Some time ago I got a phone call from a reader who was torn between buying a Hyundai i40 and the Kia Optima and he was quite startled when I responded to his inquiry as to which he should purchase by immediately plumping for the Hyundai, writes Declan Colley

“You didn’t have much hesitation there,” he opined — and he was right. When the two cars came out in 2011, there was much commonality between them and that is very understandable as both car makers are in common ownership and the cars are built on the same platform and share much of the same running gear.

It was immediately apparent, however, that the Hyundai was by far the better driving prospect of the two cars and was much better fettled for Irish driving conditions. The Kia was well- appointed, very competitively priced and certainly the better looking of the duo, but it was pretty grim as a driving companion.

The handling was awful and the steering was vague and woolly and these deficiencies were enough to damn the car in the view of any self-respecting driver. Thus it was when the above inquiry came my way, I had no hesitation in recommending the Hyundai as the better of the two cars.

Five years on and the Kia saloon has undergone a complete revamp and while the exterior look has not changed radically — in fact it is hard to distinguish between old and new — everything under the skin has changed radically in order to address the many faults that previously lay within. The chassis has been lightened and stiffened and torsional rigidity has been increased by a whopping 50%.

There has also been a number of changes to the suspensions including a revamp of the independent rear set-up and all of these things contribute greatly to giving the car a whole new lease of life in terms of its ability to please the person sitting behind the wheel.

In the market segment it is in — facing up to the likes of such as the VW Passat, the Ford Mondeo, the Toyota Avensis, the Opel Insignia and its Korean rival the i40 — the chances are that owner/drivers are going to be spending a whole lot of time behind the wheel and the Optima’s previous errant ways in the ride and handling department were obviously not going to be doing it any favours.

Now, however, these issues have largely been addressed and the result is a car which is actually a viable competitor in a cut-throat niche. And, throw in the fact that with considerable attention to the NVH — that’s noise, vibration and harshness — characteristics of the car, the previous industrial- strength commotion coming from under the hood is largely eradicated.

That refinement is also seen within the huge cabin — with wheelbase stretched as well as height and width being increased, there is massive available interior space — where the previously dodgy plastics have seen a substantial upgrade and been replaced by surfaces which are now a lot more tactile and pleasing on the eye.

The quality of the seating is also notable and the amount of room available to rear seat passengers — while not quite being of Skoda Superb levels — is still very impressive and you will have no complaints even from your taller friends were you to take them on a trip to, say, Donegal, for example.

Kia has done a fine job on the Optima’s décor and it exudes a sense of cultured elegance.
Kia has done a fine job on the Optima’s décor and it exudes a sense of cultured elegance.

The handsomely appointed — stitched leather — dashboard should please any driver and the large touchscreen is easy to navigate and operate, as is the rest of the switchgear and function controls. All told Kia has done a fine job on the décor and it exudes a sense of cultured elegance which was previously absent.

As well as being a lot more refined, the engine is also a bit more punchy too. The unit is a revised version of the familiar 1.7 CRDi four cylinder turbodiesel which both Hyundai and Kia has used heretofore, but it has been given a thorough going over which has seen power output increased and much of the previous clatter and clamour removed.

The engine now outputs some 141 bhp at 4,000 rpm and torque has been tweaked upwards as well (340 Nm between 1,750 and 2,500 rpm) and while the resultant performance (10.0 second 0-100 kph and a top speed of 203 kph) may not strike terror into the collective hearts of the opposition, they are ball-park enough to satisfy most drivers.

Also tweaked though is the consumption rate and while Kia now claim a 4.2 l/100 km capability (67 mpg) over the combined cycle, the truth of the matter is that real-life figures in the region of 5.09 l/100m should easily be attainable and this gives the car an excellent range.

Throw in an emission level of 100 g/km for an annual tax bill of €190 and you have a package which is already putting a smile on your fleet manager’s face.

On the down side of the equation, there was a period of several days with this car when I was driven to near madness by a consistent rattle coming from somewhere in the rear of the car.

I eventually traced it to a rear seatbelt buckle which had been partly wedged against one of those scratchy plastic inserts which I had previously applauded the manufacturer for largely getting rid of. It was just as well rectified it though, because had I not, the result of this review might have been considerably less kind.

Otherwise the Optima pretty much passed every test I put to it and it impressed me at every turn. It is commendably better than the car it replaces and Kia obviously took previous criticisms of the car seriously and set about correcting them.

If I were now to get that same reader’s phone call asking me to recommend either this car or the i40, then the answer might not come as quickly and surely as it did the last time. In fact, it might not be the same answer at all.

COLLEY'S VERDICT

The Car: Kia Optima

The Cost: From €27,950 - €31,450 as tested.

The Engine: Won’t set the world on fire, but performs decently and is surprisingly economical.

The Specification: In Platinum trim as tested, this thing was packed with good stuff.

The Overall Verdict: Much more of an acceptable contender now.


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