From £21,045
Handsome, spacious, well-priced Kia Optima is easily good enough to measure up – in the right spec

What is it?

The Kia Optima family saloon, which launches in the UK next month. And it’s an ominous sign for this Korean car-maker’s key European rivals. Kia now has attractive, credible, well-priced models on offer in all of Europe’s main new car market segments, in Picanto, Rio, Cee’d and new Optima – three out of four of which are only twelve months old or younger.

What’s it like?

The Optima continues Kia’s rich vein of form. After a morning test-driving right-hand drive versions in rural Hampshire, it’s clear that this family saloon has athletic and well-rounded handling that’s entirely compatible with British roads, as well as good-mannered refinement to match its apparent practicality, decent material quality and assertive good looks.

Although there’s only one engine on offer for UK buyers, there are several model trims – and, on the evidence of our early testing, you’ll be rewarded for picking the right one.

The engine is Hyundai-Kia’s 134bhp 1.7-litre turbodiesel. It suffers with the same poor low-rpm throttle response that we identified in the Hyundai i40 Tourer. That much can be expected, considering the smaller-than-normal swept capacity. Largely forgiven, too, on account of the real world fuel economy the Optima returns (better than 45mpg on a mixed route), and the engine’s quiet, smooth, torquey and more responsive performance above 2000rpm. This is an engine you quickly learn to keep on a gentle rolling simmer when brisk progress is called for. That’s also no chore using the substantial, staccato gearshift.

In the way in which it rides and handles, the Optima slots in at the more sporting end of the D-segment spectrum, alongside the Ford Mondeo, Mazda 6 and Peugeot 508. It rides with an abiding impression of taut vertical body control, and handles with keen responsiveness to the steering wheel, very little body roll and a well-judged balance of lateral grip from the front and rear axles that includes very little understeer. There’s a core competence in quiet shock absorption and a certain amount of longer-wave bump compliance in the car’s dynamic makeup, too – although other saloons in the class offer a more comfortable motorway gait. Still, the handling and ride compromise that Kia has struck will be an alluring one for those who like to feel connected to the road and engaged by the driving experience of their everyday family four-door.

It matters which version of the Optima you plump for. The trim levels start with a sub-£20k ‘1’ model with air conditioning, Bluetooth, cruise control as standard. Two identically priced mid-spec editions will make up the bulk of fleet sales – ‘2 Luxe’ and ‘2 Tech’ – and we’d recommend the latter for several reasons. ‘2 Tech’ spec does without Kia’s panoramic sunroof, which otherwise eats into an allotment of interior headroom that is moderately scarce by class standards anyway. ‘2 Tech’ spec also gets Kia’s excellent Infinity audio system and touchscreen sat nav as standard.

More crucially, ‘2 Tech’ gets smaller alloy wheels than the ‘2 Luxe’ version, fitted with slightly chubbier Hankook rather than lower-profile Nexen tyres, on which the Optima rides, handles and steers in noticeably more fluent, precise and highly developed fashion. On the wider 18in alloys and Nexen tyres, the ‘2 Luxe’ Optima steers with unwelcome weight and compromised smoothness and accuracy. The car’s ride is also slightly more noisy and unsettled on the larger alloys.

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Should I buy one?

If you don’t, you should certainly have a damned good reason. Equipped with care, this Optima is an undeniable equal of some of Europe’s long-established, highly accomplished saloons. With sporting handling, distinctive styling and abundant value for money on the Kia’s side, in fact, it’s not difficult to imagine the open-minded giving up a VW Passat, Vauxhall Insignia or Ford Mondeo for one. Not difficult at all.

Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi 2 Tech

Price: £21,695; Top speed: 125mph; 0-60mph: 10.2sec; Economy: 57.6mpg; Co2: 128g/km; Kerbweight: 1559kg; Engine type, cc: 4 cyls in line, 1685cc, turbodiesel; Power: 134bhp at 4000rpm; Torque: 239lb ft at 2000-2500rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd manual

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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Stoggers 17 January 2012

Re: Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi

You should ask for the 274BHP 2.0 Turbo we have here in North America. It's excellent!

The Apprentice 16 January 2012

Re: Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi

artill wrote:
The discounts are going to have to be bigger than that to stop this looking very expensive. A quick check on Autoebid shows a diesel Insignia can be had for £13,700 and a diesel Mondeo for £15,100.

You would have to look at the spec too, the Optima featured is a mid high spec model with lots of toys, not a basic Mondeo. There will be cheaper Optima too so with discount will be nearer the mark, but I agree Ford and Vauxhall offer some crazy discounts.

Unfortunately its when you look at whole life costs, the residuals of those brands are naff as an inevitable result, the Kia may well out pace them here making it better value. Try and find a cheap new shape used Kia Sportage as an example!

artill 16 January 2012

Re: Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi

The Apprentice wrote:
Brokers for example Carquake or Broadspeed (other brokers are available!) will put you in touch with a dealer that can get any model & trim new to order with between £800 to £3500 off

The discounts are going to have to be bigger than that to stop this looking very expensive. A quick check on Autoebid shows a diesel Insignia can be had for £13,700 and a diesel Mondeo for £15,100.

Considering how much the established players will discount by its a tough market for anyone to make any money in.