2016 Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi 3 (GB)

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A decade ago, Kia sold 1,141,000 vehicles in the year. Not a bad figure, you might think, and indeed there are several brands who can only dream of sales volumes that are a fraction of that, no matter what they do. Think Volvo, or Jaguar or Alfa Romeo. The tide had just started to turn, with the then recently-launched Sorento SUV at the fore-front of the transformation that was to come. Good to look at, decent to drive, it was right on trend for a market which would absorb every SUV that could be built. But large SUVs were never going to be the route to volume in markets like Europe, and at the time, Kia went on to sell just 36,000 cars in the UK, putting it well down the automotive pecking order. 2006 was notable for the Korean brand as their masterstroke of the year was to lure respected designer Peter Schreyer from his role as Senior Designer at Audi to one where he would take charge at Kia. Every vehicle that has emerged from the Korean manufacturer since then, be it a glamorous concept or a production car has won plaudits – and quite rightly so – for its handsome lines. With a similar focus on improving the quality of the interiors so they no longer comprised the sea of hard plastics in grey and beige that had been the case, as well as mechanicals and platforms which were class competitive, as well as a marketing strategy which made ownership so attractive with an industry-leading 7 year warranty, and it is little wonder that sales have since rocketed. In 2016, the brand expects to sell over 3 million vehicles, around 87,000 of them in the UK, which makes the Kia brand the 9th best-seller in a market in which 15 years prior most had barely heard of and few could certainly contain their contempt for the company’s products. Kia has a sizeable range of cars on offer in the UK and Europe, and success in 2016 has come from a particularly positive reception to the latest Sportage, as well as continued strong sales of the Picanto city car and the Cee’d range of family hatchbacks, as well as the Rio supermini. But one model has struggled to make much of an impact in the UK, and that is the D-segment competitor, Kia have offered a car in this class to UK buyers for nearly 20 years, starting with the largely forgotten Clarus. More of an effort was made with the first of the Schreyer-styled large saloons, the elegant Optima with its distinctive C pillar treatment, launched in 2010, but the market did not really take that much notice, not least because this whole sector has been shrinking fast. I sampled that Optima in the US, where it came with a potent 2.4 litre 4 cylinder engine with more power than any of its rivals, and found it to be a good car in just about every respect. An all-new Optima was launched in 2015, looking very like its predecessor – until you park them alongside each other, when you can see how different they actually are in detail – and it made its way to the UK at the very start of 2016, offered in a choice of three trims, all of them with the same 1.7 litre diesel engine. Whilst admitting that the car was a significant improvement in every way over its predecessor, the UK press stopped well short of endorsing the car as a class leader, with Autocar’s pithy summary being “well off the European saloon car pace”.  I got the chance to find out whether I agreed or not when I collected this Hertz rental from Heathrow, with logistics meaning that I would keep hold of it for a few days, allowing me to accumulate just over 500 miles on test.

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Different engines are offered in other markets around the world, but for now, the only available powerplant for the Optima in the UK is Kia’s 1.7 litre 4 cylinder diesel engine, coupled either to a 6 speed manual or 7 speed automatic gearbox. Heavily revised from its previous installations, in this Optima the unit also generates an additional 5 bhp from before, putting out 139 bhp, and with 11 lb/ft more torque, with the maximum developed at just 1750 rpm. Work was done to make the engine more refined, as this was an area which had been criticised in the previous generation car. This latter work has certainly paid off, as this has to be one of the most refined diesel units in its class, if not the actual class leader. I hate to say it, but it sounds far less diesel like than the unit in my Maserati, a car which costs over twice the price of the Kia. On start up – which requires you to have your foot on the clutch in this manual car – the sound is barely diesel-esque, and it gets even less so the moment you move off, even when the engine is cold. As it warms up, you really would be hard pressed to tell from the sound alone that this is a diesel. The clue now comes, of course, from the way it performs. 139 bhp is not that much for a car of this size and weight, but I found in a mix of urban, motorway and A road driving that it was sufficient. It does not make the Optima fast, of course, but it is fast enough for the sort of everyday needs that its drivers will have. Put your foot down, and there is decent acceleration available, with the torque coming from so low down the rev range, and pleasingly, it does not run out correspondingly lower, so you can keep going. To make the most out of it, you will of course have to use the gears, but this is no hardship. The clutch is light, but with a clear indication of its biting point, and the gear change itself nice and precise. There is quite a lot of travel between the ratios, but the lever moves with a nice precision which finds the line between precise and having some feel very well. There is a gearshift indicator in the side of the rev counter, and I found that it was a bit optimistic, sometimes suggesting 2 ratios higher than the one I was in. Even with the low down torque, the reality was that you needed to be doing just over 50 mph for 6th to feel at all comfortable. Kia’s ISG (Idle Stop and Go) stop/start system cut in and out unobtrusively when the car was stationary and out of gear. This all helped to achieve an average fuel consumption of 48.9 mpg, a very respectable figure for a car of this size and to reduce the CO2 emissions to just 110 g/km.

