Kia Optima Sportswagon, review

Conventional, classy, competent – how things should be done. The new Kia Optima Sportswagon sets an example for grander names in motoring

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The Independent Online

One of the occupational hazards of writing about cars – there are few downsides, if truth be told – is that it can be very difficult to find fault with modern stuff, leastways when it's new. Comrades in the trade whose experience stretches back further than mine often recount amusing anecdotes about manufacturers proudly presenting their new model, at launch events in some lovely location, only to have their offspring conk out on them.

Indeed, there was one infamous event in Ireland to promote a new Lada – a once in a decade moment – that was marked by the failure of the batch of new Samaras to even turn up. The hacks retired to the hotel bar even earlier than usual.

No longer, of course, which makes amusing anecdotes about failing electric windows, spluttering diesels or switches falling off that much harder to find. Now it is also far less easy to patronise designs from “emerging” economies and smaller manufacturers.

For a good few years it was routine to take the products of Kia and give them credit for being cheap and for trying hard against the established supposedly superior European competition. There was a degree of snobbery, or worse, in all this –wishing them better luck next time, patting their little hatchbacks as they found their new owners among social classes C2 and D.

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That is a game is over and can no longer be played, or at least in that sort of way. Which is where the Kia Optima estate, or Sportswagon as they call it, comes in. It lives up to the promise of its name as I couldn’t really find any fault with it whatsoever. Quite the opposite in fact.

Anyway, let’s go through the checklist. First off, driving. Not bad – not sporty, for sure, but my diesel edition (there’s no petrol option) was pretty lively and refined on a motorway run. The Kia’s steering is perhaps not as positive as it might be, and the electric parking brake wasn’t welcome, as they never are for me, but it’s all very safe, smooth and efficient.

The spec

Price: £24,495
Engine: 1.7-litre 4-cyl diesel
Power: 139bhp
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
0-62mph (secs): 9.8 
Top speed (mph): 124
Economy (mpg): 64.2
CO2 (g/km): 113

Next; cabin materials and ambience. As I’ve mentioned, some time ago now this was a traditionally weak point on Kias, Hyundais and the like because of a plethora of shiny, brittle-feeling and unpleasant materials used for the switchgear, the seats, headlining and the like. Here, though, the Kia Optima stands proud among its peers. Double stitched leather, an inoffensive and practical mixture of nylon and leather facings for the seats, a proper metal interior and exterior door handles that are cool to the touc. It all demonstrates a careful attention to the tactile. Full marks.  

Next, the sat nav, radio, heating and all the stuff that tends to get controlled from a central screen. Again, faultless and impressive. No gimmicks here, like the BMW iDrive system, for example. Nor is there a futile attempt to mimic an iPad. No. Responsive touch screen, intuitive idiot-proof interaction and simplicity have been deployed to great advantage. So here is a Kia that actually outperforms the German “premium” brands with their faddish controls. Highly commended.

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Kia have also made a big effort in styling their cars so that they don’t look like quite as gargoyle-ish as they used to, and indeed have been making good-looking machinery for some time. They’ve hired some excellent designers and developed a more distinctive, classy look and it works well. The grille design has this indent in the middle, which makes the car’s “face” look a bit like a dog gripping a bone (or a Mark I Ford Escort, as it happens), but it works well.

Overall, it could pass for an Audi, maybe a Peugeot or a Volvo. That, by the way, is a compliment.

The Kia Optima, then, is well, optimal for family transport. It is a shame that such a competent if conventional machine is likely to be overlooked by so many buyers who are caught by the trend towards compact SUV/crossovers, and not least the Optima’s own sibling, the very successful and pleasingly proportioned Kia Sportage.

For me, though, on a wet dreary autumnal evening, settling into this roomy, comfortable, easy-to-use transport, complete with heated seats (three settings) and a heated steering wheel was a life-affirming experience of a kind you usually associate with the posher badges. I liked it a lot, and so will you. BMW should borrow one, and have a look at how things should be done.

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