THE most upscale Kia to land in Australia is more than a car. The mid-sized Optima is also a test case for a Korean company that is still working hard to win convert customers and prove it is more than just a disposable brand.
The basics of the Optima are solid and proven - as the same package rolls under the Hyundai i45 - but Kia has done a great job on giving the car some design style and Aussie-style driving enjoyment. It's also priced very effectively below $40,000 with the sort of equipment - including heated and cooled leather front seats - that only used to be found in $200,000-plus German star brands.
The competition in the mid-sized class has never been tougher, from the appliance-like Toyota Camry to the sporty Suzuki Kizashi and the under-appreciated Ford Mondeo, but the Kia makes a solid claim.
Kia is still at the stage where it has to under-promise and over-deliver, which explains a single-model strategy in showrooms and a price of $36,990. The bottom line is well below the level of the class leading Toyota Camry, and even takes a $3000 chunk - including $1000 of extra equipment - from the top-line Hyundai i45.
The package includes leather seats and a glass sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic aircon, a punchy sound system and all the other basics in today's mid-sized contenders, from power steering to electric windows and the rest. The only thing missing - really missing - is satnav but Kia Australia promises it is doing all it can to get a system in 2011.
The Optima package is tried and proven by Hyundai, from its 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic gearbox to fully- independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. Kia Australia makes lots of comparisons with the underwhelming Optima of the past, but the car needs to be considered on its own.
So the Theta II engine has high-pressure direct fuel injection to make 148 kiloWatts and 250 Newton-metres with economy of 7.9litres/100km and emissions at 189grams/kilometre of CO2. The really impressive technology work in the Optima is done in Australia, thanks to suspension guru Graeme Gambold. He has tweaked the car for Australian roads and drivers, and to give it a sharper and more enjoyable feel than the i45, by changing a bunch of stuff including much stiffer springs.
The Optima looks more like a Saab than previous-generation Kia cars. That's a big compliment for a car which is both restrained and elegant than the i45, as well as more of a head-turner than a Camry.
The design work runs from the latest corporate Kia grille to trendy dish-style alloy wheels and a cabin that is less funky than Hyundai but more likely to appeal to someone who is shopping the Optima against a Japanese car. Some of the luxury touches are a bit old-school, like the fake wood trim, but the overall effect is classy and the quality seems good.
Kia is still waiting on independent test results but claims five-star safety for the Optima. It is full loaded with everything from ABS brakes and stability control to hill-start help, reverse parking camera and radar, cornering lamps and daytime running lamps. Safety is another area where Kia knows it has to make an impact and it's ticking all the boxes.
The new Optima makes an impressive first impression, firstly for itslooks and impressive equipment and then for its driving. It's not a sports car, but it doesn't have to be one either. The suspension is well tuned for local conditions, giving a slightly firmish feel without going nasty over the tram tracks of inner-city Melbourne.
The suspension also responds well. It could be better, with some thumping from the low-profile tyres and a bit of wobbliness in the steering in tight corners, but overall it's a car to enjoy driving. The cabin is great with so much equipment, although satnav is a major missing link.
There is leather and a sunroof and the sound system is good, there is space for five adults and the boot is roomy. But the Optima is still a cheaper Korean contender, from a company still learning the ropes, and that means the seats are lacking support and cushiness, some of the trim pieces look a bit fragile, and the engine is not as responsive as a European unit. Still, the Optima is $36,990 and it will be a winner for Kia.
The only problem is that stocks are currently limited to just 1000 cars. "We think we could sell 10,000 but that is all we can get from Korea. We are trying as hard as possible to get more," apologises the head of Kia Australia, MK Kim.
Another Kia success that will be a hit.
ENGINE: 2.4-litre four cylinder with twin-overhead camshafts and variable valve timing
OUTPUT: 148kW/6300 revs, 250Nm/4250revs
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
ECONOMY: 7.9 litres/100km
EMISSIONS: 189g/km CO2
Ford Mondeo (from $30,990): 8/10
Holden Epica (from $28,490): 6/10
Hyundai i45 (from 29,590): 7/10
Toyota Camry (from $30,490): 8/10