According to the press release, the 2018 Kia Optima GT features tweaked steering, suspension and drive-mode settings underneath – but it also gets less equipment inside.
Along with only a slight exterior tweak, this year’s Optima GT drops the formerly standard automatic up/down high-beam, electrically adjustable passenger seat, ventilated front seats, panoramic sunroof and tyre pressure monitor, all the while becoming just $1200 cheaper.
That is a fair loss considering the slight price drop, but recently one local Kia engineer quietly whispered to us that today’s Optima GT is actually more than just tweaked underneath. Apparently it drives completely differently and entirely better than before.
So, is less gear for greater on-road finesse an optimal trade-off for this top Optima?
Vehicle Style: Medium sedan
Price: $43,290 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol 4cyl | six-speed automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 8.5 l/100km Tested: 10.3 l/100km
The two-year-old Kia Optima has been hit hard from two fronts recently. Firstly, the medium car segment is in decline, and secondly, its rear-wheel drive Stinger stablemate is hogging the limelight as a bastion of affordable performance in the post-Australian-made large car era.
Pragmatically, however, this Optima GT delivers the same 2.0-litre turbo engine as the four-cylinder Stinger for less money (or $43,290 plus on-road costs to be specific), all the while offering a bigger boot, extra rear headroom and more equipment as standard.
Sure, it is front-wheel drive, but allied with super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, this Kia sedan has long promised to be more than just another bland medium car on the road. And while it still might wear ‘parental’ attire, it continues to target being a proper driver’s car.
The question is whether it is more luxurious Grand Tourer (GT) or decent sports sedan?
THE INTERIOR | RATING: 4.0/5
Standard Equipment: Keyless auto-entry with push-button start, adaptive cruise control, automatic on/off wipers and LED headlights, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshifter, leather trim with electrically adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, and dual-zone climate control.
Infotainment: 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth and AUX/USB connectivity, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring, digital radio, satellite navigation, and 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio.
Options Fitted: None.
Cargo Volume: 510 litres
The Optima GT isn’t just a Stinger GT for almost $17K less, let’s be clear.
Behind its angular, slightly American exterior is an interior with more than a few European touches. Note the lovely, perforated-leather steering wheel, the all-black rooflining, plus the superbly crisp 10-speaker Harmon Kardon audio, and this Kia feels semi-premium inside.
What it really needs, though, is the lovely Nappa leather seat-trim from its larger GT sibling, and what it didn’t need was an equipment cull. At a time when a similarly priced Mazda6 GT gets the electrically adjustable passenger seat deleted here, as well as a colour head-up display plus voice control both still lacking here, and the Kia feels malnourished for the price.
The pano roof and ventilated seats would have really sealed this off as a great cabin, because otherwise the Optima delivers decently consistent soft-touch plastics and an appealing design. The 8.0-inch touchscreen doesn’t offer class-leading graphics, and its voice control only works with a connected smartphone, but it is very easy to use and fairly slick in response. Unlike a Mazda6 it also gets Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring and wireless phone charging, plus better Harman Kardon audio than that rival’s Bose unit.
It also boasts more rear legroom and headroom, plus a larger (510 litre) boot volume than either the 6 or its Stinger sibling.
The front seats are rich and supportive, and the generously deep and thickly bolstered rear bench also offers one of the nicest gently-tilted backrests around. With air vents, side blinds, rear USB ports and stretching space to spare, it dutifully fulfils the GT-cruiser role.
A single deficit of the otherwise broad and square boot concerns luggage-crushing gooseneck hinges, however conversely it is pleasing (and rare) to see a full-sized alloy spare underfloor.
ON THE ROAD | RATING: 4.0/5
Engine: 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol 4cyl
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, FWD
Suspension: MacPherson strut front and independent rear
Brakes: Ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes
Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering
The Motor Report previously tested the Optima GT against the 6 GT when the Mazda used a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder. Even so, the 2.0L turbo-four Kia lost because while it offered superb equipment, performance and handling, its ride and steering lacked finesse.
