FIRST DRIVE: Kia's killer Optima

2010-10-28 06:10

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.

  • Jacques - 2010-10-28 07:53

    I really hope that Kia can back up these beautiful designs with solid reliability! Then Kia / Hyundai may be the new benchmark! Exciting times, what a wonderful thing real competition is for us the consumer?

  • KleinBlikkies - 2010-10-28 08:13

    This is a stunning car, if they can get the pricing right it will sell in SA. The Koreans have upped the ante quite a bit in recent times.

  • The M - 2010-10-28 08:25

    HOLY CRAP!! I think I'm looking at my next car!

  • Versace - 2010-10-28 08:29

    KIA is on point I don’t care who says what. So, nothing what so ever about built in Sat Nav? And those Maserati GT tail lights look stunning in this car.

  • Badbones - 2010-10-28 08:48

    KIA ???? ...... well what a HOT looking car ... just hope it's not just the looks ...

  • Wayne A - 2010-10-28 08:49

    Congrats Kia, definitely moving up the ranks. I still think for the local market though bringing out a family saloon with anything lower than 140kw is going to struggle on the highveld though. Bare minimum should match the 147kw of the 2.4 Honda Accord. If the warranties are also 5yr/150 000km with a 100000km maintenance plan(not service plan), there is no reason why we should not see more of these on the road.

  • AnTiyota - 2010-10-28 09:35

    I always favoured the Huyndai brand. But with Kia's new designs, I'm loving what I'm seeing of the Kia Brand.

  • LM - 2010-10-28 10:07

    Peter Schreyer is the MAN! Beautiful, capable and very affordable. I am a big Honda supporter but Kia has outfoxed the CRV with their Sportage and now the Accord.

  • godfrey - 2010-10-28 10:36

    I'm becoming more impressed with Kia, will be in the market for a new car in the new year and was looking at Kia Cerrato or Chev Cruze and decided to settle on the Kia Cerrato. I had to agree with Jacques Kia must back these beautiful designs with solid reliability.

  • Diablo - 2010-10-28 10:43

    I will definately be considering this to replace my Audi A4 in a couple of years time! I am very impressed with Kia/hyundai's newer models.

  • P - 2010-10-28 10:54

    A couple of weeks ago I was wowed by the new Sonata in the flesh, especially at the price. I can't wait to see the Kia version.

  • hein - 2010-10-28 10:58

    About time the Germans are put to rest... I have my second Audi and I am the dealership monthly to have defects repaired... Kia is my next car!

  • Rendier - 2010-10-28 11:26

    WOW, stunning design! Sign me up please, what a stunner! Hope KIA considers the 2,2 diesel as found in the Sorento, an awesome engine indeed. @ Jacques, you will not find a more reliable car out there, that I can promise you..we bought my wife a Sorento 2,2CRDI at the start of the year and it hasnt missed a beat..ad piece of mind thanks to a complete warranty and maintenance plan for 5 years and you have nothing to worry about, not even residuals..

  • Spice - 2010-10-28 12:08

    I will not change my Accord, I will er, er, er, I want this car! I just bought my first Kia 2 months ago on top of my Accord for business purposes and I think this would be perfect in replacing my Accord after its warranty expire (3 years)! All hail the god, Schreyer!

  • AussieVik - 2010-10-28 12:53

    Don't say its a Kia and people would be thinking what a nice looking euro car. The interior has that Saab feel/design with Audi/Lexus exterior. Hyundai/Kia are now always up there in owner satisfaction, so surely this car can match the likes of Mazda 6, Honda Euro and VW Jetta.

  • Nico - 2010-10-28 13:02

    Great looks. I am an IS250 owner (Lexus), but will definitely be considering this if Lexus continues with it's ridiculous pricing (R450,000.00+) for not much more. It even looks like the IS250.

  • gasguy - 2010-10-28 13:12

    Jeez I am getting worried about these Koreans. This actually looks FAAAN TASTIC. First the Cerato (esp Koup)- then the Soul and Sportage now this. And Even Hyundais' Sonata and iX35. These guys are really producing lookers. We just need a bit of performance from them now. And no critism not even from the volksie fans who like to rag anything that is not a polo with a stripe

  • Gore - 2010-10-28 13:25

    The Germanys & Japanese should be worried. If not, they should not say we did not warn them when its too late. Yours , future KIA driver

  • Gore - 2010-10-28 13:32

    The Germanys & Japanese should be worried. If not, they should not say we did not warn them when its too late. Yours , future KIA driver

  • JVS - 2010-10-28 14:44

    PFFFFT, Just copcat of the Mazda 6. Nothing to look at.

  • Nico - 2010-10-28 14:49

    Great looks guys, but no driving pleasure! Even worse than Jap cars! No excitement,mediocre performance,sticky gearshifts, --roadholding??? I wont buy a car just for the looks! There are plenty nice European cars at same price, which will leave these guys standing and gawking. A car is a mans special toy, it is not just a mode of transport. No to Japs,No to Koreans,No to Chinese!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Moto Moto - 2010-10-28 14:52

    @LM..Dude you got issues?"Peter Schreyer is the MAN! Beautiful, capable and very affordable.". Buddy.. check your comment ..this comes across as rather weird!

