The 2011 Kia Optima is a big knock-out punch to the face of competitors in the segment.
For those of us that still remember the old days of Kia, the last five years have come as a bit of a shock. The Korean brand’s insistence on breaking its negative brand-persona has led to one of the biggest turn-arounds of any automotive manufacturer to date. The new Kia Optima is the ultimate expression of the brand’s new heritage.
When Kia hired former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, we all knew things were about to change, but little did we know what that change would mean.
You may be wondering how a brand can change its design so quickly. The answer is not as complicated as you may think. For a start, Kia was better known for being a cheap and cheerful car company selling mostly to those that put price above everything else. Hence, changing the brand’s ‘history’ and core values was never exactly going to drive customers away, especially given that prices are still very competitive in the market. So when Schreyer took charge he essentially had a blank canvas to work from. He didn’t have to honour previous designs so he let his imagination run wild. From the outside the new Kia Optima is without fail the most modern-looking car out of Korea to date. The Cerato gave us an idea of what was to come and the Sportage showcased how good an SUV can really look but the Optima is ultimately what the new Kia identity is all about. Designing cars that have an emotional connection to their buyers. KIA Australia faces one of the biggest challenges in its recent history, as it now has on its hands the best looking medium-car on the market but only 1,000 units to sell for 2011. It gets even more specific as there is only the one variant, the Platinum, which literally comes with everything. The only option is metallic paint. Powered by a 2.4-litre petrol engine with 148 kW and 250 Nm of torque coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, at a cost of $36,990 the Optima is an absolute bargain. To celebrate the launch of the new Optima, Kia invited the Australian motoring press to Melbourne with a drive program consisting of Melbourne CBD and country Victoria. Unlike nearly all car launches that have certain roads picked just to highlight the car’s strong points, the good folks and Kia gave us the keys and a rough guide of where we should visit and then left us alone. This meant that not only was the Kia Optima tested in the CBD and twisty country roads, but I even had the opportunity to take it on gravel roads and some of the more rougher and neglected roads around Melbourne. Keen car fans would know already that the Kia Optima is based on the same platform as the Hyundai i45, in essence they are both the same car (even share the same engine and transmission) but with different exterior designs and specifications. Comparing the two from the outside is a rather difficult job. While the i45 does look good (and some would argue, more elegant), the Optima, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, looks better. Perhaps it’s the overly modern front-end with its European design cues or the Daytime Running Lights (DRL) that give the Optima the edge. Or maybe it’s the swooping lines that run from front to rear and its masculine yet modern stance on the road that draws the gaze of nearly all, that sets it apart. Either way, it’s one fine looking motor vehicle. If you’re wondering about the flush wheels I suspect they may go out of fashion in time, but are perfect for a car built to raise brand awareness. It’s hard to make a case for or against exterior designs as beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, but if you’re asking me, I believe Kia has nailed it. Once you’ve finished admiring the Optima’s exterior you might finally remember that you need to get inside to actually drive it. As I mentioned earlier, the Optima Platinum comes with pretty much everything. Leather-wrapped powered front seats with heat and air-ventilation (driver only), sunroof, an eight-speaker Infinity (a sub-brand of Harman) sound system with full bluetooth support (phone and audio streaming) and pretty much anything else you can think of, bar Sat Nav. Kia says we will see integrated Sat Nav systems in the Optima towards the end of the year but for now it will make do without. The most notable feature of the Optima’s interior is the centre stack instrument panel which is angled towards the driver. This allows for easier control access to the stereo, air-conditioning and other features. The passenger can still easily fiddle with the controls but the 9.6 degree tilt towards the driver means less glare during those really sunny days. The front seats are comfortable for long distance drives and come with features that I am still only seeing in top-of-the-range European cars. For example, apart from heating for both front seats, the driver’s seat is blessed with a built in ventilation system that Kia says can reduce humidity by 30 percent when operating for about 20 mins. The rear is spacious if you’re carrying two adults but it wouldn’t be suited for three adults over long journeys. There is ample head and leg room (unless you’re in the NBA) and thanks to the excellent sound proofing you can fall asleep in the back seats rather quickly. The Infinity Stereo system can connect to your iPod/iPhone with a cable without any issues. It natively supports Apple products so you can pick your music using the car’s stereo system. Best of all though, you can use your iPhone (or iPod Touch) to wirelessly stream music to the Optima’s stereo via Bluetooth. This means crisp and clear sound without any distortion of signal over wire. The test music collection of Mozart and Armin Van Buuren both highlighted the Infinity system’s sound quality. It works just as well for Bluetooth phone connection. Numerous calls were made as part of the test and the Optima’s microphone and speaker performed well, in fact, it allows for quick redials if you use the phone buttons on the steering wheel. The instrument cluster houses a 3.5-inch TFT LCD screen that displays instant fuel economy and is also capable of