Having just completed testing of a 6 GT now with a 2.5L turbo, we swapped into this Optima GT with the same 2.0L turbo as before. And yet this latter, less-changed model may now indeed snatch a narrow lead.
Why? Well, where the Mazda struggles to channel 420Nm of torque through the front, touring Bridgestone Turanza tyres, the Kia’s tighter suspension and superior Michelin Pilot Sport tyres help it do more with its lesser 350Nm (although it gets 180kW versus 170kW).
Compared with the pre-facelift model, ride comfort does take a step back. The Optima is very firm in its suspension, but crucially it is controlled and level rather than hard or harsh. Even so, while driving out of town this tester pondered that this GT would need to take a big step up in handling terms to justify such increasingly buttoned-down spring and damper rates.
And so, thankfully, it transpired.
The Optima GT handles superbly, sitting flat and gripping well, yet never feeling forced. It could just be a front-drive BMW 3 Series with M Sport suspension, quite frankly.
The engine is smooth, couth and refined, while a new Smart mode for the driver-select system automatically switches between the carry-over Eco, Comfort and Sport modes via intuition only, and it works well, too.
Perhaps the throttle response in any mode is too sensitive, while the six-speed automatic isn’t aggressively calibrated for sporty driving. However, the strong engine performance, sheer tyre grip and immaculately controlled suspension seem to gel ideally, meaning there is less reason to wash speed off approaching tight corners, only to then ask the auto to kick down gears on exit – as the softer, then bull-at-a-gate Mazda6 GT demands.
On-test fuel usage of 10.3 litres per 100 kilometres was higher than the 8.5L/100km combined-cycle consumption claim, but a 6 GT used 10.2L/100km on a similar loop, well above its 7.6L/100km claim.
Perhaps we left the best change until last though. Quite simply, the Optima GT’s steering is now brilliant. Sharp, incisive, beautifully weighted, yet also less ‘nervous’ or tetchy on the centre position compared with before, it rounds out a valuable dynamic update.
ANCAP rating: 5 stars – this model scored 33.5 out of 38 possible points when tested by ANCAP in 2015
Safety Features: Six airbags, ABS and ESC, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), reverse-view camera, front and rear parking sensors, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitor and active lane-keep assistance.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Seven years/unlimited km
Servicing: With annual or 10,000km intervals, Kia’s capped-price servicing program costs $289, $466, $360, $559, $325, $559 and $749 for the first seven check-ups respectively.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Mondeo Titanium most closely matches the Optima GT for space, while trumping it for ride quality. But it is expensive, and it feels cheap inside.
As with the Kia, the Holden Calais lacks equipment, and as with the Ford it lacks cabin class – but it also has the benchmark steering, ride and handling in this segment, plus a superb engine and automatic calibration.
For a high-quality feel, but the least amount of outright space and sportiness, the Mazda6 GT steps up with its new turbocharged engine that doesn’t quite handle as well as the lighter non-turbo versions, yet remains a classy value pick.
- Ford Mondeo Titanium
- Holden Calais
- Mazda6 GT
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL RATING: 4.0/5
Could the Optima GT be the most underrated vehicle on the new car market? This update continues to look fairly staid outside, but even the de-contented interior still sneaks through with several lovely goodies teamed with greater space than its Stinger GT large car sibling.
Perhaps best of all, the steering and suspension are now arguably of a higher calibre than that newer Kia larger car. Despite being front-wheel driven, this GT boasts the performance, grip, control and steering precision to finally feel like a complete package – firmer ride excepted.
Indeed, a firm ride could seem perplexing in an otherwise refined medium car, but this is a rare instance where it is acceptable given the upsides. Whether conservative buyers of this class accept that is another matter entirely, and indeed whether shoppers take a punt on a slightly cheaper but less well-equipped Kia sedan at all is perhaps the even greater concern.
At least unlike with a Mazda6 GT, absolute power doesn’t corrupt, and the Optima GT is absolutely all the better for it.
- Interested in buying Kia Optima? Visit our Kia showroom for more information.