Seoul searching

Jimmy addresses his long-running Korea crisis

JAMES WHITBOURN

COULD I be happy with a highly equipped Ė and I mean loaded Ė Korean car? Itís something Iíve long wondered, yet I always thought I knew the answer (erm, no).

But along the way things have changed.

First of all, todayís Korean car is a generally far more solid, much better handling machine that those of a decade ago. Iíve changed too.

With kids, Iíve slowed down a bit, and living in Sydneyís inner ring means I now prioritise comfort and conveniences; dynamics donít matter so much when the road is inevitably a car park.

However, I can only take this view because I not only have the luxury of a dedicated daily driver Ė the Optima Ė but also a pair of cheap, lightweight, once-were-performance cars for relief. To put it another way, if I only had one car, well, it would have to have a manual gearbox to keep me sane for starters (which, in the Optima, isnít even an option).

To recap the history of the Optima briefly, the model got relatively sexy in the 2010 transition from the second to third generation (with the arrival of a new design chief, former Audi man Peter Schreyer), but it still had little in the way of engine or dynamic appeal. This new fourth-gen model brings a GT option with turbo torque and more polished dynamics, but doesnít look quite as sharp.

A two-tiered line-up provides an appliance and a warm sedan. The $34,490Si is pitched against up-spec Camry variants, with either an internal combustion engine or a hybrid set-up. Equally as exciting as the Toyota, the Si is nonetheless very well equipped, with more than double the warranty.

Then thereís the GT you see here. At $43,990 Ė almost 10 grand more than the Si Ė it feels kinda pricey; you can have any Passat you like for less than $50K, for example.

A 2.0-litre turbo engine endows it with 180kW and 350Nm, sent to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic, and marks a big grunt improvement over the atmo 2.4-litre petrol four in the Si (and previous-gen Optimas). But those outputs arenít nearly as effective in a 1605kg sedan as they would be in something 200kg lighter (say, a Skoda Octavia RS).

Aurally, the engine doesnít inspire, which it probably should, at least a bit, in the context of the (seemingly misplaced) GT badge. And, not unexpectedly, itís seems a bit thirsty in urban driving.

The Optima steers surprisingly heavily Ė and thatís before you press the system into Sport mode Ė and the ride is firm, though not uncomfortable. The handling, meanwhile, is better than the old one, and the current-gen Si.

Iím more sold on the cabin space, build and equipment. The Optima is quiet, feels solid and is roomy in the back, and the ventilated front seats, pull-up mesh rear window blinds, reversing camera with dynamic guidelines, and intuitive infotainment and navigation systems are proving useful. However, Iíve already caught out both the autonomous emergency braking and blind-spot indicator systems without trying.

Iím quick to direct friends towards a new Kia because, if theyíre happy with the way it drives Ė which is pretty well if the Optima is any guide Ė the rest of the package is full of positives; solid build, attractive styling, wellfinished cabins, high equipment levels and, not least, a seven-year warranty.

But would I buy one myself? Iíll be a lot closer to knowing the answer at the end of six months with the Optima GT.

WORTH IT

Slightly slab-sided sheetmetal leaves the 18-inch alloys looking small, but Iíd stick with them in the name of ride comfort

KIA OPTIMA GT

Date acquired: February 2016 Price as tested: $43,990 This month: 483km @ 14.5L/100km Overall: 483km @ 14.5L/100km m

Flawed technology

Maybe Iíll eat my hat one day, but I just donít buy driverless cars (and, as a keen driver, I donít care about them). My rationale is that the driverless car canít possibly take off until driver assistance systems work flawlessly. Iíve already had the Optimaís AEB system inexplicably slam the brakes (it may have been the rubber lane dividers, or my late braking, that confused it) and the blind-spot indicator beeps at me daily when, with neighbouring cars, I turn right from the outside lane on a dual-lane road.

Eyebrow-raising fuel consumption

You may not have noticed, but since Dieselgate every time Iíve used the word Ďofficialí in the description of fuel consumption test results, itís carried the implication of a raised eyebrow. The GTís 8.3L/100km official combined-cycle figure looks good compared with a turbo-petrol Volkswagen with similar outputs and weight (and, for all their woes, VW builds efficient engines), but in my urban reality, itís been closer to 15.0L/100km so far (which really should be compared with the 12.5L/100km official urban figure).

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