SOUTH Korean car manufacturers Kia have motored a long way since they first hit our streets a couple of decades ago.
From humble beginnings in 1991 when the marque first introduced the small Pride city car to the UK market, the brand has now evolved into a serious global player with a fine selection of models ranging from the latest small Picanto hatchback to the imposing seven-seater Sorento four-wheel-drive SUV.
In between those two sit the Venga and Rio superminis, the funky Soul compact hatchback, the mid-sized cee’d, cee’d SW estate and Pro_cee’d range, the Carens and Sedona people carriers and the multi-award-winning Sportage 4x4 crossover.
Now brand new for 2012 comes the super-sleek Optima, Kia’s version of how a family saloon should really look like.
And there’s no doubt the big players at the likes of Toyota, Peugeot, Volkswagen and Ford are going to have to sit up and take a long hard look at their offerings before they get left trailing in Kia’s slipstream.
For the Optima is so good, it’s not all that far away from being pigeonholed into the exclusive premium sector that’s meantime the exclusive preserve of the big three German brands.
From a styling point of view the Optima ticks all the right boxes, not only on the outside, but in the inside too.
The well proportioned exterior takes on something of a sporty, coupé-style look, far removed from Kia’s previous foray into this sector where value-for-money coupled with functionality was the mainstay of the now long-retired Magentis.
And it’s really just to be expected, with head designer Peter Schreyer of Audi TT fame casting more than just a watchful eye over proceedings.
The sporty look has also been recreated inside the vehicle, with the dashboard, facia, steering wheel and arm rest, which between them contain all the switches and controls, giving the appearance it had been designed for some modern jet aircraft.
Kia has kept things reasonably simple with the Optima, offering a choice of 1, 2 and 3 trim levels with prices ranging from £19,595 to £24,495.
All models are extremely well appointed, with alloy wheels, air conditioning, leather steering wheel, Bluetooth, LED running lights, electric windows and cruise control with speed limiter fitted as standard. Soft touch plastics and wood-effect highlights also abound.
However, in a clever move, the mid-range Optima 2 – priced at £21,695 – comes in two distinct trim options: Luxe and Tech, giving owners the choice of, in the case of the former, grey cloth and leather trim, twin electric panoramic sunroofs, sculptured side sill mouldings and front and rear valances, 18-inch alloy wheels and a reversing camera incorporated into the rear-view mirror.
The more sedate Tech version comes with black leather and cloth upholstery, a high-end 12-speaker Infinity audio system, 17-inch alloy wheels and a seven-inch touch-screen satellite navigation system with integrated reversing camera.
Range-topping Optima 3 features the panoramic sunroof, Infinity audio system and touch-screen satellite navigation, while adding xenon headlamps with automatic levelling, full black leather upholstery, ventilated driver’s front seat, heated rear seats and automatic parallel parking assist system.
Smart key with start/stop ignition button, stainless steel door scuff plates with front illumination, mood lighting and alloy pedals complete the range-topping 3’s high level of specification.
Only one engine is available on the Optima, an updated version of Kia’s tried-and-tested 1.7-litre CRDi turbodiesel unit. Pumping out 134bhp and developing plenty of torque from between 2,000 and 2,500 revs, it develops as much power as many rivals’ larger two-litre units.
Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and featuring start/stop technology, fuel consumption is a highly-impressive 57.6mpg, while emissions work out at 128g/km.
Top speed is 125mph while standing to 60mph takes just a fraction more than 10 seconds, making the Optima an ideal companion for both business and private ownership.
The Optima performs delightfully on the road, giving a relaxed, nicely sprung ride with plenty of grip when it comes to cornering.
One thing however, is that the road noise from the Tech model is noticeably quieter.
Passengers will find plenty room to get comfortable in the Optima – well it’s one of the largest vehicles in its class – while the boot can accommodate up to 505 litres, although you have to remember this is a saloon car not a hatch, so transporting some larger packages might pose a problem.
One thing’s for sure, this stunning-looking Optima with its long list of standard features you normally have to pay an arm and a leg for, is going to help pull a lot of new customers over to the Kia brand.
Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi 2 Tech
Mechanical: 134bhp, 1,685cc, 4cyl diesel engine driving front wheels via 6-speed manual gearbox
Max speed: 125mph
0-62mph: 10.2 seconds
Combined mpg: 57.6
Insurance group: 17
CO2 emissions: 128g/km
BIK rating: 18%
Warranty: 7yrs/ 100,000 miles