The Kia Optima Turbo is the ideal compromise between a family-friendly sedan and a performance-orientated sports car. It’s also the first real performance car from the consistently expanding Korean brand and, as of very recently, it has become available for right-hand-drive production.
From the outset the Optima Turbo may not appear all that unique. No matter how you look at it, it’s just a performance sedan and there are a few of those around. But take a closer look and you’ll see that performance sedans of this size and price range almost no longer exist. The Europeans continue to make the high-end versions but the Japanese have been too slow and dragging their feet.
As has been the case in nearly all industries the country competes in, the Koreans are desperate to outdo the Japanese and that never-ending hunger and drive has led to many strides and advances that has seen the downfall of companies such as Sony, Toshiba, etc and seen the rise of Samsung and LG.
It’s with that thought in mind that we jumped behind the wheel of a Kia Optima Turbo heading out of Los Angeles towards Laguna Beach. Having gone on sale in North America more than a year ago, the Kia Optima Turbo seems to have found it self a reasonable market in a country that is far less brand-prejudiced (when it comes to cars) than Australia.
A four-cylinder turbocharged engine powers the performance-focused Optima and generates a healthy 204kW of power and 365Nm of torque, all of which goes to the front wheels. It gets from 0-100km/h in less than seven seconds and is available with a six-speed automatic transmission only.
From the outside there’s not an awful lot to tell the Optima turbo apart from the naturally aspirated models. It’s sleek, well designed and stands out wherever it goes, even in California. There’s no silly bonnet scoop, large exhaust or massive rear wing. Our car did have chrome alloys but it’s registered in Los Angeles, so it’s just trying to fit in. It’s inherently a sedate family car with a little secret under its bonnet.
Behind the wheel our first focus was on the Sirius-enabled high-resolution navigation screen, which was one of the best we’ve seen in any vehicle to date. Similar in shape and performance to the satnav system found in our local Kias, but with significantly more features that are primarily available for the North American market only. This includes everything from satellite radio to smartphone-enabled apps that can interact with the system.
The six-speed automatic gearbox is effectively the same transmission system that we’ve come to appreciate in Kia’s other models. It has obviously been modified to cope with the extra power and torque but we found its gearshifts to be just as smooth and consistent as before.
Power delivery from the four-cylinder force-fed engine is surprisingly linear. As always there’s the expected turbo-rush from the boost phase (3000-4000 rpm) but it doesn’t seem to run out of guts as quickly as we’d anticipated. That may have something to do with the six-speed automatic gearbox, though, which tends to extract all the available power and torque without making a big fuss. Being a family-friendly sedan means the Optima Turbo lacks a sporty exhaust note that would really give it that extra bit of character.
The ride is pretty soft which means it tended to absorb the poorly surfaced highways of Los Angeles with ease. The steering feel, too, is relatively light and without feedback, but this is an American version we are testing here and despite being the range-topping turbo, it’s not even on par with the naturally-aspirated but locally tuned Optimas we see in Australian shoowrooms.
Given our test roads were relatively straight, it’s hard to concretely say how well the Optima Turbo conquers corners, but on the odd occasion where we did find a hard corner and pushed it past its limits, the Kia presented noticeable torque steer and not of the fun kind.
There’s good precedent to suggest that if the turbo variant was to make it down under, the local tuning experts may get the suspension and steering right. Nonetheless it’s no easy task to muscle 204kW to the front wheels on a car with a relatively long wheelbase. This is where the Japanese with their Mazda6 MPS (which is rumoured to make a comeback with the new generation) and Subaru Liberty Turbo have gone to all-wheel-drive systems for good reason.
Will it come to Australia? It’s currently uncertain. The availability of turbo production in right hand drive means that it’s now actually possible but Kia Australia needs to make a business case that makes financial sense.
The decision is unlikely to be finalised at least until the Kia Optima range sees its scheduled mid-life facelift towards the end of 2013.