First drive: 2017 Kia Optima GT in Oman
The last Kia we drove was the latest Kia Sorento. It was an impressive crossover in every possible way, except one — it was pretty darn boring to drive. Still, it ended up on our recommended list because it at least handled decently. Every Kia we drove before that was even worse in terms of driving dynamics. Kia has been constantly improving over the past half-decade, and the latest Optima looks like it could finally be up there with its Japanese and American rivals. So it was with great anticipation that we got behind the wheel of a turbocharged 2017 Optima GT for a quick spin while we were in Oman as judges for the 2016 Oman Auto Excellence Awards, driving it back-to-back with Accords, Altimas and Camrys.
One thing is for sure — Kia has nailed the exterior styling. While some of their other models look derivative, such as the Porsche-like Sportage and the BMW-like Quoris, the Optima looks truly unique and handsome, although to be honest, the previous one looked even better. However, the addition of that little window in the new model’s rear C-pillar was necessary to make the cabin bigger (which was a core complaint of the previous model). The GT and GT-Line trims get “sportier” bumpers, dual exhaust tips and 18-inch alloys, among other little changes.
Inside, our first impression was that of a new Jaguar XF, with some elements of BMW. It looks and feels that good, as long as you don’t have an actual Jaguar on hand to compare too closely. Material use is among the best in its class, with soft-touch trim on all upper surfaces, with window sills and dash faces getting stitched faux-leather on our GT model. Hard plastics are relegated to below-the-waist areas.
We didn’t have time to fiddle with the cabin tech, but just know that you have to move up to the GT-Line trim if you want the fancy full-screen multimedia/nav system, otherwise you’re saddled with ugly smaller radio displays with several buttons alongside.
As for cabin space, it is very good now, with generous legroom and headroom in the back. The boot is massive as well. Nothing to complain about any more.
So has the driving dynamics improved? After a brisk drive around a few long corners, it appears the new Optima has pretty good suspension tuning, with good grip, limited body roll and a quiet comfortable ride, at least on a well-paved road, although it’s not quite deserving of the “GT” tag. The steering is so numb and oddly-weighted that it’s hard to tell what the front tyres are doing at speed. It’s best driven at a more subdued pace. If you want to attack corners, get a Mazda 6.
Where the Optima GT still lacks is the engine. While lower-spec models get ho-hum 178 hp 2.4-litre engines, the GT gets a 241 hp 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder with 350 Nm of torque. On paper, it looks great against a similarly-turbocharged 240 hp Ford Fusion Ecoboost. However, the execution varies.
The turbo Ford feels quick thanks to its strong torque at low revs. In contrast, the Optima’s motor builds up power gradually, but never satisfactory in terms of kick. It feels only a bit more powerful than the regular 2.4-litre version (the latter engine being offered in a GT-Line model that gets the same look and equipment as the GT).
Clearly Kia is continuing on its path to becoming a grade-A contender, but it continues to lag behind in driveability, in a world where even the much-derided Toyota Camry is enjoyable to drive nowadays. However, considering many midsize sedan buyers choose value for money over all else, the Optima should pop up on at least a few shopping lists, even if the GT isn’t quite Grand Tour material.
For UAE prices and GCC specs, visit the Kia buyer guide.
Photos by Mashfique Hussain Chowdhury & Kia.