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FIRST DRIVE: Kia's killer Optima

2010-10-28 06:10

NEW STAR IN THE SUN: Kia launched its Optima model to the world media in Dubai this week. Image: LES STEPHENSON


Sheer genius. The product is Kia's sporty new Optima – simply K5 in its home market – that was officially launched this week in Dubai and the genius behind it is Peter Schreyer who since 2006 has turned Hyundai's No.2 brand into a potential automotive giant.

Word is that the Optima will be branded as the K5 when it is launched in South Africa early in 2011; it's also that worldwide demand is already so great for this startlingly attractive car that supply will be short.

It's common knowledge (and certainly Kia makes no secret of it) that the Optima shares its engines and running gear with the much bulkier and more conservative Hyundai Sonata just launched in SA but there the connection pretty much terminates: the body styling, lights, glass and wheels are dramatically different; the cabin, too, oozes a much more "sports car" ambience with a completely different fascia and instruments array.

Opinions about the Optima's target market varied among the various Kia authorities to whom I spoke. The consensus was that it will not challenge the Sonata but instead attract a generally younger audience keen on brilliant styling and image - if not, perhaps, outright performance.

Both the 2.0 (121kW/198Nm) and 2.4 (132kW/231Nm) engines will stir the car to 200km/h+ and both will reach 100km/h in less than 10 seconds and even if your mates in the pub brag about better figures, just go outside and park your Optima/K5 alongside their see-them-every-bloody-where German sedan and smirk.

PERFECT IMAGE: Kia's new Optima - perhaps the K5 in SA, looks every each a sports machine.

Consensus seems to be on the 30-40 age group earning $65 000 a year as well as the baby-boomer folk born later than 1954.

Indeed, the performance issue might be addressed later in 2011 when Kia Korea has completed its investigation into adopting the two-litre, 205kW turbo engine being used in the Hyundai Genesis in the US. The car is already being called an Accord-beater; the insertion of such an engine would make that a certainty.

But first some background…

Byung-Tai Yea, Kia Motors president for the Middle East and Africa, said at the launch based in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai: "This car is a complete redesign of its predecessor and the most striking example of Kia's new branding. For now it is selling only in Korea and the Middle East."

The South African market can expect it early in 2011, according to Kia SA's CEO Ray Levin who was there for the ride. The car, he told me, had yet to be homologated for sale here and decisions on engines and equipment levels had still to be taken – which of course prevents me telling you what it might cost.

Levin told me, however, that the car would come in at a premium price greater than that of the Sonata range (R248 900 to R259 900). He also said his personal choice would be to import only one model: the 2.4-litre complete with maximum specs, including a sunroof and the product-defining 18" alloy rims you see in the accompanying images.

FLASH FINISH: Twin tail pipes and LED lights are standard on the Optima.

He'd also like to lose the Optima badge in favour of continuing the Kia trend towards letters and numbers – it could reach South Africa as the K5, the badging already adopted its home market, Korea where it is the top seller in its segment.

Byung-Tai Yea added: "We expect the same reaction in other markets. Our product line is rapidly improving – the Optima is another example of Kia's product enhancement in only one generation."

Kia is not only getting its act together product-wise, its also picking up sales worldwide. Michael Choo, deputy general manager of overseas media services, reported that in the past five years global sales have moved from 1.18-million to around 1.87-million and that sales performance easily beat the global economic decline with sales up 13% from 2009-10.

"Sales in the Middle East and Africa were up 34%, the second biggest growth figure after China," Choo said, "and two or three times that of other major brands."

Sales so far in 2010 were, he said, 46% up on the first half of 2009 with non-Korean production up from 100 000 to a million in three years.

And, as I said earlier, the man behind all this is Schreyer. Choo again: "He's developed the new Kia design identity, he designed the Optima - but he's not trying to copy Mercedes or BMW. He's working on a distinctive brand – and the company is working on a distinctive dealer identity.

