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We drive Kia's 'cool' SA-bound Optima

Ten years ago, few people had heard of South Korean carmaker Kia, and those who had thought its cars were lightly made-over Mazda cast-offs.

But here was the Magentis, an “executive” saloon, and I found myself liking the way it looked like a slightly shrunken Cadillac Seville, back when such Cadillacs had a surprising, angular elegance. Nicely finished inside, it felt remarkably good to drive. But it was a Kia.

The new Optima looks rather cool, with its chiselled nose and muscularflanks.

That sealed its fate as far as prestige was concerned, along with the words of the then-boss of the UK importing company: “You could buy one of these and throw it away after five years,” he said, “and it would still cost you less than a Mondeo.”

Then the Magentis was replaced by a new one which looked older, and then Kia was reinvented as a good-looking brand with a European outlook whose cars were a delight to drive. How the world changes.

Here, then, is Kia's new take on the idea formerly represented by the Magentis and it’s due to arrive in SA in the early part of this year.

This new, commodious saloon is called Optima, a name of ill-judged blandness (it used to be shared with, among other things, a Waitrose laundry liquid). In Korea they call it the Kia K5, which would have been much cooler.

It does look cool, though, with its chiselled nose, muscular flanks, high tail and deft use of chromium plate. Roomy saloons might be declining outside the “premium” brands, but there's much to be said for a four-door with lots of rear legroom and a big boot. No doubt we'll soon see them with illuminated signs on the roof and a meter on the plush, padded, crisply finished dashboard.

For the UK, the Optima comes with just one engine option, a 1.7-litre turbodiesel chosen for maximum tax efficiency. It's a fine example of engine downsizing, with a healthy 101kW and a CO2 score of just 128g/km for the manual. Althogh South African specs haven’t been announced yet, expect our market to receive the 147kW 2.4-litre petrol and perhaps the 204kW 2-litre turbo.

The manual Optima is a swift, refined car able to cruise in a relaxed fashion, but the engine's small size reveals itself if you try to accelerate out of a tight turn without performing what should be an unnecessary downshift. The engine is more optimal with the automatic transmission, which shifts smoothly, including the downshifts required to keep the engine stoked up. It has manual shift paddles on the steering wheel, too, but they are for added driving amusement rather than for salvaging deficiencies in progress.

This big, Mondeo-sized car is light on its feet and easy to thread along a bendy road, smoothing humps and dips with an easy fluidity, but the top model's big, handsome wheels thud over sharp bumps. That top model is called Optima 3, but even the base Optima 1 has dualzone air conditioning and much more.

The 3 offers the whole plethora of SatNav, full leather, electric/heated/ cooled seats and more besides, but even in automatic guise it's likely to cost no more than £25 000 (R308 000) in the UK.

Not so clever is the way the driver's seat automatically slides right back when you turn the ignition off. It's intended for drivers of, shall we say, larger girth; if you're short, you can't reach the clutch pedal, which you need to depress before you can start the engine. The Optima went on sale in the US two years ago, so make of that what you will.

That apart, the Optima is a fine effort able to match mainstream European competition on its own terms. All this and an excellent warranty, too.

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