Kia Optima Facelift: The Korean Experience

By Lee Pang Seng
THE current Kia Optima has enjoyed success well beyond expectations following its launch in 2010. More than 800,000 cars were sold globally as it was an attractive alternative for many in the market for a C-segment car. As it enters its mid-life span, Kia is fully determined to ride on the positive sentiments by endowing the Optima with more than a cursory facelift. And what better way to do that than to provide what would enhance its appeal further and wider through feedback gleaned earlier.

A visit to South Korea late last year gave us an insight into the Optima’s development. While the Optima has retained largely its body profile and carries the usual visual changes in the new headlights, front grille, foglights, rear lights, bumpers and alloy wheel design, there are a few significant updates that belie the usual approach.

For a start, the LED (light emitting diodes) daytime running lights in front are moved from the bumpers to the headlights to achieve a consistent image along with other newly introduced Kia models. This is to serve as an immediately recognisable family and brand identity. This low-electricity consuming LEDs are also employed at the rear from this model on so as to reflect a premium image like its German counterparts.

Kia also spared no efforts and costs to provide the Optima facelift model with new infotainment systems, more convenience and safety features, and a higher level of refinement through improved quality and a more premium finish. Soon-Nam Lee, Vice President of Overseas Marketing, Kia Motors Corporation, says that it was necessary to bring about a greater level of improvements now than to put it off till the next generation model. “We have to respond quickly to the feedback received to maintain the Optima’s appeal.”

The result is an interior with satin chrome finish to effect a classier ambience, a bigger multi-function LCD screen (4.3-inch from 3.5 previously) in the meter panel for better visual display, a sporty three-spoke steering wheel with flattened bottom for the automatic models, improved front seats, among others. We also had the pleasure of enjoying the optional ‘ventilated’ front seats that provided a warm cosy feeling against the slight chill of the mid-autumn spell.

To provide better ride comfort and refinement, Kia engineers reduced the interior noise through several measures: fitting a dynamic damper to the rear multi-link suspension to absorb vibration and sound, changing the rear wheel arch covers to another material for better sound proofing, and using stronger alloy wheels. Together, Kia says, these improvements led to a reduction of the interior noise by 3.3dB (decibels).

Perhaps the more significant update was the inclusion of a turbocharged model, which we won’t see in Malaysia. This is due to the fuel quality as the T-GDI 2.0-litre engine requires more refined petrol (Euro 4 and above) to produce the performance expected. That explains why the recent launch of the latest Optima here saw only the normally aspirated 2.0-litre model.

There is a lot more punch from the turbo engine: the normally aspirated direct injection NU MPI engine with double cams and variable valve timing delivers 119kW (162PS) at 6500rpm and 194Nm at 4800rpm, which should suffice for a car weighing almost 1420kg kerb. The turbocharged Theta 2.0-litre T-GDI engine pushes out 199kW (271PS) at 6000rpm and 365Nm from 1650rpm to 4500rpm. Apparently, this turbo model is initially meant for the Middle East market, such as UAE (United Arab Emirates), Oman and Egypt. Tipping the scales at just above 1500kg, the better power-to-weight ratio is very obvious.

We started the first leg of the drive from Seoul to the hill resort in Kangwon in the normally aspirated Optima. As this section of the journey covered mostly highways and undertaken in a convoy form with a lead car, driving up to 140-150km/h between the many speed cameras along the way, we could relate to the quiet and smooth ride. There was no lack of mid-range pace as the Optima gained speed quite quickly, especially to overtake.

We hardly heard a jarring note as the highways were pretty well paved and we were hard pressed to find a bump or pothole. Nevertheless, there were still road sections that appeared to generate more noise than others and we could discern them largely due to the quieter interior ambience.

Wind noise was only noticed when we picked up speed and even so, it remained a mild rustle although we didn’t have the audio on as we couldn’t locate a radio station that broadcast in English. The fast, slow driving sequence in between speed cameras made the highway drive less of a boring one and we could also explore the level of comfort in the driver’s seat. The thigh support was just sufficient to prevent fatigue and there was little to pick on generally in driving comfort and ergonomics.

The six-speed automatic transmission model came with a new feature in the Drive Mode Select button that allowed us to choose the shift options: Normal, Active ECO (fuel economy driving) and Sport modes. The computer managing the transmission will induce the gear shift pattern accordingly, such as holding a gear longer in Sport mode to gain optimum acceleration and upshifting early in Active ECO mode to achieve best mileage. We could see all these via the tachometer that indicated how the engine was running as per the mode selected.

The fun part was on the following day at the newly built 2.5km Taebaek Racing Park, nestled in a valley a short drive from the Kangwon hill resort. We were given a free rein on the cars we wanted to drive and naturally we made a beeline for the Optima turbo. Never mind that we won’t see this model in Malaysia but we were not leaving Korea without enjoying the power this Optima had to offer.

Again, we didn’t have free run of the circuit as we took to the track in groups of five with a pace car leading the way. We had three laps with each car taking turns to follow the pace setter on each successive lap. As the circuit drive was conducted at pretty quick speeds, we could explore the limits of the Optima and came away reasonably elated.

As only automatic transmission cars were provided for the circuit drive, we selected Sport mode as advised. However, we used the steering wheel paddle shifters during the second lap to gauge the car’s dynamic qualities through the corner by holding higher engine speeds in second and third gears.

The computer did a reasonable job of holding the gears above 4000rpm in Sport mode and although we pushed the engine to more than 5000rpm by using the paddle shifters, it didn’t help much in the grip levels. The Optima turbo, like the other Kia models made available for the drive and circuit experience, was running on Nexen tyres although it had the bigger 225/45 R18 option.

Bearing in mind that the Optima is meant to be an executive car with a suspension layout tuned for comfortable driving - although we suspect the Optima turbo had slightly firmer springs - it took the respective corners with varying cambers and sharpness well. Body roll was not excessive for the speeds that we pushing the car through (between 50 and 100km/h as per the corner tightness).

We could feel the understeer more when using the paddle shifters as we were entering the corner a little quicker than when using Sport mode. Steering feel was not bad as we could feel the change in direction fast enough to pick the quickest line through a corner. The Optima is independently sprung all round with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link rear, with twin-tube gas-hydraulic dampers. The anti-roll bar in front is 22mm in diameter while the one in the rear is 18mm.

We were advised against taking the Optima higher than 140km/h on the sole 900-metre straight but the turbo model picked up the pace quick enough for a brief 160km/h top end before we hit the brakes for the approaching hairpin. We didn’t take the normally aspirated model for a spin as we felt that the sense of exhilaration would be missing after the hot turbo drive.

On paper, Kia says the Optima turbo accelerates to 100km/h in 7.0 seconds, 4.0 seconds faster than the normally aspirated model while its top speed is 235km/h against 202km/h. All told, the Optima scored enough points to press home its all-round quality as a car for executive motoring and that little bit of fun when one is up to it, even for the normally aspirated Optima.

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