Wednesday June 7, 2017
For: A smarter choice than the Sonata Turbo, Michelin tyres enhance handling and grip.
Against: Weird exhaust note quickly become wearying, doesn’t live up to the GT promise.
By Richard Bosselman
KIA is getting into the performance sedan sector; ultimately with the six-cylinder Stinger that’ll charge into the slot soon to be vacated by the Holden Commodore SV6 and, for now, with a version of the biggest sedan they presently have to offer.
At $53,990, the Optima GT comes with extra visual flair and some additional performance verve over the mainstream 2.4-litre models that set to win over the business and fleet sector. The suspension has been tightened up but, most of all, there’s more spring its step from it having a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder.
But is this fresh news – or just a regurgitation of something we’ve heard all before?
A bit of both, actually. Just as Kia is part of Hyundai, the Optima is closely related to a Hyundai product … the Sonata Turbo, a car that has been available to Kiwis since January of 2015. It arrived when Hyundai NZ wanted to deliver something extra special during an awkward period – the renaming of what we’d until then known as the i45.
The Sonata Turbo was touted as a niche yet important flagbearer. It’s actually done better than expected in terms of sales – so far, 120 have been registered – but potentially hasn’t done much to raise awareness of the Sonata, which of course shares the same platform as the Optima. In writing this story, I took the time to check the parent brand’s car was still available (it is).
But, anyway, back to the GT. This ‘new’ toy was available right from this latest shape car’s release 18 months ago, but Kia NZ initially demurred, in the main because the much closer service intervals – every 7500kms or six months 15000kms or 12 months for the mainstream 2.4-litre petrol – were considered a turnoff. Obviously, they’ve had a rethink.
Despite the technical similarities that unavoidably arrive with two brands that, while operating as separate entities in the market place, are still otherwise very much conjoined, this car isn’t just a badge-re-engineering of something that’s been here for a while.
NO matter how the numbers crunch, the medium sedan sector has increasingly become one of increasing desolation and despair for most contenders.
Consumer shift to crossovers, proper sports utilities and hatches has been killing large and medium sedans.
Nonetheless, the sector isn’t quite extinct and even though Toyota with its win at all costs sales practices makes it hard for every other brand, none have yet thrown in the towel. One or two, in fact, have found they can improve their chances by doing something a bit different.
That’s the Optima. Before even considering what the GT process has delivered, let’s appreciate that a car whose name is surely a derivation of the word ‘optimism’ makes a good pitch simply in respect to how it looks. The sharp and sleek shape definitely reminds that status as a Hyundai sub-brand has failed to subjugate Kia; the Peter Schreyer-penned lines lend the Optima a sense of sophistication that simply escapes its under-skin doppelganger.
The interior treatment is more conservative in nature, but ticks off all ergonomic expectations and though the sweeping roofline does eat into headroom, the overall dimensions and the front-wheel drive architecture ensures there is decent room inside both front and rear. Back seat occupants don’t suffer for legroom. A 510 litre boot is a decent capacity, unsurprisingly exact-matching that offered by Sonata, but the layout is disappointingly basic, with no nets or pockets. At least there’s a full-sized spare and the capacity cane be expanded via the split-fold rear seat function. You can also open the boot hands-free.
The driver gets a reach and rake adjustable steering wheel with a flat bottom and large GT logo, a left footrest, alloy pedals and legible and logical instrumentation. The ‘sports’ seat is only vaguely so in shape but is enlivened by red stitching for the black leather.
Storage options around the cabin are quite good and the Optima was the first Kia with wireless mobilephone charging, though unless you get an adapter for your iPhone it only works with some Korean LG and Samsung handsets.
As a flagship, the GT loads up with tech: Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and autonomous emergency braking. There are also six airbags, a reversing camera and front and rear parking sensors and bi-xenon headlights.
The driver's seat has eight-way power adjustment, four-way lumbar support and memory while both front seats get heating and ventilation. There's a panoramic sunroof, steering wheel heating, sat-nav, dual-zone climate control and a 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with aux connection, USB and Bluetooth streaming.
Is a GT badge worthy of a car that, in the more middle of the road formats, has never imparted immediate impression of being especially athletic?
Well, sort of. Kia has created a vehicle that is clearly a more reactive and responsive car than the 2.4-litre fare, which even after benefitting from the services of Kia’s Australian suspension tuning people - whose spring and damper mixes are generally firmer than the factory’s – are still very much cruisers.
At the same token, while the Optima GT is less relaxed than the standard cars, it falls short of fulfilling going-for-gold ambition in any particular respect, save that it sometimes sounds the part.
About that. Kia has engineered in a performance engine soundtrack that come on song when the car is in its sport setting and grows in volume as the throttle is buried.
Generally speaking, synched sounds are rather naff and hardly ever a patch on the real thing, but I have to say that it was entertaining when following a Clubsport R8 and recognising that the Kia’s noise was virtually pitch-perfect with the HSV’s.
But that moment also cruelly highlighted a key difference that renders the Korean effort into the realms of ridiculousness. With the hotted Holden, you buy a roar wholly natural athat proudly trumpets to the world at large. Whereas the Kia’s is entirely artificial and can only be heard within the cabin, as it emanates from the speakers. Which thoiugh less anti-social is also ultimately quite sad, I think.
Then again, perhaps Kia wanted to keep the noise to itself because it realised that the car just doesn’t live up to the level of intent it is sounding out. Despite additional suspension and chassis dynamics tuning above and beyond the standard setting, it just doesn’t feel sporty in how it tackles corners or responds to the throttle. Yes, it is quick-ish, to the point of some wheelspin, and a stint down a challenging country road revealed markedly more dynamic deftness than Hyundai has dialled into its own car. But in respect to it delivering a spectacularly special driving experience? Well, it stops short of that.
Which raises, again, the question of the badge and expectation that associates with it. It’s not that Kia lacks competence to create a more honed car; the Ceed GT hot hatch that sadly only stayed fleetingly was a good example of how much better their work can be. And early reports about the Stinger suggest it could well be the right kind of rear-drive sizzler six for the enthusiast brigade presently still hooked on Commodore.
In hindsight, though, Kia might have been better off creating a new kind of badge for the Optima. Just as Toyota did with its Camry equivalent. ‘Sportivo’ sounds a bit naff, but it does serve a useful purpose in nicely sidestepping that GT promise.
This isn’t to say the Optima GT is drudge. With high quality Michelin tyres, tauter suspension and three-mode electric-assist steering (with the motor mounted on the rack for better feel and response) it does lift its game above the other derivatives.
That 180kW/350Nm twin-scroll turbo-petrol also has decent punch, not so much at take-off – because the initial reaction is a bit woolly and, also, this is a 1650kg medium-large car - but rather moreso in the midrange; almost too much of the latter because, if you pound down too hard too soon through a corner, the understeer can be quite imposing. But it does otherwise interact really nicely with the six-speed auto which can also be changed manually by paddles.
The Optima GT impresses, but more as a swift cruiser than an outright performance model; this is more an exercise in embellishment than one driven by complete performance-minded enthusiasm. It’s a bit too polite and unresolved to run with the real racers.
Where it impacts more positively is as a better kind of Sonata Turbo. Almost everything Kia has done, save the strangely shouty soundtrack, makes it a much smarter choice. It looks sharper, drives better, has a stronger specification and yet is $2000 cheaper.
Still a winner, then, in its own way.