What is it?
If you know your Transformers you’ll be aware that Optimus Prime is the strong, sharp-thinking leader of the Autobots. Kia is hoping its new Kia Optima Sportswagon will rise to a similarly lofty position and become leader of the D-segment estates.
This is no ‘stick your finger in the air and hope’ effort, either. The Optima Sportswagon was designed and built specifically for us Europeans (and yes, that term still includes us, if geographically rather than spiritually, these days) and will be fielded solely in this region of the globe. However, while some of our continental neighbours will have a petrol to choose from, we’re destined to have this 1.7-litre diesel only, with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
The version we’re testing here is fitted with the latter, and in top-spec GT-Line S trim, which quite frankly leaves you wanting for little in terms of toys. Some of the standard highlights include 18in alloys, LED headlights, a panoramic sunroof and heated, ventilated seats. Of course, it comes with peace of mind as well, courtesy of Kia’s seven-year warranty.
What's it like?
It's a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. While you can argue over the detailing, styling-wise it cuts a dash by looking substantial and purposeful on the road, without ending up visually humdrum like some of its rivals. Inside it is smart and well laid out, too, and there’s something of the current generation 5 Series in the layout of the 8.0in sat-nav screen and the buttons on the central stack. Admittedly, the materials aren’t up to 5 Series standards, but nonetheless they are appropriate for the class.
Start it up, though, and you are left in no doubt it’s an oil burner. A discordant diesel rattle erupts, followed by a noticeable buzz through the cabin at idle. Both qualities are present when you are on the move, with tingles through the steering column between 2000-3000rpm, and diesel clatter all the way to the red line.
Neither is it a prodigious performer. Once you get past the initial low-end lag, it picks up smartly from 1750rpm, but the flow of torque feels largely spent as the rev-counter sweeps past 3000rpm; the combined effect of noise and wheeziness means you learn quickly not to rev it out. Road noise is an issue as well, although wind noise is well stifled.
The dual-clutch gearbox doesn’t feature on the Sportswagon’s pros list, either. It’s clunky at low speed, particularly when it’s cold, making squeezing out of a tight parking spot an act of deep concentration and deft footwork. Still, once you are in the flow of things, it changes smoothly through the gears, even if it occasionally refuses to accept your request for a lower gear when using the paddles to shift down manually.
You get the feeling that the engineers couldn’t make up their minds on how this car should ride: should it be sporty or cotton-woolly? The consequence of their indecision has wrought a car that is neither comfortable nor particularly sharp to drive. It spends much of the time fidgeting and thudding over surface imperfections - more so in town, less so on the motorway - but pitch it in to a turn and while it hangs on well, with a degree of throttle adjustability, there’s little finesse.