Kia steps up with performance saloon

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That extra outlay for the GT secures a sportier exterior body kit including special GT wheels and red brake callipers. Photo: David Thomson

Late last year Drivesouth welcomed the new Kia Optima, proclaiming it the best large saloon yet from the Korean firm.

Svelte styling, spacious and well-appointed interior and an excellent standard equipment list were particular highlights when we tested the then flagship GDI Limited variant. We were less enamoured with the vehicle's 2.4-litre motor (a lightly updated carry-over from the previous Optima), suggesting that it lacked pep and was only averagely frugal.

‘‘Easily the best Optima yet, awaits an engine to match,'' was the single sentence verdict.

Hence some excitement at the arrival of a new flagship Optima - the GT - fitted with a 2.0-litre turbo engine.

The Optima GT's $53,990 price tag equates to a $5000 premium over the Limited.

Key comfort and safety features are almost identical: both variants feature a panorama sunroof, dual-zone climate control, heated and ventilated power-operated front seats, an 8-inch (20.3cm) centre touchscreen, satellite navigation and a 10-speaker Harman Kardon sound system; active cruise control and lane change, blind spot monitoring and collision warning systems are all standard too.

That extra outlay for the GT secures a sportier exterior body kit including special GT wheels and red brake callipers, red-stitched leather sports seats, a heated sports steering wheel, alloy pedals and GT-badging inside and out. The suspension has been retuned, the steering significantly changed, and sportier Michelin tyres come as standard.

Most of these additions are there to complement the new motor which, like the less potent 2.4, delivers power to the front wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission. Mustering peak outputs of 180kW and 350Nm, the 2.0-litre turbo produces 30% more power and 45% more torque than the 2.4, yet manages virtually the same fuel economy return on the standard test cycle.

While it will rev quite happily to reach peak power 6000rpm, the engine (and transmission) is at its best surfing the maximum torque zone from 1400 to 4000rpm.

Acceleration is brisk (0-100kmh in about 7 secs) rather than lightning quick. Occasional torque-induced steering snatch and traction loss was apparent on test but only when accelerating hard on grit-coated roads. Otherwise, the engine delivers sufficient sporting vim for a sense of fun and to enable snappy overtaking, yet without feeling overly wild.

An artificial enhancement system produces a sporty exhaust burble inside the cabin. The system can't be deactivated, so bad luck if (like me) you don't really like it.

The GT's steering, suspension and tyre changes work a treat, improving handling without sacrificing the fine ride quality and refinement that are part of the standard Optima package.

The steering change, which relocates the electric motor that assists the driver, sharpens both steering feel and precision and the suspension and tyre enhancements deliver better grip, especially through reduced understeer.

As a result, the Optima GT matches extra grunt with more assured handling. On test, I was especially impressed with the GT's ability to traverse damp and gritted winding roads in a manner that was precise and rewarding.

It is important to record in conclusion that the Optima GT does not seek to deliver the performance, handling characteristics (and accompanying compromises) of an all-out sports saloon.

Rather, it is for the most part a more subtly enhanced large performance saloon; a Korean (and front-drive) equivalent, if you like, of Ford's Falcon XR6 or Holden's Commodore SV6. With the Falcon now gone and Commodore soon to follow, the Optima GT's arrival is especially welcome.

Kia steps up with performance saloon
At a Glance
Overall: ★★★★
Design and styling: ★★★★
Interior: ★★★★+
Performance: ★★★★
Ride/handling: ★★★★
Safety: ★★★★★
Environmental: ★★★+

For: Tidy styling, spacious and well-appointed interior,
new engine.
Against: Not a true performance GT.
Verdict: The latest Optima now has the engine it deserves.

Price: $53,990
Engine: 1998cc fuel injected four-cylinder turbo-petrol,
maximum power 180kW@6000rpm, maximum torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission, front-
wheel drive
Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes, ABS, VSM,
Safety rating: Five-star Euro NCAP.
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 235/45 R18 tyres
Fuel and economy: 8.5 per 100km, fuel tank capacity 70
Emissions: CO2 191g/km on combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 4855mm, width 1860mm, height