Since Kia was introduced to the South African market, the company has made a few attempts to market a top-of-the-range sedan .
The Clarus was one of the first Kia models to be launched locally, but at that point in time, the brand was still an unknown quantity and the Clarus had no chance of competing against the likes of the Mazda 626, Toyota Camry or even the Peugeot 406.
The second attempt was the Magentis. This had the ostensible advantage of a V6 engine, but once again, it was a dismal failure. In fact, most people cannot even remember what it looks like because they have never seen one and the few people who bought it, are probably stuck with them for life as nobody wants to buy it from them.
However, Kia has been resolute adn after ignoring the next generation of the Magentis, a new contender in the upper family saloon class has just been introduced. The new Optima, previewed at the 2011 Johannesburg International Motor Show, has finally been introduced here. And Kia has taken the take-it-or-leave-it approach with it. Only one model is available at launch though a further two, one diesel and a more powerful petrol unit, are being considered.
There is little doubt that the Optima is one of the best-looking cars in its market segment, if not the entire market. Kia’s new corporate look works very well on the Optima and will ensure that it attracts a whole lot more attention than either of its predecessors. In fact, it could even be mistaken for a European car, and one can almost consider it to be more beautiful than the Hyundai Sonata.
Mechanically, there is nothing to distinguish the Optima and the Sonata; they share a 2,4 litre naturally aspirated engine developing 132 kW at 6 000 r/min and 213 N.m at 4 000 r/min. Kia and Hyundai are two companies that shied away from the global trend of fitting smaller capacity turbocharged engines. This might mean that the Optima’s fuel consumption does not compare favourably with that of some of its competitors, like the VW Passat or the Peugeot 508, but at least it is likely to be more reliable than either of these turbocharged rivals.
The Optima comes with a keyless entry system and once you press the start button, the needles of the speedometer and the rev counter do a “lap of honour”. This is an increasing trend among new cars for which I cannot find an explanation.
On the road, the Optima feels quite lively for a car this size; its steering feels light enough, but not as “dead” as that of some other Korean cars. Behind the steering wheel are the paddle shifts for the six-speed automatic transmission. A major advantage is the fact that the gear selector does not have to be in the manual position for the driver to use the paddle shifts. Changing gears is very easy; all you have to do is take your foot off the accelerator for a while. The Optima should be a very comfortable car to drive over long distances.
The Optima comes with everything a reasonable motorist could want for. Rain-sensing wipers, a reverse camera in the rear-view mirror, a rear parking assist system, electrically adjustable seats and a trip computer are all standard equipment. All that is missing is a satellite navigation system, though it is potentially better to fit a good aftermarket GPS as apparently factory-fitted navigation systems are expensive to keep up to date.
A panoramic sunroof is the only optional extra available on the Optima but whether you are prepared to pay extra for it, is a matter of personal taste. Metallic paint is also indicated as as option, but every sample on the colour sheet seems to be metallic, even the pearlescent white of the test car. The interior is finished in leather and the quality of finish is particularly good. The luggage compartment is extremely large, and three cheers to Kia for fitting a full-size alloy spare wheel! If you really need extra loading space, you can fold down the rear seats.
The Optima is conclusive proof that Korean manufacturers do not have to do anything more to convince the South African public that their cars are worth investigating. It leaves Japanese rivals like the Honda Accord, the Mazda 6 and the Subaru Legacy dead in the water, and can hold its head high in the company of rivals like the VW Passat, Suzuki Kizashi and Peugeot 508. A comparative test between the Optima and the latter three rivals will end in a draw, but those who opt for the Optima will know that it is the best value for money in this class.