Kia find the Optima solution for an old problem

Kia Optima: This car has fleet owners firmly in its sights.

We take the new Kia Optima for test drive to find out if it’s worth the investment.

WHAT’S NEW?

The Kia Optima has been, by Kia’s own admission, underperforming in the sales department. Part of the problem is that the small company hasn’t had the factory capacity to offer Europe-specific models, but that’s all changed now.

Kia has pledged to build new models for new markets and the Optima Sportswagon is part of fulfilling that goal. In Europe, estate cars make up two thirds of sales and 75% of fleet sales in this segment. Kia wanted in on the action, which is why it’s built its first D-segment estate.

Aside from being 5mm taller, it’s mostly as you were with the saloon. Dynamically the only change is in the suspension — damper rates and alignment settings have been tweaked to accommodate a rearward-shift in weight distribution and to cope with the potential for heavier loads.

LOOKS AND IMAGE

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s fair to say Kia’s hit the nail on the head stylistically. The look is clearly inspired by European rivals, but it has a unique character that’s often lacking from high-volume manufacturers’ cars.

In an Olympic year, it’s perhaps apt that the Korean manufacturer has a big hurdle to overcome. Brand image is something that takes time to build, and in this segment, it’s almost as important for buyers to be able to say they own a BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Audi as it is to have a decent car.

Kia’s in a good place to leap it, though. Opening the Optima’s door, you’ll notice it’s heavy and closes with a satisfying thud. The interior is mostly on a par with the Germans; the wheel feels good in your hand if a little uncomfortable in GT-Line spec, while the centre console and buttons have the look and feel of more premium rivals.

The only let-down is the shiny, cheap-feeling rough plastic that’s splashed across the top of the dashboard. It’s an odd, featureless slab in an otherwise upmarket interior.

For those who put quality, or just being a bit different, above showing off to others, the Kia won’t feel like a compromise.

SPACE AND PRACTICALITY

In the D-segment, space and practicality are big selling points — it’s why estate variants are so popular. The Optima Sportswagon’s cargo space measures up at 552 litres with the rear seats up and 1,686 litres with the seats down. This measures favourably against many rivals, including the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4, though it’s a good chunk less spacious than a Volkswagen Passat. Added practicality comes in the form of a power tailgate, one-touch folding seats and, on ‘3’ and GT-Line S trims, adjustable luggage rails.

BEHIND THE WHEEL

Kia’s been big on its new fun-to-drive ethos and it’s shown admirable commitment to this cause. Cars in this segment will never be light and wieldy, but the Optima’s suspension tweaks do a good job of reigning in the rear’s extra heft. It gives a composed ride that finds a pleasant compromise between feeling soft and comfortable without the unsettled wallowing that’s often a by-product of such a set-up.

The steering, again, is a great compromise. Too often, modern electrically-assisted set-ups can feel feather light or have engineered ‘weight’. However, the Optima’s steering feels natural.

The real let-down from a fun-to-drive perspective is the engine. With 139bhp and 340Nm of torque it was never going to be lightning quick, but it feels slower and less responsive than those numbers suggest, especially in the manual. It also lacks the smoothness and surge of torque found in the best modern diesels from the likes of Mazda.

The engine feels like diesels of old; noisy and uninspiring. Go for the DCT auto, though, and responsiveness at low revs is improved, even if the official performance figures contradict that.

Drivers less concerned with picking a Kia because it’s enjoyable to drive will be pleased to know that the manual is rated at 64.2mpg and 113g/km of CO2, while the automatic is officially 61.4mpg and 120g/km — all decent numbers for a car in this segment.

VALUE FOR MONEY

The entry-level Optima Sportswagon starts at €29,950 and that feels like great value when you’re sat behind the wheel. It would be fair to say the Optima’s interior is almost on a par with the likes of BMW, and isn’t as far behind more premium manufacturers as you might think.

Considering it undercuts both by a few thousand euro, those looking to save the pennies really only have badge snobbery to overcome.

It costs a fraction more than a Ford Mondeo estate, which offers similar cargo space and slightly better fuel economy from its also-uninspiring diesel.

The Optima’s trump card, however, is Kia’s seven-year or 100,000-mile warranty. It helps bring running costs right down and gives welcome peace of mind.

WHO WOULD BUY ONE?

This car has fleet owners firmly in its sights. First and foremost, this estate model was added to the line-up so Kia could get a slice of that sweet fleet ownership pie.

With decent fuel economy and you’ve got a solid alternative to the established European marques.

The Optima Sportswagon will also appeal to those with large families and who perhaps have a large dog.

It provides enough space to keep the little ones comfortable on long trips, and the large boot is ideal for keeping a pet away from your nice seats without feeling guilty about stuffing it in a claustrophobic boot.


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