Kia Optima SportsWagon review
Without a hatchback or estate to appeal to us practical-minded Brits, the Kia Optima has been battling rivals such as the Ford Mondeo estate, Skoda Superb estate and Vauxhall Insignia SportsTourer with one hand tied behind its back. But the arrival of the Optima Sportswagon changes that.
What's not so good
Kia Optima SportsWagon: what would you like to read next?
As with the saloon it’s based upon, the Sportswagon is a handsome looking machine. There’s a touch of Volkswagen Passat to the front end, as well as more than a hint of Lexus to the flanks and rear. It arguably doesn’t quite have the looks of a Skoda Superb – the best large family car currently on sale – but a straw poll at the launch revealed that to be very much a minority opinion.
What it definitely can’t match the Skoda for is space. With a 550-litre boot and plentiful rear legroom, the Optima has lots of it but not quite the palatial capacity of the Superb. Anyway, Kia says that outright space wasn’t an absolute priority, suggesting that the Sportswagon’s more svelte looks came at the price of a boot that’s a substantial 108-litres short of the one you’ll find in the Skoda.
The Kia’s also short on engines – there’s only one, a 1.7-litre diesel. It’s from the excellent Sportage and is OK but not great. It’s fine if you just want to get from A to B burning as little diesel as possible – perfect for fleet buyers – but people looking for decent performance and refinement will find it falls behind the best in class. A shame because the Sportswagon handles so well it deserves better.
To take your mind off the engine seek out the warm embrace of the generous standard equipment list, which includes sat-nav, a reversing camera, climate control, cruise control and connectivity via Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
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The launch of the Sportswagon was a buoyant affair festooned with Kia PRs wearing ear-to-ear smiles. Why? Well, the Sportage has been unbelievably popular in the UK – the company’s shifted 12-months worth of sales in just four – and the launch of the Niro Hybrid was so well received Kia UK doubled its allocation overnight.
So few would have doubted that the Sportswagon would be very good. Sure a Skoda Superb’s bigger, but the Kia hits back with lots of equipment and a more responsive drive. Just the diesel’s lacklustre performance sticks out like a sore thumb.
Out on the road you soon discover the Sportswagon’s smart looks are backed up by a healthy dollop of substance – it’s one of the best-driving cars in the class.
A Mazda 6 might be a tiny bit sharper to drive, but the Kia feels really well sorted
For a car like the Sportswagon, which must handle a wide spectrum of needs, a range of just one engine is a real Achilles heel. Things wouldn’t be so bad if the 139hp 1.7-litre diesel was a peach, but it isn’t. Driven at a normal pace things aren’t too bad, you soon adapt to the engine’s willingness to stall at slow speeds and there’s power enough to keep up with – although not necessarily overtake – lines of traffic. Slot into sixth at 55mph and the Optima will happily lumber around with minimum stress.
The real issue comes when you ask for more than that because, in truth, there isn’t much more to give. Revving the engine to within an inch of its life extracts little more in the way of forward motion, but produces a lot of extra noise. The cars we drove had just a few hundred miles on them – some loosening up might do the world of good – and, we must admit, the official 0-62mph time of 9.8 seconds doesn’t sound too terrible.
Far from terrible, the car’s running costs are pretty frugal. Kia reckons nearly 65mpg is possible and, in our experience, its figures are based on an element of truth in a way, dare we say, VW’s are not.
Perhaps the most impressive element is the ride that – on the launch day’s smooth German roads, at least – was extremely comfortable, taking the worst out of a variety of bumps, no matter the speed. It may not have the creamy float of a Superb, but nor does it suffer from the Skoda’s propensity to feel unnervingly detached from the road.
And the Kia’s ability to feel pinned down yet comfortable really pays off when you up the pace. The steering lacks feel – true of every car in the class, really – but it’s consistently weighted and accurate so that cutting through corners can really be enjoyed and there’s no excessive lean to worry about.
Anyway, the worry you save there is better channeled towards a more worthy target – the 1.7-litre diesel engine. The only conventional engine available in the range, it’s the weakest element of the car being noisy, slow and eager to stall.
The latter two of these issues can be resolved by opting for Kia’s excellent seven-speed, twin-clutch gearbox. With it fitted, you don’t have to shuffle through the gears like a lunatic to keep the engine on the boil, and it also deals with the stalling issue.
The Sportswagon’s interior is a great advert for what a combination of South Korean money and a design studio in Germany can do.