Officially spruiked as a 2019 model by its importer, the mid-2018 makeover of the Kia Optima aims to boost the Korean sedan’s position within the bourgeoning mid-sized sedan segment that’s increasingly struggling to swoon Aussie buyers. We’ve opted to measure the cut of the flagship GT’s updated jib as it vies to swoon buyers away from the big-selling new Camry and a slew of quality also-rans such as the Mazda 6 and Mondeo.
Those updates? There’s a mild face-lift outside, some light revision inside, Apple and Android smartphone integration for the infotainment system and a new, adaptive ‘Smart’ drive mode to complement the usual Comfort, Eco and Sport array. So, no broad-stroke changes on the menu, more a sprinkling of nice garnish to tweak the recipe for this four-year-young, fourth-gen Optima iteration.
The good news is that this refreshed Optima GT comes with a discount – its $43,290 list price is down $1200 – over the early-2018 version. And these improvements add to what is on paper a well-rounded and comprehensively specified package.
It’s not short on features, which include: adaptive/auto-levelling front lighting, LEDs front and rear, smart key with button start, eight-way powered front seats with comfort access, leather ‘appointed’ trim, seat and steering wheel heating, hands-free exterior boot release, cruise control, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers, an auto demister, electric folding mirrors, 8.0-inch LCD touchscreen infotainment with proprietary sat-nav, DAB+ reception, 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio, a TFT colour driver’s screen, Qi-type wireless phone charging and rear window blinds. Full of fruit? You bet.
However, some standard gen-three features on the old version have been deleted: there’s no panoramic glass roof, no front seat cooling, and no high-beam assist or tyre pressure monitoring as featured on the outgoing version. That said, the suite of smart safety systems is quite comprehensive and includes, in this top-spec GT at least, active lane-keeping, lane-change assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and the all-important autonomous emergency braking.
If premiumness directly equates to the size of the features haul – a typical Asian marque pitch – then the Optima GT looks fit on paper. But, of course, any intimation of gran turismo in namesake suggests some promise of verve and spark in character.
At 180kW and 350Nm, the carryover 2.0-litre turbocharged four-banging petrol engine – backed by a six-speed conventional automatic tied to the front wheels – certainly appears healthy enough by the numbers.
Further, effort has gone into ‘sporting up’ the flagship GT’s appearance – dual large oval exhaust tips, a faux diffuser-look rear bar, that ‘angry face’ lower front grille aperture – though designers have tread lightly and inoffensively on an exterior design showing its age.
The Optima does suffer ungainly large front and rear overhangs and sits on slightly anaemic-looking (235/45 18-inch) rolling stock – an effect that doesn’t exactly scream contemporary cool. Of course, styling is a highly subjective matter, so if you like what you see, particularly in our tester’s ($595 optional) premium black paintwork…
The black theme continues inside, carpet to headlining, which imparts an almost cave-like ambience provided some relief by dusty red ‘leather appointments’ and luxury-formulaic frosted silver and piano-black highlights. The cabin design is neat, presents nicely with ample maturity and has nice upmarket ambience despite not being a little cookie-cut-Kia and lacking much adventure. Some of the switchgear is a little cheap and the red-lit labelling is tough to read at night, but the controls are big and easy to find with a clear and logical layout.
Despite being revamped with smartphone mirroring, the rudimentary touchscreen infotainment system – even this ‘big’ 8.0-inch GT arrangement – is a bit of a humdrum unit, a little functionally clunky, and rudimentary in slickness and features. Given this is a key area of 2019 improvement, it’s not nearly enough in nearly enough areas.
The seating is quite good, a low-set sport-type contour up front that's both supportive and comfy trimmed with perforated leather (appointment) of middling suppleness. The quasi-flat-bottom multifunction wheel is styled to impress as well. If there’s a gripe in the mix, it’s that the shallow pedal placement leaves long-legged drivers without much under-thigh support, which makes extended driving stints a little tiresome.
