By Jonathan Crouch
If you've never considered owning a medium range Mondeo-sized car with a Kia badge on the bonnet, then you're not alone. But you've probably reckoned without the brand's striking-looking Optima, a car launched in 2012 with the aim of winning new friends for the Korean maker in this segment. How does the original version stack up as a used buy?
We think differently about Kia these days - or at least many of us do. Those who've taken the trouble to note the Korean maker's increasing excellence when it comes to cutting edge citycars, superminis and SUVs. Prior to 2012 though, the broadly business-based market for Mondeo-sized medium range models had never taken Kia seriously, so the Korean brand launched this car, the Optima. Sleek, head-turning looks added the 'want one' factor previously missing from Kia's unremarkable offerings in this sector. But there was plenty of sensible stuff too, frugal diesel power matched with this rising brand's usual attributes of high equipment levels and strong value.
All of which was just as well, for products like Ford's Mondeo and Volkswagen's Passat set the bar high in this segment. Kia reckoned it was fine with that, pointing to this model's great success in other markets, especially Korea and the USA. In the UK though, the Optima's prospects were limited by the availability of but one saloon bodystyle and a single diesel engine. For that reason, the original 2012 to 2015 first generation version is a relatively rare sight on the used market - but a potentially tempting one.
What You Get
Once again here, Kia has much to thank Chief Design Officer Peter Schreyer and his team for. Conceived in Frankfurt and California, this Optima's clean-sheet design approach offered us something longer, lower and wider than anything the Korean brand had previously bought us in this segment. True, not everyone will like the big expanse of metal around the rear C-pillar but it is unusual and offers just a hint of the coupe-like feel that Schreyer was apparently seeking. Overall, the wedgy shape with its high, hunched shoulders and low glasshouse would suit a premium badge. And that pretty much says it all.
Take a seat at the wheel and there's a musical welcome you can't imagine receiving in a Passat. And cabin materials more suited to the lower family hatchback segment. But if a premium feel is missing, then compensation comes in terms of careful design, plenty of features and solid build quality suggestive of Kia's consistently strong rankings in the annual JD Power Customer Satisfaction surveys. This is one of those so-called 'aircraft cockpit-inspired' cabins - which broadly means that the fascia has been slightly canted towards the driver so that all the major controls are in your sight-line for best visibility and ease of use.
Personally, we're keener on the little touches. The clever auto de-fogging system for the solar glasswork, the sunglasses holder, the cooled glovebox that you get right across the range, not just on the plushest models. Oh, and the aero blade wipers which have been specifically designed not to squeak in the rain. On top of that, there's the purpose-designed 12-speaker premium Infinity audio system that's fitted to plusher models and for us is an Optima must-have, far better than the much pricier systems you get on many luxury cars.
Move into the back and the good news continues. Thanks to a longer wheelbase than anything Kia had previously provided in this sector, this car is up with Ford's Mondeo and Skoda's Superb in the amount of rear sat space on offer - and that means there's a great deal. Not so much in terms of width - though there is more elbow room than you'd get in an Insignia or a Passat. More in terms of legroom. Someone 6ft 4ins can easily sit behind someone else of the same size and as a result, more modestly proportioned folk will really feel as if they can spread out. Luggage room isn't quite as expansive, but get through the rather narrow loading aperture and you should find 505-litres will be quite enough for your ordinary day-to-day needs. If it isn't, you can as usual, push forward the split-folding rear bench to extend the space, though the backrest don't fold anywhere near flat when you do.
What to Look For
Our surveys found a few owners complaining that the steering on their cars pulled to the side. Other than that, the Optima has proven an extremely reliable car, with the diesel motor scoring well in reliability surveys. Customers have noted that some of the interior finishes can get scratched quite easily and the alloy wheels are quite easy to kerb. Other than that, it's a clean bill of health. Kia's brilliant seven-year warranty arrangement means that these vehicles very rarely fall into premature neglect.
(approx prices, based on a 2013 Optima 2) Kia spares prices have gained an enviable reputation for good value, and replacement parts for the Optima are no exception. Brake pads are between £15-£35 for cheap brands and between £45 and £65 if you want an expensive make. Brake discs start in the £75 to £90 bracket, but you can pay much more for pricier brands. A drive belt is around £25. Air filters sit in the £12 bracket. A fuel filter can be as little as around £10, though pricier brands cost the part in the £20 to £30 bracket. Oil filters cost between £3 and £6 depending on brand. A water pump is around £55.
On The Road
On the Road
It's one thing of course to make a car look sharp: another entirely to make it drive that way. But Kia's progress on driving dynamics in recent years has been encouraging and certainly was continued here. A longer platform than anything the Korean brand had previously offered in this class helped in this regard, as did a weight-saving bodyshell using high tensile steels for strength and torsional rigidity. What wasn't on offer - to UK buyers at least - was choice under the bonnet. Without a proper foothold in this segment, Kia, probably wisely, focused on where the real sales were - namely with medium-power diesel models. Hence the emphasis from launch on the 134bhp 1.7-litre CRDi diesel engine.
Original buyers could at least choose between the manual model and a six-speed automatic version with a largely redundant set of steering wheel paddles. Given the running cost penalties involved in taking the auto option, most stuck with the manual, which offers a detached, robotic gearshift action much like that in many of Kia's cheaper models. There's not much tactile enjoyment to be had from the light-ish MDPS Motor-Driven Power Steering either and the handbrake looks and feels like something from a much less expensive car. From here on though, the news is mostly all good. The leather-trimmed wheel feels good to hold and the car feels fluid and stable on fast, twisting roads.
It also helps that the ride from the fully independent multi-link rear suspension is excellent, both on major routes and poorly surfaced minor ones - provided you don't opt for one of the plusher models with larger 18-inch wheels. That'll be important for likely buyers - but not as vital as long-legged motorway refinement, something else you can expect from this Optima. In terms of outright speed, a 1.6-tonne kerb weight is one reason why this car takes a little time to pick up speed but once it does, the turbo keeps things ticking over nicely. There's certainly plenty of torque for overtaking, the 30-50mph increment, for example, being dispatched around 2.5s quicker than it would be in a rival Ford Mondeo 2.0 TDCi. For the record, sixty from rest occupies 10.2s in this manual model on the way to a top speed of 125mph. Opt for the auto and those figures fall to 11.5s and 122mph.
Ten years before this Optima arrived in 2012, Kia launched its first generation Magentis saloon on the UK market, a car then seen, like this one, as a ground-breaking product for the brand. There was a momentum back then with that car that wasn't maintained as subsequent versions drifted back into the Asian mediocrity that Kia has striven so hard to break free from in recent years. But that was then. This is a marque very different these days and it hasn't allowed the same thing to happen again with the Optima. The South Koreans have to aspire beyond budget brand status if they're to avoid being steamrollered by emerging Chinese manufacturers and this Optima proved to be another step on the road to respectability alongside the Ford's Vauxhalls and Peugeots of this world.
For those willing to give it a try, this car has much to offer. It looks good, it drives well and will be practical to own. Families will enjoy the space and it'll certainly be a very smart set of wheels for the middle-ranking managers who sweep backwards and forwards across the country, from motorway service areas to shiny industrial estates then home again. A rare choice in the used Mondeo segment then; but a potentially satisfying one.