First Drive: Kia Optima Sportswagon
Kia’s first large estate car is a much-needed move into the mainstream, reckons Alex Grant.
SECTOR Upper Medium PRICE £22,295–£30,595 FUEL 61.4–64.2mpg CO2 113–120g/km
With its obsession for diesels and love of estate cars, Europe is a bit of an island in the global automotive landscape. Enough that the Kia Optima – a game-changer for the brand in some markets – has only ever found a small corner of a segment that’s lost some of its gloss in recent years.
Kia has always been aware of this. The Sportage is its high-volume family car in Europe; the new model is selling at twice the rate of its popular predecessor, and this won’t tip the apple cart. But the first-ever Optima estate is a savvy step into the mainstream for this part of the range.
Volumes won’t be huge, but it’s a significantly bigger opportunity. Developed for and only sold in Europe, despite being built in South Korea, the Sportswagon is expected to quadruple UK Optima sales to a heavily fleet-weighted 4,000 units. It’s absolutely the model to have, too – Kia says estates take three quarters of this segment’s fleet volume.
Corporate aspirations are clear. It launches with three trim levels, all including TomTom navigation, cruise control and a reversing camera to bring them in line with key rivals. The mid-spec ‘3’ trim is the likely big-seller, getting the larger navigation screen with upgraded Harman-Kardon audio and partial faux-leather upholstery, though the bodykitted GT-Line S at the top of the range has plenty of user-chooser appeal too. A performance GT version is confirmed, and a plug-in hybrid looks possible.
For now, though, UK buyers will only get one engine, a 1.7-litre diesel shared with the Sportage but upgraded from 117bhp to a less lethargic 139bhp. That’s closer to rivals’ 2.0-litre engines and, thankfully, there’s limited evidence of its relatively small capacity on the road; refinement is impressive and, though it’s no performance car, it doesn’t struggle to haul itself up to motorway speeds.
The only variation is the gearbox. Kia’s seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission is optional on the ‘3’ trim and standard on the GT-Line S; on paper it’s slightly less efficient, but the extra gear should help real-world economy while cruising. It’s a good gearbox, quick and smooth to shift and with no kick-down shudder, though it doesn’t unearth huge amounts of extra performance from the engine when it does so.
Kia is being reserved about sales splits for the two, but it sees strong take-up for the automatic and the DCT has the added bonus of including selectable driving modes. A luxury, perhaps, but the fixed-rate steering on manual versions is a little light and slightly too sensitive around dead-centre at high speeds, and there’s no option to have the selectable modes on the manual models.
But it’s flexibility where this needs to be competitive, and the Optima achieves a lot despite sharing its footprint with the saloon. Boot capacity is larger than the Sportage and at the higher end of the class, with a low load lip and wide tailgate for crossover-shaming access. All of the essentials are present; handles inside the tailgate to fold the three-piece rear bench, under-floor storage for the tonneau cover and only a slight ramp to the load area when it’s all flat. However, the sliding luggage rail isn’t available on the ‘2’ trim, and only the GT-Line S gets a powered tailgate.
Which really leaves you finding details rather than dealbreakers here. The Optima isn’t the sharpest-driving estate in its class, but not everyone wants that, and some of the cabin materials aren’t up to rivals – particularly the plasticky, under-damped gearshift paddles on DCT versions. Otherwise, this once-niche player has just made itself an option that’s impossible to overlook completely. A worthy competitor for a spot on our unique little automotive island.
The Optima is still short on engine options, but the Sportswagon is a sensible addition which looks, drives and functions competitively for this sector. It’s the bodystyle this car has always needed to make a mark on the European D-segment.