“We'll see about that” I pondered while boarding the plane to attend the South African launch of Kia's new Optima. I was thinking back to a release they sent out late last year, bravely claiming that this new mid-sized sedan would literally “challenge German brands” on local soil.
Somehow I didn't get the feeling that they were referring to the VW Passat, although that Veedub did get a mention in the slide they showed in Durban on Monday, along with the usual non-premium sedan names like Accord, C5, 508, 6, Kizashi and so forth. How are your words tasting Kia?
Not to worry - the Optima is equipped like a cruise liner and sells for just R305 995, undercutting all but the Suzuki and Passat. Yet I can't imagine it selling on price alone.
Continuing the design revolution that beautified the Sportage, Picanto and Rio, the Optima has a stauncher, more muscular appearance than the Hyundai Sonata that it shares its platform with. Details like the swept-back headlights and rising rear door window line even evoke memories of the previous Saab 9-5.
The now defunct Swedish nameplate was probably also floating around in the interior designer's head, considering that Kia describes the cabin as “based on aircraft principals, with everything within easy reach.” While not quite a jet fighter cockpit, the Kia's interior does set a slightly sporty tone, with a dashboard angled towards the driver and dark leather seats with a splash of light cloth around the edges. Build quality is solid and the materials are of a good quality, although I wouldn't go as far as calling it classy.
There's nothing fighter-jet-like about the performance either. There's only one model for now and that's powered by the same 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that does duty in the Hyundai Sonata. Our launch route only covered coastal roads, and here the 132kW/231Nm engine proved more than brisk enough by family sedan standards but if the Sonata is anything to go by it might feel a tad sluggish at Reef altitudes.
Yet there is hope. Kia is currently testing a 147kW 2.4-litre direct injection motor for our market and that's likely to join the range in the not-too-distant future, but that's not the most exciting news. Further down the line Kia is also hoping to bring in a 204kW 2-litre turbopetrol model and a super-frugal 100kW 1.7-litre turbodiesel.
Back to the engine we have, this 2.4 Theta II MPI sends its power to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox, which is not the smoothest or quickest-reacting tranny in town but it does allow silent, low-rev cruising on the highway. Kia claims a combined consumption figure of 8.7 l/100km, aided by its 'Active Eco' system that optimises the ECU and transmission for economy at the press of a button.
With a fully independent rear suspension and a slightly stiffer suspension set-up for the South African market, it is agile enough for a car of its size but the steering is rather light and devoid of feel and feedback. The ride quality is also no better than average.
The Optima lacks the smooth, comfortable and dynamically-sharp feel of the Honda Accord, but then the Korean car costs R70 000 less and it's certainly not lacking much in the way of standard amenities.
In fact if we're talking standard specification, this Kia is a five-star hotel on wheels. There's only one option and that's a sunroof for R10 000. What you do get as standard is electric seats (eight-way for driver, four-way for passenger) as well as dual-zone climate control, rear ventilation, keyless entry and start, cruise control and an eight-speaker Bluetooth-compatible Infinity Premium sound system complete with an external amplifier and eight-inch subwoofer.
The Optima is not a car for those who enjoy driving but it will make sense to those dreaming of a solidly-made, pleasant looking car that has a great deal of kit for the price.
R305 995 (including 5-year/90 000 km service plan, 5-year/100 000 km warranty)
Citroën C5 THP 155 (115kW) - R312 100
Honda Accord 2.4 Exec AT (148kW) - R374 900
Hyundai Sonata 2.4 GLS Exec (131kW) - R309 900
Mazda6 2.5 Individual (125kW) - R339 150
Peugeot 508 1.6T Allure (115kW) - R309 900
Suzuki Kizashi 2.4 SDLX (131kW) - R302 900
VW Passat 1.8 TSI Comfortline (118kW) - R305 900