CLASSY CABIN: SA is likely to get the top model in the the range, with the sports option.

"The Red Cube (it's basically a red and white box with cars in it) will go worldwide to give a premium feel to the Kia brand – and by 2012 we will have replaced all our current models to have 11 ranges of cars and 4x4s."

Those ranges, Choo added, would include hybrids to challenge the likes of Toyota's Prius. And yes, they will join the Kia family in South Africa. Perhaps even the Ray (Mr Levin likes that one!) and the Pop electric concepts will by then be rolling out as production models.

Until then, we have the Optima… be glad. Some lines of the Sonata remain but Schreyer's design has lowered the roof and bonnet line, changed the glass, widened the front fenders until they became the widest part of the car, introduced the pancaked 'H' that is the new Kia corporate grille, created those amazing rims (others of different design in 16" and 17" sizes exist but should be ignored), added a two-tone bumper and decorated the lights with LEDs, including a high-level brake light.

Move into the cabin and you'll find a fascia that's more fun than a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord and angled towards the driver who should be focused on driving. The steering-wheel is leather and carries more buttons than an early spacecraft: cruise control, audio, trip data controls and buttons for the Bluetooth cellphone connection.

Above the wheel's crossbar you'll view classic rev counter and speedometer but between them is an animated (though very clever) "supervision cluster" that on its 3.5" colour TFT LCD shows a customisable display covering fuel consumption, outside temperature, essential warnings such as "door open" and "range until empty" and (cute one, this) a reminder to straighten your front wheels with a visual of which way they are pointing.

Why? It's so original that I didn't really care but the idea is to avoid car-park pillars, your neighbour's car perhaps?, and other objects that might hurt your Optima should you move to quickly front rest. Of course, you could also avoid scrapes with the full-colour image from the reversing camera that appears in the rear-view mirror.


BLACK'S BEAUTIFUL... As a cabin finish choice in the new Kia Optima.

Behind the steering wheel (on the auto version) are paddle gear-shifters. The gearbox is the same as that of the Hyundai Sonata – six-speed auto or six-speed manual though I suspect the Optima's slightly more sporty performance may have been achieved with different gear ratios.

All four seats are heatable and (yay!) coolable, the glove box is chillable (no beers, please!) and the Optima's boot claims the largest volume in its class. And yes, the rear seats will fold (60:40) should somebody want to borrow your stepladder.

The car uses a smart key(just press the button and go) and rain-sensing wipers, has a seriously premium sound system with all the connections for your personal music players and eight speakers, power front seats and a touch of class with illuminated front-door scuff plates.

All the expected braking and stability controls are in place, leather is standard and the cabin finishes are as good as anything that comes out of Germany or Sweden – but you can go further with the optional sports pack (it was on the car I drove through Camel Land). You get the wheels that I've been rabbiting on about, a sportier grille, side bumpers, alloy brake, clutch and accelerator pedals, high-performance shock-absorbers, a smarter front bumper (there isn't one at the back), and a lip spoiler on the boot.

ANALOGUE WITH A TWIST: The classic pairing of rev counter and speedometer comes with a full-colour graphic display of some unusual features.


Certainly the Kia ate up the several hundred kilometres of desert on the test drive across the United Arab Emirates from Dubai to the Omani border. The speed limit is 120 but I confess that sometimes I let rip a little on the brilliant, clean, unpotholed roads "up north"; the Optima's road-holding (sports kit, remember) is excellent, it's quiet and do those ventilated front seats make a difference when the outside-air gauge is reading 38 degrees.

If you think the Karoo is tough, try the Arabian desert: everything is heat-blasted from the rock to the palm farms. And watch out for the camels: their owners, apparently, bust them through the roadside fences to feed on the (comparatively) lush vegetation alongside the tarmac.

I guess there are stupid people everywhere; others, perhaps, are those who still scorn the automobile products coming out of Korea.

Their loss.

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