Our long-term Kia Optima GT alters brand preconceptions.
THE rise of the Korean car from a budget alternative to somewhere near the top of the average family car shopping list has been happening for a decade, yet six months ago it was still to sink in with me.
I thought I already knew the answer when I wondered at the start of my time with the Kia Optima GT whether I’d get along with a highly specced Korean. Turns out I was wrong.
While I still struggle with some aspects of the not-quite-hot Korean hatch, I’ve been won over by one of this country’s more pragmatic machines. Whereas I find it impossible to do without a degree of X-factor and a dose of dynamic nuance in a high-performance car, it’s relatively easy to do so in a family machine that has so many other strengths.
My family priority is for something that’s safe – economy is secondary because I don’t do many kays – and the GT ticks each of the safety boxes. It’s a solid-feeling car, backed up by a five-star ANCAP safety rating and a swag of active safety. Its economy sits mid-class but grunt comes as the pay-off, even if it isn’t delivered with verve.
On that point, the Optima’s GT badge doesn’t signal what it might have, but does mean ample grunt and enviable equipment are part of the package. A respectable fifth place in a recent megatest tells of the Kia’s speed, decent ride and generous grip on its standard Michelin Pilot Sport 3s, and entertaining (if ultimately rough-edged) dynamics. The slick presentation of the cabin was something I was already comfortable with.
The uninvolving initial response of the major controls is the main area that leaves room for improvement. The steering is aloof in the initial degrees of lock, the throttle calibration is doughy and the brakes, which are easy to modulate at operating temperature, are grabby when cold. With each of these addressed, the GT might be able to deliver some of its backroad enthusiasm during day-to-day suburban driving, which would add massively to its all-rounder ability.
You don’t hear stories of Kias breaking down, but I (like plenty of buyers, I suspect) would be swayed by the brand’s seven-year warranty. It would bring peace of mind, and would no doubt help at resale time.
Speaking of resale, the GT’s official Glass’s Guide three-year retained value forecast of 46 percent is not particularly inspiring, but I suspect that, given the brand’s rising credibility, the reality might prove to be more palatable. And no matter which way you look at it, from purchase price-versus-equipment to longer-term running costs, the Optima seems unlikely to be a high-cost proposition.
I’m not going to send off the Optima by calling it ‘my’ car, personifying it with a cute pet name, or by referring to it longingly as DAR-32P. It doesn’t have the character to endear itself in quite that way. But as an all-rounder that rarely put a wheel wrong in our six months together, the Optima GT leaves an unexpectedly big space in my driveway.
Niche within a niche
The fact the Optima is not a major player for Kia says more about buyers’ tastes than the car. Medium-size cars are out of fashion, and it’s SUVs and small cars picking up the sales. To the end of August, Kia had sold only 1010 Optimas; in the same period it offloaded 8581 Ceratos, 7220 Sportages, 4636 Rios, 3297 Carnivals and 2795 Sorentos. Toyota, meanwhile, somehow sold 14,535 Camrys to dominate the Optima’s medium segment.
My Optima GT wish list
If I could design my ideal Optima GT, it wouldn’t be that far outside the realm of possibility. It would slot the 2.0-litre turbo engine into the terrific-looking wagon version unveiled at Geneva earlier this year (right), with a six-speed manual gearbox (a dynamic tickle that would give it a bit more feel-good factor) and a freer exhaust for a bit of grumble. And I’d have it on 19-inch wheels and cop the inevitable downside of a harsher ride.
Kia Optima GT
Price as tested: $43,990
Part 6: 395km @ 12.4L/100km
Overall: 3579km @ 13.2L/100km
Date acquired: February 2016