The Optima GT breaks ground for Kia by adopting a new proprietary adaptive damping system, whose re-engineering for right-hand drive is the reason for the car’s relatively late arrival in the UK. The suspension springs have also been shortened and stiffened relative to that of a normal Optima, its front anti-roll bar stiffened in line, its electromechanical power steering set-up retuned for greater responsiveness and feedback, and its brake discs enlarged and uprated.
Kia’s go-faster upgrade for the cabin is apparently less wide-ranging, though – and it does little for an interior that looks plain in as many places as it plays up to the senses. The ‘GT’-stitched leather seats seem somewhat hard and flat in the cushion and lack width in the squab, failing quite to grip you like a sports seat really should. The instruments are rather dowdy by performance design standards, too. In other respects, the Optima GT’s cabin is roomy, comfortable and well equipped, but it could just as easily belong to a high-output diesel.
The 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine starts at the press of a chromed starter button and idles quietly, but it wastes no time in raising its voice as the car sweeps up to town speeds. You’ll quickly sense why this is on your first trip beyond medium revs: it’s not engine noise you’re hearing but rather the overtures of Kia’s dashboard-mounted Active Sound System ‘sound actuator’ (as if avoiding calling it a speaker somehow makes the electronic skullduggery more acceptable). This a pretty brazen attempt to make the car’s four-cylinder engine more rich and interesting on the ear, but both in Normal and Sport driving modes, it’s simply over-cooked. It's loud enough to sound decidedly awkward and contrived. And, unfortunately, there’s no volume knob – nor an ‘off’ switch.
The engine itself is more than potent enough to give the Optima a brisk turn of speed. It revs freely to beyond 6000rpm, but it’s a fairly conventional four-cylinder turbo in as much as it’s at its best hauling the car along from lower-medium revs.
But the engine is paired to Kia’s own six-speed automatic gearbox (there’s no manual option), which seems a bit stretched when asked to handle a performance application. The transmission works respectably well in part-throttle roll-on acceleration, but its speed of operation and lock-up characteristics are inconsistent. At low revs, it can feel slushy and elastic, and in manual mode, it often handles downchanges in a delayed and abrupt fashion. It’s a gearbox that doesn’t respond well to being driven keenly, although it does a decent job when you’re in no particular hurry.
We’ll keep impressions of the car’s ride, handling and steering short and sweet here for two reasons. Firstly, because the 18in rims of test car were fitted with winter tyres and UK cars will come on proper European-specification sporting rubber; and secondly, because the adaptive dampers will receive a bespoke software tune for UK roads.
On the European suspension settings, the Optima GT’s ride is quiet and fairly compliant in the car’s Eco and Normal modes, but there’s always a firm, niggly edge to it that’s quickly exposed by an uneven surface. In Sport mode, the picture gets firmer and more fidgeting still – and bothersome enough to begin to undermine the car’s credentials as a long-distance cruiser.
The grip levels of our test car were limited and its steering feedback muted, as you’d expect on those winter tyres. However, body control was respectable enough to suggest that the car might feel significantly different on its original-fit tyres.