What is it?
Until recently, car makers worried by aggressive attacks on their export sales by the Koreans, especially Hyundai and Kia, could fall back on the 'ugly' defence. Sure, the Asian creations are reliable and affordable, they'd loftily assert, but who wants a car that looks like that?
The new Kia Optima saloon, new in the US and due in the UK next July, destroys that defence completely. Like most of the latest Kias, it's very handsome. I suspect that if you parked this Optima beside a BMW 5-series (a genuine competitor in size and quality) many fair-minded people – perhaps a majority – would say the Kia looked better and classier. And we're talking here about a car whose predecessor had a starting price of around £17,000, and which when it arrives won't go far into the £20,000s.
Kia's abrupt transition began at the beginning of the decade, but has come about mostly since the arrival of ex-Audi design chief Peter Schreyer, who has surrounded himself with multicultural talent.
So dominant is the styling of this new Optima that you're apt to miss its other achievements: excellent interior quality, greater depth of equipment and decent dynamics. An afternoon's driving at the end of the LA motor show confirmed its basic abilities.
There will be three model levels, but the big seller will doubtless be the top-spec model, equipped with niceties like touch-screen navigation, an elaborate hi-fi and leather upholstered heated and cooled seats.
What's it like?
The car we drove, on US-spec (soft) suspension rates and powered by a 197bhp, 2.4 litre, four-cylinder petrol engine, is of fairly loose relevance to the UK, since our launch engine will be a 1.7 litre, 140 bhp turbodiesel four, possibly followed by a 2.0 litre GDi petrol unit, and after that a more powerful (probably 170 bhp) version of the same diesel.Transmissions will be a choice of six-speed auto and manual.
Although it had decent suspension control and damping, foibles were road noise and curiously tuned steering which seemed rather old-fashioned and imprecise at the straight ahead, and poorly weighted. Wind and road noise weren't the quietest, either, though the engine was barely audible most of the time and the transmission smooth and sensitive.
Should I buy one?
All this car really needs is the lightest of running tweaks by Lotus's chassis men, plus continuing development in production, and it'll be a fine car indeed. It's already better than some cars costing half as much again. Just how high can Kia fly?