The Optima’s long length (4.85m) and wheelbase afford the sort of generous roominess typical of the medium-to-large sedan set. It doesn’t test the friendship for knee, head or elbow room in any outboard seating position, making for a decent four-up long-hauler or ideal for five adults for short trips. There are also handy 60:40 split-fold rear seatbacks allowing decent load-through access from what’s quite a decent-sized boot.
There are certainly no complaints about the size of the boot up the backside either…
This 2.0-litre turbocharged T-GDi engine certainly packs a wallop. In fact, it has so much tangible energy so readily available on tap that almost everyone who drove it during its week in the CarAdvice garage commented on the GT’s ‘surprise wheelspin’ as the six-speed auto gamely harnesses engine torque and fires it through the front wheel.
Its 350Nm peak clocks on at just 1350rpm with willing response – no gripes here – but it does so with such urgency to throttle input that dignified progress demands concentrated effort in restraint by the driver. You do acclimatise with familiarisation, and it’s hardly a chore to commute around in Eco or Comfort drive modes, it’s just a less relaxed experience than it otherwise need be.
Frankly, the Smart drive mode – that supposedly adapts the car’s responses to driving habit – doesn’t seem to bring much tangible difference, let alone benefit, to the way the GT drives. And whichever more leisurely mode is selected, around town at least, consumption refused to dip below 11L/100km, though to be fair, its urban claim is a whopping 12.5L/100km. We never got near the low 6.3L/100km glory figure quoted for extra-urban use.
Activating Sport really puts a rocket up the GT’s tailpipes. By the seat of the pants, the four-door feels damn quick. But it makes the throttle take-up so needlepoint that even small right-foot twitches threaten to break Michelin traction. And that’s with the auto upshifting early at around 4000rpm, some 2500rpm short of redline. The powertrain calibration is bizarre, not terribly friendly or cooperative for real-world driving for a luxo-sporty sedan, and frankly a bit pointless.
The ride and handling package is also a bit of a mixed bag. The suspension’s bump control is disciplined over big speed humps and other large vertical movements and it settles cleanly and quickly, but it can be quite terse across smaller road acne and lack innate compliance at around-town pace. It's not nearly as comfortable as it should be one-up, and the ride doesn’t seem to settle by much measure, even with four adults aboard.
If anything, the GT seems a little confused in what it is trying to be and trying to achieve. It steers fine – the high-spec version gets rack-mounted electric power steering said be superior to the column-mount design of the base Optima Si – but while it’s reasonably direct, it’s only adequate in connecting the driver with the road. And while the chassis’s propensity for road holding is acceptable, there really isn't enough chassis prowess in poise or grip to harness the kind of energy doled out by the engine.
So, why make the powertrain so peaky and the ride so fidgety? In what must presumably be a brief to inject some extra sportiness into the Optima’s DNA, these two areas of ill-conceived calibration go some way to negatively impacting daily driveability and liveability. These shortcomings are a marked contrast to the success you find, say, in the new Commodore, which executes cohesiveness and all-round polish so much more convincingly and impressively.
Yes, there's Kia’s outstanding seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty for the Optima to fall back on. But this is only a safety net, not a primary selling point, for private buyers (the rental/hire/taxi warranty is capped at 150,000km) and lacklustre sales of the Optima proves it. While we’re at it, you do get seven years of 12-month/10,000km-interval capped-price servicing, each interval varying from $289 to $749, or a total of $3347 over seven years.
In verdict, the Optima GT is at its most enticing on paper, stacking up the features and general perceived value, yet it's let down in key areas of the experience that perhaps should've been addressed in an update that doesn't try quite hard enough. It's evident in areas such as the haptic feedback-type Lane Keep Assist, which looks good on the sedan's list of credentials yet only works sporadically in practice, thus essentially rendering the feature – and a safety feature as marketed – redundant.
So, what has been a well-regarded and highly rated breed in the past, hasn't really moved confidently along with the times in this newly face-lifted form.