showing maintenance schedules and other useful information. It’s a bit of a gimmick really. But since it’s a standard feature, you can’t complain. Nonetheless, the ultimate question here still remains. How does the Kia Optima drive and handle? The Hyundai i45 was never praised for its ride and handling so one would naturally expect its non-identical twin brother to behave in the same way. But as we’ve come to know of non-identical twins, they can have very little in common at times. As with the Sportage last year, Kia paid extra attention to fine tuning Australian delivered Optimas for our roads. Kia Australia says it conducted months of suspension tuning (even getting an engineer from Sachs – the people who supply the suspension parts) before finalising the car’s settings. If that means bugger all to you, just be happy to know the Optima handles rather well. Around the twisty mountain roads of rural Victoria, one can begin to enjoy what the Optima has to offer. To put the Optima’s ride and handling into perspective, it’s no all-wheel-drive Suzuki Kizashi or Subaru Liberty, both of which are class-leaders when it comes to cornering. In saying that, it’s still a damn fun thing to punt around in. Kia Australia has upgraded the front and rear brakes and given the Optima as much chance as possible to appeal to a new target audience. Around Melbourne CBD the Optima’s 10.9 metre turning circle and easy steering makes it a simple drive and highway driving is no different. With 148 kW to boot, it accelerates a little faster than I expected (0-100km/h in 9 seconds) and that’s partially due to the Korean’s own six-speed automatic (apparently the most compact six-speed automatic in the world) synched perfectly to the engine. If you’re really keen, you can make use of the steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters but unless you’re in a performance car I tend to find them more of a gimmick than anything else. The gearbox shifts smoothly up and down and when it comes to overtaking it will quickly respond to make the most of the 2.4-litre engine. Around Kinglake I found a 3 km section of back to back corners that became my test road for a good hour. When pushed to its limits, Optima’s handling can be a little fidgety and it can feel a tad unsure of itself but when driven normally (e.g. 99.99 perent of the time) it behaves a lot better than you’d think. It certainly out performs the original Hyundai i45 launched in Australia. Back to back with a Subaru Liberty or a Suzuki Kizashi, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference around town or even around a few bends. But if the world was to end in 2012 and the only way you could stay alive was to drive up a twisty mountain road at maximum speed, you’d still rather be in an all-wheel drive Liberty/Kizashi. For every other situation, the Optima is a standout performer. Ride and handling are taken care of by MacPherson strut suspension for the front and multi-link, independent suspension at the back. The car’s electronic stability (ESC) and traction control (TC) work together to make sure the Optima goes where the wheels are pointing. When things get a little rough it cuts power and gets you back in line. It can be a little over-enthusiastic with applying the brakes but it’s better to catch an under or oversteer a tad too early than a little too late. It will be interesting to see how the ride and handling of the updated model year 2011 Hyundai i45 will compare (check back in a few weeks as we bring you a review). Another new feature for the Kia Optima is the “ECO” mode, which works by adjusting the transmission gear changes and momentarily cutting the air-conditioning compressor (only when cabin temperature is already adequate) to help reduce fuel usage by about 7.5 percent. There was not enough time to test this out but i’d recommend owners to just leave it on as it may save you a few bucks each week and it’s not going to affect how your car behaves around town. Official fuel economy figures are 7.9 litres per 100km for a combined city and highway cycle. The Optima’s safety systems make it a very difficult car to crash. Thanks to ESC, TCS, BAS (Brake Assist System), HAC (Hillstart Assist Control), ABS (anti-lock system) and EBD (electronic brakeforce distribution), you’re much more likely to avoid an accident in the Optima than in a car lacking these features. If you do happen to be involved in an accident, dual front airbags, dual front side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags will be there to take care of you. There are also reverse parking sensors and a 130-degree wide-angle reversing camera built into the interior rear-view mirror which will allow you to see what’s behind you. Overall, the Kia Optima is hard car to criticise. It’s not perfect, nothing is. It lacks Sat-nav, the styling may not appease all and the interior can be a little too dark for some. But at just $36,990 you’ll find it impossible to find another model with equivalent features. The fact that it also happens to look so damn good only makes the proposition stronger. In addition, Kia offers a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty which is one of the best in business. If you’re looking at buying medium sized car you must give the Kia Optima a go. Go take it for a drive and compare value for money, if you can convince yourself the Kia badge is no lesser than the rest, you will find yourself a very happy owner of a very good car. Kia Optima Features: Safety (Active)
ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) with EBD & BA
ESC (Electronic Stability Control) with TCS
HAC (Hill-start Assist Control)
Seatbelt warning chime & light on all positions
Reverse parking sensors
Rear view camera with mirror display & parking guidelines
Electrochromic rear view mirror (auto dimming)
High-mounted rear stop light
LED daytime running light (DRL)
Dusk-sensing automatic headlamps
Static cornering lamps
Front & rear fog lamps
Speed sensing auto door lock
Child restraint anchorage points (3)
3-point ELR seatbelts on all positions
Driver & front passenger SRS airbags
Front side SRS airbags (pelvis & thorax protection)