When Kia launched the latest-generation Kia Optima in Australia in January 2011, it was hailed as a quantum leap in design next to its predecessor - the uninspiring Kia Magentis.
Here was an affordable medium-size sedan from Korea with clean lines and sleek styling that had the global motoring media doing double takes.
Kia launched the new Optima with just one trim level: the Platinum edition. And as the name suggests, it came fully loaded with a host of luxury features as standard equipment for the grand total of $36,990 before on-road costs.
In January 2012, Kia added a second, watered-down trim level to the Optima range, which they called the Si – which we’ve now tested.
Features such as the sunroof, leather seats, 18-inch rims and push-button start were deleted from the Kia Optima Platinum inventory, but so too was $6500 off the price, creating the entry-level Optima Si for $30,490 before on-road costs.
That’s not to say that you’re going to get a stripped-out version of the Optima with your purchase of a Si model. On the contrary, there’s plenty to like as you settle in to this budget-priced edition.
There’s no shortage of premium grade features with leather-accented seats with contrast stitching, reverse parking sensors, reversing camera with parking guidelines, auto-dimming rear view mirror, leather wrapped steering wheel with remote controls for audio, phone and cruise control, dual-zone climate control, electric folding mirrors (heated), Bluetooth phone and music streaming and a decent six-speaker audio unit.
Other creature comforts omitted from the Kia Optima Si model include a colour TFT instrument cluster, satellite navigation (with free map upgrades for three years), front seat warmers with cooled driver’s seat, full leather trim, premium audio system - and, sadly, LED daytime running lights.
Despite the absence of full-leather trim and soft-touch materials on the dash, the Kia Optima Si still feels semi-premium inside the cockpit.
It’s a driver-centric centre stack with clearly defined switchgear and plenty of metal accents that provide a quality look and feel to the cabin.
Passenger space is well catered for, too, with plenty of rear legroom, although headroom for rear seat passengers is slightly compromised by the tapered roofline.
The seats themselves are positioned deep into the car, so it’s more a sports-style driving position up front, with just enough side bolster to hold you firmly in place during cornering, while also able to accommodate a variety of body shapes.
The same 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with direct injection and developing 148kW and 250Nm of torque to the front wheels powers the entire Kia Optima range.
So there’s plenty of punch from a standing start and enough mid-range torque to maintain a solid pace when overtaking slower moving vehicles on the freeway.
The problem is that at the mid-to-high rev range this engine can be unpleasantly noisy when hard on the throttle. It’s an issue that’s accentuated by harsh kick-downs by the standard fit six-speed automatic transmission as it strives to maintain the required torque output.
Unfortunately, Kia does not offer a diesel option in the Optima range, which could have gone a long way to addressing the above gripes.
However, there are no such issues with the Kia Optima at slower or cruising speeds, where the transmission is keen to move into top gear in the interest of lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
For those drivers wanting greater driver involvement there’s a Sport mode that allows sequential manual shifts via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters or the standard shift lever itself.
The Optima’s transmission is relatively quick shifting, making the paddle shifters the preferred option for this reviewer, when conditions permit. The plastic levers feel cheap, however.
The Kia Optima has been tuned for Australian roads and it rewards with a satisfying ride that favours an authentically sporty character over sheer comfort.
However, the ride is always pliant even over poor surfaces, despite an underlying firmness to the Optima’s suspension that begs you to exploit what is a very composed chassis.
There’s minimal body roll for what is a medium-to-large family sedan, along with loads of grip in the corners despite the Si model’s smaller 17-inch wheels and narrower 215/55 series tyres (down from 18-inch wheels and 225/45 series on the Platinum model).
Thankfully, Kia has chosen to stick with a traditional hydraulic power steering system for the Optima, which in this case provides reasonable feel and communication through the steering wheel. It’s also quick to respond to steering inputs, too. Our only issue is that the steering weight can be inconsistent and there is some kickback over medium to large bumps.
The five-star ANCAP rated Kia Optima Si ticks all the boxes when it comes to active and passive safety, too.
Standard fitment across the Optima range includes six airbags (dual front, dual front side and full-length curtain), active head restraints, electronic stability control with traction control, anti-locking brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist rounding out the safety features.
Kia Australia recently introduced capped-price servicing and free 24-hour roadside assistance across a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty period along with annual service intervals across their model range.
The Kia Optima Si is undeniably one of the best value buys in the medium car segment. It offers European styling, an unrivalled level of standard features, strong four-cylinder performance with decent handling and ride.