There is a common slice of received wisdom that we don’t buy saloon cars any more. That they’re too ‘conventional’ or too ‘ordinary’ and anyway, we’re all much too busy over here on the other side of the showroom buying the latest crossover or SUV thanks very much.
Unlike many slices of received wisdom, which can so often need significant pinches of salt if they’re to be palatable, this one is actually rather accurate. We really are buying more and more SUVs and crossovers and the primary casualty in all of this has been the traditional three-box family saloon. Once regarded as the be-all and end-all of car ownership in Ireland (remember your dad’s excitement when he realised he could finally upgrade to a 2.0-litre four-door? I do…) they have now been somewhat relegated to second best status in the minds of most buyers.
Which means most buyers are rather missing out on something fabulous. You see, for a while now the trad three-box saloon has been squeezed between the sales behemoths of 4x4s on the one side and expensive German brands on the other. So, in order to have any chance of survival, they’ve had to offer something different to the SUVs while matching, as closely as possible, the dynamic performance and quality levels of the pricey Germans.
The result is a car such as this, the new Kia Optima. The old Optima was a very likeable car, but one which had clearly been designed for the American rather than the Irish market. This time around, Kia is making no such mistakes and the Optima, riding on a new platform with a new body, is making no such mistakes. It has been rigorously re-engineered and re-tuned for European tastes which makes it a far more competitive prospect when faced with opposition such as the VW Passat, Ford Mondeo and Toyota Avensis, not to mention its own internecine rivalry with the mechanically-identical Hyundai i40.
At first, you would easily mistake it for the old one. The lights are larger and wrap further around the wings, and the grille is bigger and more upright, and the glasshouse and roofline have been more accentuated, but the effect of the styling is one of familiarity.
Inside, there has been much more profound change. The ‘American Spec’ interior – all space and no class, with cheap-o plastics to boot – has gone and been replaced by a cabin which is much, much closer to its European and Japanese rivals in terms of quality and design. You sit, faced with a sporty, leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel and survey a broad sweep of instrument panel with a big bright touchscreen in the centre. It’s really nice and for the most part the quality levels are very high, aside from some cheap switches and buttons down around the gear shifter.
Comfort was clearly high on Kia’s agenda though, because the Optima has seriously good seats – supportive and yet relaxing on a long journey. Space is excellent too – the old Optima was already very roomy, but this one adds 10mm to the wheelbase so there’s proper lounging room in the back.
Aside from a slight diesel-y gurgle at low speeds, the 1.7 CRDI engine is very refined, and with a power upgrade to 141hp, it’s way ahead of most 1.6-litre rivals. Thankfully, although power has increased, Co2 levels have actually fallen compared to the old Optima, to a much more tax-friendly 110g/km as long as you spec it with the optional stop/start system. Overall economy is pretty impressive – better than 50mpg in a week of mixed driving in our hands, which suggests that Kia’s quoted 67mpg figure is not entirely fictional.
It’s very softly sprung, eschewing entirely the over-bearing ‘sportiness’ of most rivals in search of some proper ride comfort. It’s a very comfortable car both on those long motorway runs and around town too. You’d think that such softness would make it floppy and ill-at-ease in corners, and to some extend you’d be right, but beneath all that is an underlying core of sharp responses which make the Optima surprisingly good to punt down a twisting back road.
Few will be the owners who’ll bother though. Few will be the owners in general, in fairness, as the Optima is likely to be significantly out-sold by its similarly-priced stablemate, the new Sportage SUV. Those who make the trek from one side of the showroom to the other though are in for a treat – this old-school family saloon is actually a much better car than its SUV cousin.