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If I were to level one criticism of the Optima, it would be that the steering is a bit too light for my taste. It’s not Toyota-style light and feel-less, but nor is it as precise as the feeling you would get in a Mondeo or a Mazda 6. It is probably this aspect, and this aspect alone which caused that Autocar summary, as it is very clear that in their world, steering and handling are the most important attributes of any car, regardless of how it will be driven. In the real world, on public roads, as opposed to the tracks where they hoon around, of course, it matters less, as a car that will not get you in trouble is more important than one which will allow you to provoke it and then rescue your tail-slide. In that context, the Optima is fine. It was certainly not troubled by the swooping bends of the A roads on which I drove it, or those motorway intersections which are tighter than you sometimes realise until it is almost too late. There is not much body roll, and the car seemed to grip well. It’s not the last word in enjoyment, but it is perfectly fit for purpose. It rides well, and that is probably more important, as driver and passengers in this car will appreciate the comfort that this embues, as they also enjoy the low noise levels. Wind and road noise were very muted and the engine was also nicely subdued on the motorway, and even when accelerating, it was only as you neared the red line that it got just a bit vocal. There were no issues with the brakes, with a nice progressive feel to the pedal. An electronic handbrake is fitted, a small button to the right of the gearlever. You needed your foot on the footbrake to get it to release easily, though sometimes just moving off seemed to be sufficient to get it to disengage. As the test car had a manual transmission, I did have to use it. Visibility was generally good, with a wide field of view from the door mirrors. A rear-view camera was fitted, which gave a very clear view behind the car, and which was helpful as the angled and high-set rear window would have made judging the precise position otherwise quite difficult, and all round parking sensors provided audible warning in tight spaces.

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The inside of the Optima has changed quite a lot from its predecessor. That car had quite a substantial dash moulding which was not unlike those of Audi model from a few years back. And just as they have gone to a less bulky moulding and a simpler control layout, so Kia have done the same. The dash is moulded from very soft touch plastic – as you will find out if you press on it – and there is just a small hump at one side for the instrument binnacle, with the colour display screen being neatly integrated into the front face of the dash, making it look like it was designed in and not some iPad-esque afterthought. There are two large dials in a cowled binnacle, for rev counter and speedo, with smaller gauges for water temperature and fuel level inset in their lower part. All are clearly marked and easy to read. Between the dials is an area for digital information displays, with a range of different data points possible, selected by pressing a button on the right hand steering wheel spoke. I chose to leave a digital speed reading as the one to look at, as I am now so used to having this available in most cars. The far left of the binnacle also has a small reading for the prevailing speed limit, which I noted changed with absolute precision as you passed a road sign, and a gearchange recommendation display. The centre of the dash contains the 8″ colour and touch sensitive display screen for audio, navigation and information sources. Below this are a pair of air vents, then a single line of buttons with two rotary dials at either end for the audio system, and below this a double bank of buttons for the automated climate control. Lights and indicators operate from the left hand column stalk, and wipers on the right. A few buttons are on the dash to the right of the wheel, for things like opening the boot and fuel filler, and the instrument lighting rheostat. It is a very simple and clean layout, and the switches are nice to touch and operate with a precision which suggests a level of quality that you would not have found in a Kia even a few years back.

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The seats of this mid-spec car were trimmed in a mixture of cloth with faux leather outers. They were electrically adjustable, and I noted that there were two memory setting switches on the door. I also found that even without programming them, once I set the seat the way I wanted, the first time I turned off the ignition, the seat powered back, making it easier to get out. Not that it would have been hard with the seat set well forward. Get in, and put the key in the ignition, and the seat would power back to where you had set it before. The column had in/out and up/down adjustment on it, so getting a good driving position was easy. The seat proved comfortable, as I found out when I took the car up to a meeting in Hinckley and ended up sitting in unexpectedly slow moving traffic both morning and afternoon, prolonging the time I was sat on it by some 100% of expectation. There is a foot rest well to the left of the clutch pedal, and those who like these things can use the central armrest to rest their left elbow.

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When I opened the rear doors, with the driver’s seat set to suit my admittedly short legs, I could barely believe what I saw. Leg room is so copious that this is nearer to the Skoda Superb in its spaciousness than the Octavia which I had mentally envisaged was a more obvious rival.  There’s not just an acre of legroom, but space aplenty in the other dimensions, as well, with ample shoulder room and no shortage of head room, despite the slightly sloping rear roofline. There’s not much of a central tunnel to trouble the middle occupant’s legs. A drop down central armrest contains cup holders in its upper surface and there are a pair of air vents in the rear of the centre console, as well as a 12V outlet and a USB port. The boot is also spacious. The opening is not huge, thanks to the sloping rear window, but there’s good space in here for plenty of luggage, and the rear seat backrests can be pushed forward for more length should that be required. Inside the cabin, there is excellent provision for odds and ends. The glove box is large, there is a sizeable area in front of the gearlever, there are good bins on all doors, with a moulding to take a bottle, there are a pair of cupholders in the centre of the car and a cubby under the central armrest. rear eat passengers get map pockets on the back of both seats.

