£22,295 - £30,595 Price range
61 - 64 MPG
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.
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.
The Sportswagon’s interior is a great advert for what a combination of South Korean money and a design studio in Germany can do.
The dashboard feels well built and is extremely logically laid out. In fact, there’s a strong hint of BMW 3 Series to be found here, with a central console that angles towards the driver, and four prominent knobs that sit on either side for quick operation of the stereo and ventilation systems. It doesn’t quite have the ease of operation boasted by the Skoda Superb, but there’s not much to separate the two.
Quality is also a little off the Skoda’s high standards, but it gets achingly close. In strong sunshine, the top of the dashboard has a glossy finish that looks cheap, even if a more detailed inspection reveals it’s constructed from a high-quality squidgy material. Meanwhile, cheap scratchy plastics can be found in the lower reaches of the cabin, but unless you spend a lot of time crouched in the footwell (we’re guessing you don’t) then this is a small issue, and the switchgear operates with a slick precision that feels German in origin.
Basic Sportswagon 2 models come with a seven-inch touchscreen, while every other model gets an eight-inch version. For now, we have only sampled the latter, but its icons are clear to understand, and the wide-range of colours and clarity of graphics make it a nice thing to look at.
Whichever model you go for, all Optimas have sat nav as standard – an option in all but top-of-the-range Superbs – and it’s an easy-to-use system that can be set up in seconds. A BMW iDrive-style control with a fixed knob on the centre console would be nice to see – and easier to operate on the move – but as it’s not fitted to any direct rivals we can’t complain too much about its absence here.
Kia Optima Sportswagon passenger space
If the kids are growing up and you need a little more space than the likes of a VW Golf can offer, the Sportswagon makes for a natural step up. Even with tall adults sitting on the very comfortable front seats, there’s plenty of room for your equally large offspring behind – they’ll find loads of knee room and plenty of headroom too. It’s not as roomy as the Skoda Superb, but nothing else in the class gets anywhere close to the rear legroom it offers. You could argue that there’s no need for limo-like rear seat capacity in this class, but even if you don’t require the Superb’s space it makes it a nicer place to sit – allowing you the luxury of long and relaxing stretches after multiple hours on the road.
Storage space is also up to class standard. There’s a big glovebox, large door bins and numerous other cubbies and cupholders strewn across the centre console. Plugs are also in high supply – the front seats alone get two 12v power sockets, a USB port and an AUX socket.
Kia Optima Sportswagon boot space
The Skoda Superb looms large on the Kia’s radar when it comes to boot space, too. The Kia’s 552-litre boot sounds pretty impressive – it comfortably outshines the Ford Mondeo estate (500 litres) and Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer (540 litres) – but then the Superb’s 660-litre capacity makes them all look silly.
Moving away from the war of figures, there’s much to like about the Kia’s load bay. For starters, the load lip is small, so large suitcases can simply be slid in, and the rear seats split 40:20:40 so longer items can fit between two rear-seat passengers. All models also come with roof bars, and there’s the option to specify adjustable cargo nets and an electrically operated boot lid.
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.
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.
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. Which brings us nicely to emissions, though you’ll be glad to hear there’s no scandal here – whether you choose the six-speed manual or the seven-speed DCT, road tax doesn’t cost you more than £30.
At about £500 more than an equivalent Superb Estate, the Sportswagon’s pricing can seem a little ill-judged at first, but hover a magnifying glass over the specifications and all becomes clear. The extremely generous standard equipment list includes sat-nav, a reversing camera, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus climate control – all things that Skoda will charge you extra for, the sat-nav alone coming in at £750.
Kia Optima Sportswagon 3
With all that kit, you can understand why Kia expects Optima 2 models to be the most popular with business buyers, but there’s still much to be gained by trading up to a 3 version. They get 18-inch wheels that finish off the exterior perfectly and help the Sportswagon look more premium when combined with the body-coloured door handles, LED front fog lights and dashes of chrome.
Inside, you get powered front seats, an interior with artificial leather inserts and a high-end Harman Kardon stereo that’s loud enough to drown out the diesel’s drone under acceleration – an achievement, believe us. Additional safety features include lane assist and a Speed Limit Warning system.
Kia Optima Sportswagon GT Line S
That leaves the GT Line S model – the range flagship, a sporty looker, and the model tipped to be the most popular with private buyers. It has all manner of cool toys including a 360-degree camera that augments a bird’s-eye view of the car when parking, wireless phone charging, and air conditioned seats that, on a hot sticky day, are very pleasant indeed. And that’s just the half of it, to that lot you can add a full leather interior (this time it’s cattle-sourced), adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, keyless entry, auto-dipping headlights and a tilt-slide panoramic sunroof. Perhaps the best news is that it comes as standard with the seven-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox.
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.
With the Picanto and Rio up for replacement in 2017, along with the launch of two all-new mystery models – one of which the company’s top brass seems particularly excited about – the firm’s future couldn’t possibly be brighter.
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