This much improved version of mid-sized Kia's Optima model may look familiar, but the developments are in the details. Jonathan Crouch takes a closer look.
Kia's Mondeo-sized medium range Optima model now at last gets a class-competitive diesel engine. Whether you choose the saloon or the Sportswagon estate, there's a smarter look and some extra safety technology too. There's even Plug-in hybrid power if you want it. Overall, with this much improved model, Kia aims to challenge the market leaders and even worry a few of the more premium players.
This Kia Optima is somewhat confusingly billed as a 'fourth-generation' model. Actually, only two generations of this car have ever been sold in the UK. Earlier mid-sized Kia models were badged as the 'Magentis' in Britain and shared much of their underpinnings with Hyundai's Sonata. The Magentis was well built, cheap and well equipped but there wasn't anything very aspirational about it. In contrast, the MK1 Optima saloon we first saw in this country in late 2011 was very different, with styling from Kia's Chief Designer Peter Schreyer that signalled a move upmarket. This was an unashamed attempt to win over customers from the segment heavyweights such as the Ford Mondeo or Volkswagen's Passat and it was nearly good enough. These days though, Kia isn't satisfied with 'nearly good enough' and in creating the thoroughly redesigned MK2 Optima launched in late 2015, the Korean brand's designers and engineers focused their attention on ride and handling, refinement, interior style and practicality. The result was a car that needed only a wider range of engines, lower running costs and some extra safety tech to be truly class-competitive. Kia says that all those boxes have now been ticked with the improved version we're going to look at here.
The key change is the addition of a new 136PS 1.6-litre CRDi engine, replacing the previous, rather thirsty, 1.7-litre CRDi unit. As before, there's a choice of manual or DCT auto transmission. Kia has also developed a petrol/electric hybrid model with a 2.0-litre GDI petrol engine mated to a 50 kW electric motor. Total power output for the package is 202bhp. With all Optimas, by stretching out the wheelbase, stiffening the body with 'Advanced High-Strength Steel' and upgrading the suspension, Kia has sought to improve handling dynamics. Plus Kia engineers have been focussing on Noise, Vibration and Harshness (NVH) innovations to reduce road, wind and engine noise, stiffening the body to avoid vibration and rattles, and improving the seals and insulation around the car. A Drive Mode Selector lets Optima drivers switch between Eco, Comfort, Sport and Smart modes. Each mode enables the driver to customise the powertrain's responses, prioritising fuel economy or more immediate acceleration. It also lets drivers adapt the weight of the rack-mounted power steering system, for more relaxed or more immediate, engaging steering responses. 'Smart Mode' is designed to anticipate the driver's needs, switching automatically between Eco, Comfort and Sport modes depending on conditions. This enables the Optima to adapt to the driver's behaviour and the road conditions, pre-empting the driver's preference for different speeds and driving environments.
The Optima remains one of the smarter Mondeo-segment models but that hasn't stopped Kia's designers from making a series of modifications to the exterior looks. These include a revised front bumper design, as well as smarter LED tail-lamps and revised styling for the headlights and fog lamps. Saloon models also feature a fresh rear bumper design. The 'tiger-nose' grille features a brighter chrome finish. Inside, the cabin features a re-designed steering wheel and satin-chrome trim on the centre console which extends across the dashboard. Buyers can specify their interior in black, two tone black and grey cloth or leather, or choose a new brown cloth or leather upholstery. In addition, the Optima features new ambient lighting around the dashboard and doors, letting occupants switch between six different colours - or assign different colours to individual driving modes. By default, cabin lighting floods the cabin in a soft green glow in Eco mode, while Sport mode turns lighting to red. Smart mode fills the interior with soft blue ambient lighting. As before, the central fascia is angled 8.5 degrees towards the driver, with the upper 'display' zone housing a smarter 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system. As for practicality, well the luggage capacity of the saloon version is 510-litres - a little way off the segment standard. Alternatively, there's a Sportswagon estate bodystyle offering a 553-litre boot.
Prices for the Optima remain much as before - they're pitched in the £22,000-£32,000 bracket. There's a premium of just over £800 if you want the Sportswagon estate variant. You get a choice of '2', '3' or 'GT-Line S' trim levels. This pricing places this model right in the heart of the Ford Mondeo's domain, with the Volkswagen Passat also offering a strong package in terms of refinement, quality and style for just a relatively small premium over the equivalent Optima models. This Optima is available with Kia's latest 7.0 or 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, with navigation and Kia Connected Services powered by TomTom. The system offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to enable full smartphone mirroring. Plus within the centre console is a wireless smartphone charger, allowing users to charge their smartphones on the move. Safety-wise, there's a new Driver Attention Warning (DAW) system that combats distracted or drowsy driving by monitoring a number of inputs from the vehicle and driver. Other safety features available on the Optima include 'Forward Collision-avoidance Assist' (FCA) autonomous braking with pedestrian recognition, 'Lane Keeping Assist' (LKA), 'High Beam Assist' (HBA) and full-LED headlamps with Dynamic Bending Light. These technologies make the Optima one of the safest cars in its class.
Kia's all-new 'U3' 1.6 CRDi diesel engine is designed to go beyond the stricter limits laid down by the Euro 6d TEMP emissions standard. The engine employs Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) active emissions control technology to significantly reduce emissions. It therefore produces low carbon dioxide, particulate matter and NOx emissions. In the manual and auto saloon variants, expect 117g/km of CO2. Fuel-wise, the manual saloon manages 62.8mpg on the combined cycle while with the auto version, it's 64.2mpg. As for the Sportswagon estate, well with the manual and auto variants, expect 121 or 122g/km of CO2. Fuel-wise, both manual and auto Sportswagon variants manage 61.4mpg on the combined cycle. Rivals like Ford's Mondeo 1.5 TDCi ECOnetic still do slightly better, while Volkswagen's Passat BlueMotion 1.6 TDI model manages a combined cycle 76.3mpg showing, so Kia still has a little way to go here to match the class leaders. The first version of the Optima depreciated far less than its Magentis predecessors but here again, Kia has some ground to make up against rivals. This improved version should continue the upward trend and in this regard, Kia's impressive 7-year or 100,000mile warranty should help, given that it's transferrable to second owners. There's also the option of a PHEV Plug-in Hybrid petrol/electric variant with an all-electric driving range of 33 miles.
This much improved Kia Optima may not look much different from the outside - but then the outside was the one thing that didn't really need changing. What required improvement was the relatively inefficient 1.7-litre CRDi diesel engine that virtually all customers chose. Now that there's a more frugal 1.6-litre powerplant to replace that, this model deserves another chance from buyers who may have rejected it in the past. These people might also want to look at the clever plug-in petrol/electric hybrid variants too. In summary, there's much to like here. Affordable pricing, a spacious appealing cabin, high levels of equipment, a smooth DCT auto gearbox and the longest warranty in the class are all big draws. In short, Kia has rejuvenated its offering in this segment.