Kia's striking-looking Optima is set to win new friends for the Korean manufacturer in the medium range Mondeo sector.
All of this the Optima will need. The Mondeo medium range sector is arguably the toughest in the industry in terms of quality contenders, establishment brands that won't take kindly to this Asian upstart.
Kia's Mondeo-sized Optima is the most ambitious car the South Korean brand has yet tried to bring us. New from the ground up and with a distinctive trademark 'Tiger Nose' front grille, this is a contender that European and Japanese brands are going to have to take very seriously
The Optima has already worked its magic in its home Korean market. There, it instantly became the best selling car in the country after launch, the first time Kia has ever claimed that title, selling more than 10,000 units a month. Here of course, things will be much more difficult, with established opposition like Ford's Mondeo, Vauxhall's Insignia and Renault's Laguna to contend with, all part of the so-called 'D sector'. Here's a part of the market starting to grow again worldwide, by 5.3million units to 2013, an increase of 23%, or so Kia reckons. They've fully prepared themselves to capitalise with this model.
This South Korean maker has a brand that usually doesn't even feature on the business shopping lists of most in search of a Mondeo-sized car. For years, it's campaigned with its Magentis which, though initially promising, quickly fell back into the kind of averageness that we used to associate with South Korean products. But that's not good enough now, so the Optima features a completely clean-sheet approach. Think this car has a Western feel to it? You're right. Though built in Korea, the Optima has been designed and styled in Frankfurt, Germany and in Irvine, California to ensure that it's welcomed in markets our side of the globe.
The shape is certainly striking, thanks to the influence of former Audi designer Peter Schreyer who joined Kia four years ago. Put this Optima alongside an old Magentis and the two cars are clearly from different eras. This, clearly, is no mere overhaul of an ageing model. The goal for Kia has been to inject some passion into cars that have a solid reputation for reliability and value-for-money. If you can judge a book by its cover, then the prospects here in that score seem promising.
It's one thing of course to make a car look sharp: another entirely to make it drive that way. Here, the roadgoing experience benefits not just from a wider, longer platform, but also from the weight-saving bodyshell which uses high tensile steels for strength and torsional rigidity. The diesel option is taken care of with the 1.7-litre VGT (Variable Geometry Turbocharger) unit which puts out 134bhp and develops 330Nm of torque - or as much as 160bhp if that's not enough. There's also a 2.0-litre four cylinder CVVL (variable valve lift) petrol unit which delivers 168bhp and 196Nm of torque. Diesel and petrol options are available with either a six-speed manual gearbox or six-speed auto.
Hydraulic power assisted rack and pinion steering should give responsive input, with under three turns of the wheel lock-to-lock and a turning circle of under 11m. Suspension and damping should be equally assured, thanks to the use of fully independent MacPherson struts with coil springs and twin tube gas-filled shock absorbers, as well as an anti-roll stabiliser bar at the front. There's also fully independent multi-link suspension at the rear. Kia promise that the handling will be complemented by assured braking via vented discs at the front (and solid discs at the rear) that aim to offer crisp response and a confidence-inspiring feel.
The fresh looks clothe an entirely new platform under the skin. Wider and longer than the Magentis it replaces with a raked roof line, an aggressive nose and a sleek profile (with a slippery 0.29 Cd drag factor), the Optima sits closer to the ground for a more purposeful, sportier stance. Kia hopes that the coupe looks, underscored by the sweeping chrome arc from the front windscreen A pillar to the rear window C pillar, belie the five-door flexibility of the car and create a premium image. It'll be interesting to see whether buyers agree.
There's quality inside too, with a driver-focused dashboard and careful choices of trim and materials. Variants with six-speed automatic transmission come with trendy gear-shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel. Everything thunks and clicks with Audi-like precision, building on reliability that in the case of the smaller Focus-sized cee'd model, has lately won Kia fourth place overall in the highly respected JD Power survey of customer satisfaction. That car was also judged the UK's best car in the "lower medium" sized sector, ahead of the BMW 1 Series and Skoda Octavia. Encouraging stuff for potential Optima buyers.
Prices start at around £18,000, making it clear that Kia are positioning this car as much more than a just a Magentis replacement. As for rivals, well the Mondeo/Insignia/Laguna/Passat competition that this car will be up against all suffer in comparison to the Optima when it comes to standard equipment. All models get powered lumbar support for the driver, as well as air conditioning, electric windows front and rear, a six speaker audio system, keyless entry and windscreen de-icing. Many variants also get the neat Parallel Park Assist system that's a pricey option from some other brands fitted as standard.
You get a slightly bigger cabin than some rivals too, with decent passenger room inside for five and luggage space of 505-litres. Small details which only come to be appreciated during ownership include twin cup holders and aero blade wipers for more effective, squeak free motoring in the rain. Safety has to be a priority for Kia and the standard equipment reflects that with dual front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags and full length side curtain airbags. That's as well as the usual electronic braking, traction and stability systems, plus anti-whiplash active headrests for front seat passengers.
Kias have always been affordable to run - in every area bar depreciation. The whole idea of the kind of higher quality approach delivered by the more desirable Optima is that residuals will firm up and deliver figures closer to the mainstream class leaders. If this car doesn't manage that, then it's hard to see what more Kia can do. Everything else certainly stacks up. There's a lengthy seven year/100,000 mile warranty and both fuel and CO2 figures across the range look more than competitive. The headline-making variant is the 1.7-litre diesel with Stop/Start, a model which reduces the standard version's 122g/km CO2 showing to just 113g/km. That in turn means an annual road tax liability of just £30.
Here's a Kia to genuinely get excited about for reasons other than lengthy warranties and dependability. It looks good, should drive well and will be practical to own. Yet it keeps all the reasons that people like this South Korean brand - high equipment, affordable pricing and back-up peace of mind.
All of this the Optima will need. The Mondeo medium range sector is arguably the toughest in the industry in terms of quality contenders, establishment brands that won't take kindly to this Asian upstart. But they need to take this car seriously. An increasing number of thoughtful buyers certainly will.