered motor, yet it’s likely that fuel-saving EcoDynamics technology such as stop-start and intelligent battery management will be given the limelight at the local dealership as Kia seeks to highlight the car’s claimed 57.6mpg and 128g/km of CO2 emissions.

By pitching the Optima into the frugal end of the fleet buyers’ basket, the saloon merits an initial performance assessment based exclusively on the strength of its figures. Based on its 134bhp output, the 46.0mpg we recorded on a real-world touring run and a claimed 0-62mph time of 10.2sec (we managed 10.5sec on a rain-soaked track), the saloon would appear to be broadly competitive with its closest rivals. However, given the proliferation of small-capacity, hyper-mile versions of almost every mainstream saloon, Kia’s decision not to offer the lower-powered, 114bhp variant of the 1.7 CRDi seems like an opportunity missed. Worse still, using the 1.7 CRDi in the i40 Blue Drive Active, Hyundai has matched the Optima’s power and performance while extracting improved claimed fuel economy of 62.8mpg and just 119g/km of CO2. Subjectively, Kia’s sister firm has accomplished this feat with a better level of refinement, too.

The CRDi engine is a gruff, grumbly unit that signposts its endeavour with a blustery voice and a murmuring reverberation through the pedals. Fortunately, its buzzing presence is accompanied by the tug of 239lb ft of torque between 2000 and 2500rpm. At 1539kg, the saloon takes a while to find its stride from a standing start and is blighted by a lack of energy before peak torque arrives, but free-flowing momentum is easy to maintain by the time third gear is selected on the unremarkable, long-legged six-speed manual ’box. There’s little to be gained from revving it hard, but with 30-50mph in fourth achieved 2.5sec quicker than in the Mondeo 2.0 TDCi, there’s enough impetus for overtaking.

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Optima front quarter

With MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link rear (along with coil springs and gas-filled dampers), the Optima follows a well-trodden, cost-effective path. However, Kia's engineers haven’t quite found the same dynamic blend of compliance and responsiveness that characterises the class leaders. The key issue is control – the driver’s control of the car via the steering wheel and the car’s control of its own sprung mass.

Kia’s Motor-Driven Power Steering returns a credible impression of heft much of the time, but it doesn’t completely conceal the curious ungainliness to its function. Most likely this is because the system stops drawing power from the engine when it senses that no assistance is required, namely when the car is going straight. Consequently, there is a muddiness to the on-centre feel that is made worse by the comparative weightlessness of initial inputs as the motor kicks back in. The transition between the two is most noticeable on the motorway, where accurate placing of the car’s nose wavers between comatose and clumsy.

It’s a similar story with the ride quality. On chaste surfacing, the car bustles along with neatness and poise. Even presented with England-specific obstacles, the Kia adapts without becoming needlessly crashy. The problem is how long it takes for the saloon to settle after each abrupt negotiation. Meet too many deep deflections one after the other, and the Optima will either buffet on its suspension travel or bristle noisily before it’s pacified by smoother ground. The result is by no means a ruinous lack of comfort, but the saloon’s failure to isolate its occupants from very poor road conditions – or navigate confidently between them – is unequivocally what divides it from the class best.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Kia Optima

Kia has divided the Optima range into three levels (1, 2 and 3), but the real choice is between the identically priced 2 Tech and 2 Luxe. These are differentiated by their standard kit. The Luxe has 18in alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof and improved leather trim, while the Tech features a better stereo and touchscreen sat-nav.At £21,695, the 2 Tech on test puts the Optima on the front foot against class leaders from VW, Ford and Skoda, but more affordable rivals from Peugeot, Mazda and Hyundai are all in the Kia’s ballpark.

The current depreciation forecast expects the Optima to hold up slightly better than the Mondeo – a likely testament to its exemplary seven-year, 100,000-mile (and transferable) warranty.

The Optima’s 128g/km CO2 rating is broadly consistent with its output and the competition, but if this is one of your defining buying criteria, it is possible to do better.

VERDICT

3 star Kia Optima

The Kia Optima is not a bad car – it is endowed with enough quality in the looks, practicality, economy and affordability departments to earn admirers – and were it segregated from our top five in this category, it would appear more than adequate for its role. But as a newcomer to an already overdeveloped arena, the Optima just doesn’t feel up to standard across the board.

Deficiencies in refinement, interior finish and ride may not frustrate all of its potential buyers, but to anyone familiar with the household models from Europe and Japan, they will rankle as issues already exorcised by most of its rivals.

With an agreeable price, satisfactory performance and abundant equipment, the Optima will delight some company car devotees, but ultimately Kia has produced another moderately pleasant also-ran rather than a class-leading competitor.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Kia Optima 2012-2015 First drives