IF THIS page was a school report, it’d have a big, shiny ‘most improved’ sticker plastered in the top left-hand corner. After two days of ruthless testing, all of the judges agreed that Kia’s new Optima is one of the most improved cars of 2015, an accolade that speaks as much to the new model’s step forward as it does to the old one’s disappointing dynamics, harsh ride and uninspiring base engine.
But this low base shouldn’t detract from the new generation’s virtues, of which there are many.
Bigger, lighter and significantly stiffer than before, Kia has worked hard to produce a car that’s not only better dynamically, but offers a more sophisticated and tech-laden interior, headlined by inclusions such as wireless phone charging and standard Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB). Both are a first for Kia.
Two models are now offered in a streamlined range – the Si, using a carryover 2.4-litre directinjection four, and a sportier GT flagship powered by Kia’s all-aluminium 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four producing 180kW/350Nm (see sidebar, right.)
Both variants are mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic transmission and have undergone extensive local chassis tuning, the benefits of which were instantly felt over Lang Lang’s challenging ride and handling route.
Every judge agreed the ride and NVH levels of both Optimas are a welcome step forward, with particular praise given to the GT’s adhesive grip and its gruntier turbo engine. Kia’s decision to shod both variants in high-quality rubber paid dividends on the handling circuit’s tricky high- and low-speed corners, where Optima’s chassis felt nicely balanced, if not quite engaging.
But if the Optima surprised in some areas, it fell down in others. Its chief failing is steering weighting that feels overly heavy, even in Normal mode, and verges on treacle in Sport. Long stopping distances in the dry, and laughably lengthy dirt braking were other dynamic letdowns, and likewise an ESC system that failed to impress anyone on the slippery dirt section.
While the new Optima is lighter than before (by a mere 6kg), there’s no escaping its rather portly mass, which stretches from 1585kg (Si) to 1650kg (GT). Combine this with hardworking four-cylinder engines and claimed fuel-consumption numbers of 8.3 and 8.5L/100km for the Si and GT respectively, and the Optima struggles to gain efficiency marks.
The evolutionary, yet fussier, exterior styling was deemed a step back from the Optima’s sleeker and more cohesive predecessor. Yet its roomy, logical interior was deemed to have an element of understated class – particularly the lavishly equipped GT with its high-quality red leather.
Where the Optima clawed back much-needed ground was against the value criteria, with every judge agreeing that even in the base $34,490 Si, you’re getting a lot of kit for your coin, headlined by inclusions like radar cruise, lane departure warning, a rear camera and AEB.
The Optima, then, is a patchwork of welcome highs and slightly disappointing lows. Despite being discernably better than it ever has been, it’s a car that is still struggling to find an identity.
So while that ‘most improved’ sticker is welldeserved, the Optima doesn’t cut it in a COTY class dominated by A+ students.
Type 4-door sedan, 5 seats Boot capacity 510 litres Weight 1585 – 1650kg
Layout front engine (east-west), FWD Engines 2359cc 4cyl (138kW/241Nm) 1998cc 4cyl turbo (180kW/350Nm) Transmission 6-speed automatic
Tyres 215/55R17 – 235/45R18 ADR81 fuel consumption 8.3 – 8.5L/km CO2 emissions 194 – 199g/km Collision mitigation .
Crash rating 5-star (ANCAP) Prices $34,490 – $43,990
GT version of the Optima debuts Kia’s new 2.0-litre Turbo-GDi engine. Originating from the Theta II family, it’s the same donk found in Hyundai’s Sonata, where it produces an identical 180kW/350Nm.
Ironically, despite its extra power and emphasis on performance, the GT is actually 65kg heavier than the base Optima Si. Half of this is down to the 2.0-litre engine’s turbo and intercooler (32kg), with the rest a victim of the GT’s higher spec, including heavier electric front seats.