Kia Optima Sportwagon: Another step in right direction for South Korea's VW Passat
KIA'S long and so far successful journey from also-ran to serious contender continues apace with its first large estate car, the Optima Sportswagon, writes William Scholes.
You can read more about the company's metamorphosis here but the Optima is a sort of half-way house between old-school dull-to-drive Kia and a near future in which it builds genuinely entertaining cars.
This means that while the latest Optima doesn't handle with the vim and verve of something like a Mazda 6, it is certainly better to drive than the last version and easily rubs shoulders with class rivals such as the Volkswagen Passat and Vauxhall Insignia.
In my view, the Optima Sportswagon also runs the Mazda 6 Tourer close in the style stakes. That's a subjective judgment, of course, but I wouldn't fall out with you if you wanted to argue that the Kia is the better looker.
It's an undeniably handsome car with some very premium detailing and design cues. It certainly looks better than the dull and slabby Passat or Skoda Superb, for example, or the bloated Ford Mondeo wagon.
Beneath the Optima Sportswagon's sleek exterior lies a deceptively practical and spacious cabin
The test car was in range-topping GT-Line S trim, which includes larger alloy wheels and a subtly muscular body kit, and it helps give the Optima some serious road presence. Several people asked me what it was, which only ever happens with a few test cars, so it is fair to say that the Optima turns heads.
Beneath that sleek exterior lies a deceptively practical and spacious cabin. In its class, perhaps only the minicab-in-waiting Skoda Superb has decisively superior legroom for rear passengers, though even those with lankier frames won't have much to complain about if they have to travel in the Optima's back seats.
The driver and front seat passenger also benefit from lots of space in which to get comfortable, with the added bonus of chairs that might have been lifted straight from a Volvo, so superb are they.
Part of the Kia proposition is lots and lots of equipment. The Optima range follows Kia's numerical trim hierarchy, though the entry level car is a '2'.
It comes with most of the toys you might reasonably want: 17-inch alloy wheels, seven-inch sat-nav screen, reversing camera, automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth, parking sensors and cruise control.
The '3' grade cars gain an inch in their alloy wheels and sat-nav screen, an upmarket harmon/kardon sound system, electric adjustment to the driver's seat, heated front seats and lane keeping assistance.
The full-house GT-Line S, as tested, adds wireless phone charging, an excellent panoramic sunroof which can tilt and slide, LED headlamps, hands-free parking and a number of other safety aids, such as blind spot warning.
The interior is assembled from good quality materials which have been put together well. Switches, stalks, dials and hinges operate with the sort of satisfying heft that you might perceive belongs more to a German car.
While the engine - a 1.7-litre diesel is your only option in the Sportswagon, until a sportier 2.0-litre turbo'd petrol GT version arrives - is a little gruffer on start-up than the best comparable diesels, it is very quiet while on the move.
In fact, the Optima has a notably hushed cabin - door and window seals are obviously high grade items - and between that, its plush seats and premium sound system, it is a very pleasant car in which to travel.
The boot - which, let's face it, is the reason you're going to buy an estate car instead of a saloon - is a healthy 552 litres in volume with the back seats in place. Fold them, and your Optima presents a load space of 1,686 litres.
The Optima has a notably hushed cabin - door and window seals are obviously high grade items - and between that, its plush seats and premium sound system, it is a very pleasant car in which to travel
These are decent volumes, though bested by the Skoda Superb and some others, but the Optima's is a useful space, with underfloor storage compartments and one of those arrangements of rails and sliding holders to help keep loads in place.
The aforementioned 1.7-litre diesel has a relatively narrow torque band, but the smooth-shifting dual-clutch automatic gearbox in the test car did a fine job of masking this by always seeming to be in the correct ratio.
There are manual over-ride gearshift paddles on the steering wheel but, as is often the case, the gearbox does a perfectly decent job of changing gear without driver intervention.
While the Optima's engine isn't the last word in performance, it is frugal which - let's be honest - is likely to be of more concern to more customers than hot hatch-rivalling acceleration figures.
The Sportswagon is, for now at least, unavailable with the plug-in hybrid drivetrain that can be ordered with the Optima saloon.
The steering is light, perhaps overly so, and never seems to properly gain weight during more enthusiastic driving.
It's a shame, as apart from that the Optima handles pretty gamely, gripping well and resisting roll. There is work to be done here if Kia is to achieve its aim of building drivers' cars, but there is also potential.
Cruising, however, is the Sportswagon's forte, with a settled, compliant ride on motorways.
Kia is definitely going places, and remains a brand to watch
Kia reckons that around three-quarters of Sportwagon customers will be company users, but there is much here to also interest the private buyer.
As a package, the Optima Sportswagon is highly competitive, looks great and is a strong all-rounder.
Quiet and refined, it's good - if not Mazda 6-great - to drive, very well equipped and built with a high standard of fit and finish.
It is actually rather desirable - and who would once have thought a Kia estate car could have been described as that? Kia is definitely going places, and remains a brand to watch.
AT A GLANCE
Kia Optima Sportswagon GT-Line S automatic
Price: £30,595. As tested £31,140, with white pearl premium paint £545
Engine and transmission: 1.7-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, seven-speed double-clutch automatic gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 139bhp, 251lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 124mph, 0-62mph in 10.7 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 61.4mpg (EU combined); 48.3mpg (real world); 120g/km
Car tax: £160 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 24 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (89/86/67/71), 2015