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Three versions of the Optima were offered to UK buyers from the December 2015 launch. Entry level is the 2, costing from £21,495. Mid point is the 3, which was the spec of the test car, listed at £23,495 and the range was topped by the rather costlier 4 which had a slightly ambitious sounding £28,895 price tag. I was impressed by the level of features that were in the 3, several of which you would not expect to find in a car of this class and price. The seats are trimmed in a mix of cloth and faux leather and Kia also include an eight-inch infotainment system complete with navigation, a reversing camera, a 10 speaker Harman Kardon Premium sound system, 18-inch alloy wheels and dual-zone air-con as standard and other items you get in this that do not feature in the 2 include a number of visual tweaks such as a hot stamped grille, chrome and body coloured door handles, chrome trimmed side sill mouldings and LED rear combination lights whilst inside you get an electrically adjustable driver’s seat (slide, height, recline) with 4-way power lumbar support and a seat memory, an 8-way manually adjustable passenger seat (slide, height, recline) with heating for both front seats, a heated steering wheel, gloss black finish electric window switch panels, touchscreen satin chrome bezel trim, satin chrome finish interior door handles, remote window control, paddleshifters on the automatic cars, a 4.3 inch Supervision Cluster with LCD TFT Colour Display, Lane Keep Assist and a Speed limit information function. You can tell a 2 model apart as it has a black high gloss grille, body coloured door handles, door mirrors and body coloured side sill mouldings with black High Gloss & Chrome “Front Fender Garnish”, as well as standard 17″ alloy wheels. It also features UV reducing solar glass, dual projection headlights, automatic headlight control with levelling, static cornering lights, LED Daytime Running Lights and front foglights, electric folding and heated door mirrors with LED indicators, cloth upholstery with 8-way manually adjustable driver’s seat (slide, height, recline), 35/65 split folding rear seatbacks, height and reach adjustable leather trimmed steering wheel, a leather trimmed gearshift and faux leather trimmed door and centre console  armrests, dual automatic air conditioning with ioniser, rear air ventilation, steering wheel mounted controls, all round electric windows, an auto dimming rear view mirror, cruise control with speed limiter, a 6-speaker sound system with DAB radio with MP3 compatibility, front USB and AUX ports, two power sockets, a rear USB port and a 7-inch touchscreen with European mapping for the navigation system, Kia Connected services featuring TomTom traffic alerts, Bluetooth with music streaming, front parking and reversing sensors, a reversing camera. The Optima 4 adds: a Panoramic sunroof with tilting and sliding function and blinds, Bi-Xenon Headlights with Automatic Levelling and washers, Dynamic cornering lights, Black leather upholstery, Front passenger seat with 8 way power adjustable memory and 2-way power lumbar support, Front air ventilated seats, Outer rear heated seats, Alloy pedals, Stainless steel door scuff plates, Rear door window blinds, Adaptive smart cruise control and a Smart key with illuminated start/stop ignition button. It only had the 7 speed dual clutch automatic transmission. Further models were added to the range in August 2016, with a PHEV Plug-In Hybrid model joined by conventional powered cars with a 163 non-turbo and a 245 bhp 2.0 litre T-GDi unit, offered in a more sporting GT-Line S trim. Like all Kia models, there is a 7 year warranty, the best in the business.

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When I collected the Optima, the Hertz staff told me that “it is pretty good”. They were not wrong. It is. With a refined diesel engine, that goes well enough, the car was a relaxing cruiser. It proved comfortable, extremely roomy, and was nicely finished, and in 3 guise, has a good level of standard equipment. So why does it not sell? I don’t think that the Autocar comment that I quoted at the start of this test is either accurate or the cause. The problem is that the market for D Segment cars like this has been shrinking at a rate for many years now, and it is populated by several excellent cars (and a few that are not quite so good!). It is dominated by the VW Passat, which across Europe outsells everything else by more than 2:1, and also needs to find space for the Mondeo, the Insignia and Mazda 6, as well as the French trio of Renault Talisman, Peugeot 508 and Citroen C5, cars which the French still think are better than anything else, and there is also the rather dull Toyota Avensis, all of which have a greater longevity in this sector. Pushing in, especially with a car which looks not unlike its predecessor but which is actually rather a lot better, was always going to be difficult, even if the ownership prospects with bullet-proof reliability and the 7 year warranty should help. I doubt it will, as customers in the Kia showroom are just as likely to be swayed by a Sportage or a Sorento, as customers in other brands are for rival Crossover vehicles. But know this: if you do get offered an Optima, you definitely should not turn up your nose and plead for something else, as you probably would have done in the past. Take it, and be surprised by just how likeable it is.

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