  • Freddy - 2010-10-28 15:03

    Woww Nice Car ,Damm Nice one Kia

  • R6tyedK - 2010-10-28 16:29

    Kia Audi Knock Off. GOOOOOOO Honda!!!!!

  • Trainsmash - 2010-10-28 19:00

    Kia in general now offer better looking vehicles than its parent comp. Hyundai. On the surface they do seem like good value. Problem is that the real quality in material and finish still suck and in 3 years when you want to sell or trade everybody runs away.

  • BigBoer - 2010-10-28 19:31

    Prrof that Peter Schreyer is one of the best - and if you look at the new Passat - further proof that Walter De Silva is the most over-rated designer in the world

  • Disappointed Kia Customer - 2010-10-29 00:03

    Face value, it look stunning.........very nice but a Car is not just about good looks. The most important while buying a CAR is its post sales service. KIA is horrible in this important. I bought a KIA Sorento last year. Went for 1st service in MArch 2010 and since then i am fighting. The dealer (KIA Bryanston) scratched, dented my car at 3 / 4 places. The car was delivered dirty on hidden corners, the engine oil, break oil etc were not topped. And now when i complain, the dealer advice me to go to court. I had written to the KIA SA CEO, Sales, Post sales but guess what NO REPLY. Now just think, should you buy this car or just admire it from a distance like we do for beauty contest.

  • Gaurav Pradhan - 2010-10-29 00:04

    Face value, it look stunning.........very nice but a Car is not just about good looks. The most important while buying a CAR is its post sales service. KIA is horrible in this important. I bought a KIA Sorento last year. Went for 1st service in MArch 2010 and since then i am fighting. The dealer (KIA Bryanston) scratched, dented my car at 3 / 4 places. The car was delivered dirty on hidden corners, the engine oil, break oil etc were not topped. And now when i complain, the dealer advice me to go to court. I had written to the KIA SA CEO, Sales, Post sales but guess what NO REPLY. Now just think, should you buy this car or just admire it from a distance like we do for beauty contest.

  • Bonanza - 2010-10-29 09:33

    He he! Waiting for Kizashi from Suzuki!

  • Leo - 2010-10-29 11:14

    I could never buy a car from a country that eats dogs.

  • Pauline - 2010-10-29 12:56

    Add to this the amazing KIA warranty, and this car deserves a closer look!

  • J - 2010-10-29 22:11

    I also wanted one, and I can afford it... but if the service suck as mentioned...then they can keep it... nothing worse than a useless dealer and a non caring head office. Customer retention is something of the past it seems.

  • Gary - 2010-10-29 23:55

    Rear end is Audi. Centre looks like the Lexus IS and front looks like new Peugeot???

  • Trekkie - 2010-10-30 21:24

    Gaurav Pradhan - All I can say your right man. No after sales service, arrogant staff and workshop managers. Does not matter how good it may look, it is not worth the trouble and effort afterwards. That's what matter after your drive off the sales floor - The Support - something Kia have not yet learn. They will pay the price, whatch this space!!

  • AussieVik - 2010-11-01 13:35

    @Nico/Euro lovers, Wow, a Euro car at the same price( VW, Peugeot, Alfa, little Mercs and Bmw's)which most people will buy to live out the 'Champagne" lifestyle at beer money budget, $400 oil changes, unreliable mechanics and electrical but hey it's the Badge the counts, right Nico? There's is nothing better in value, fun, reliability and running costs then a Japanese car for under $80,000 mark. Well done Kia/Hyundai, great cars for the money.

  • kc - 2010-11-03 19:25

    this car is wonderful... i had the opportunity to travel in the current one of this size.... you could never tell whether the engine is running or not at idle. So silent we all had a bet whether it was running or not, till we confirmed by checking the rev counter. The cars are good as transport, and this one should add the wow factor with its gizmos and looks. Sorry germans... you getting your butts kicked by the Koreans soon enough. Cant wait to see Ford's response with its Mondeo. They started this war!

  • kc - 2010-11-03 19:26

    and oh.... i must admit i kinda like the Hyundai Sonata (latest) dsign a bit more...so beautful.

  • db - 2010-11-04 08:18

    Rear lights just like a Maserati Gran Sport

  • Chris - 2010-11-05 09:23

    I'll wait for the 204Kw engine. Kia just dont have power, but with that engine, it will be great!!!! Great power and really great looks as well! My second car is a Sedona and what a pleasure to drive, just eats up the long roads! (Just a pity about the really poor plasitcs in the car, and hopefully the Optima will have that sorted)

  • Claudeus - 2010-11-11 15:35

    There is a lot of Chevy / Holden in the design, well done Kia.

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