First Drive: 2012 Kia Optima 2.4 in the UAE
Kia, besides its sister-concern Hyundai, has been in a phase of rapid evolution over the past few years, rolling out several new models which are far superior than their predecessors and strong contenders to the current competition. One such new vehicle from the stables of Kia, is the all-new 2012 Kia Optima. First introduced in the UAE through an official media drive-event during late 2010, the new Optima has managed to gain respectable popularity in the mid-size segment solely due to factors such as affordability, build quality, value for money and visually-appealing designs. Nevertheless, it is still underrated when it comes to comparisons against its overpriced Japanese competitors.
Sourced from a local car rental agency, we joyously managed to secure a brand new 2.4-litre Kia Optima which only had 27 km on the odometer. Our “basic” 2.4-litre Optima never really felt basic in many aspects. It came with the usual power options, electrically-foldable power mirrors with LED indicators, multi-function leather-wrapped steering wheel with controls for cruise, audio, trip computer and eco-drive mode, paddle-shifters, manual a/c with rear vents, 6-speaker audio system with AUX, iPOD and USB connectivity, 16-inch alloy wheels, front fog lamps, dual exhausts, and a rear boot-lip spoiler. Where the basic Optima really felt “basic” though, was in case of safety features – which only comprised of a single driver-side airbag, seat-belts with pre-tensioners, and nothing more – not even ABS. However, the higher trims do receive upto six airbags and ABS with EBD.
The new Optima however, do score when it comes to styling, which is more European in nature. With sharp edges, angry looks complemented by Kia’s signature grille, and perfectly blended side and rear profiles, the Optima boasts very good road presence. The interior design is notably inspired by some well-known European marques. The centre-dash faces the driver, and all controls are well within reach. The basic 2.4-litre Optima comes with soft-touch materials on the upper-dash, front armrests and door sills. Apart from that, hard plastics have been used elsewhere. The quality of materials used and fit-and-finish seem very good.
The seats in the Optima are mildly bolstered and very comfortable. There are rear a/c vents for the convenience of the passengers in the back, who would also enjoy very good legroom and above-average headroom, which may become an issue only to those who stand taller than Burj Khalifa. Rearward visibility is hindered by a small and weirdly-shaped rear windscreen – parking sensors are a definite requirement, as parking turns out to be a tough task otherwise; that said, the top trims get rear sensors and a rear view camera too. The a/c performed well in outside noon temperatures hovering at 34 degrees, with rear vents closed and despite occasional pounding of the accelerator. The audio system has a relatively lower volume levels and bass even at maximum volume and maximum bass settings, but the sound output was crisp nevertheless. It also supports AUX, iPod and USB connectivity. There is storage box under the centre armrest and two cup-holders in the centre console with a sliding cover. The storage space in the front doors also has provision for holding small cups or cans. There are storage spaces in the rear doors, one in the centre console behind the gearbox and one in the centre dash with anti-slipping surface – an ideal place for your mobiles and bunch of keys.
The levels of refinement in the new Optima are nothing class-leading, but on par with the overpriced segment leaders, who now lead only because of brand monopoly. The interior is generally on the silent side, with wind and road noise creeping in at 110 kph – we were in the middle of a severe dust storm at that point though. The engine noise is hushed up well, with the engine being heard only when the accelerator pedal is pushed to the floor. With commendable low-end power though, flooring the gas is a rare requirement. Despite the rough weather, the car was surprisingly stable even at its top possible speed of 220 kph – an aspect where the Japanese triad have always failed to impress.
The 2.4-litre engine in the Optima is similar to the one found in the Sonata, with 178 hp and 231 Nm of torque, and mated to a 6-speed tiptronic transmission. However, the engine seems to be better tuned for action in the Optima. Even as the Optima takes about 9.6 seconds to 100 kph without the air-conditioner running, it does “feel” a lot quicker than the Sonata throughout the rev range, due to the superior low-end and mid-range power. Gearshifts are seamless and when left in drive mode, mostly does the job right, unlike the confused unit in the Sonata. There are paddle-shifters for manual shifts which very responsive, but red-lining is beyond question as the car upshifts automatically just before the tacho hits the red zone. There is also an “Eco” drive mode activated by a small button on the steering wheel, which aids in better fuel-efficiency as it forces the vehicle to remain in higher gears for as long as possible. Fuel efficiency, as registered by the trip computer is 10.7 litres/100 km, without “Eco” mode.
The best balance between ride comfort and optimum handling has never been the forte of Asian car manufacturers, but Kia now seems to contradict that myth. While the body roll is moderate at most, the Optima has very good grip levels, surpassing all the usual Japanese competition while only falling behind a handful of cars like the Mazda 6 and Ford Mondeo. Surprisingly enough, the ride quality has not been compromised even by a wee bit. There is no floaty feeling while riding over humps, and no harshness while negotiating rough roads and potholes, which makes the new Optima a very comfortable place to be in for long travels, as long as you don’t opt for the larger alloys with low-profile tyres.
The new Kia Optima comes in as strong contender in the hotly contested mid-size segment, giving a never-before stiff competition to its rivals. While their most affordable basic models still skimp out on safety tech, the overall proposition is hard not to recommend. If you are not brand-biased, and on the lookout for an affordable mid-size family sedan that is more value for money, the Optima should be among the top in your wish list.
Photos by Vivek Menon.