DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

How far it has all come along, indeed. If, in the past, Korean cars were seen as dowdy, perceived as unimaginative and subject to the more than odd derogatory comment in passing, then surely whatever is transpiring before our eyes is, quite simply, nothing short of a revelation.

Revolution, even. Granted, it has certainly taken time for things to kick in, but you only have to look at the past two years and see how rapid things are coming on line, where the slew of offerings coming about have, one after another, sought to not just placate, but accomplish something far more radical – how about excite for a suitable adjective?

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

Whatever you may call the current Hyundais and Kias of the world, they are most certainly not dowdy, unimaginative or befitting anymore of derogatory comments. Not even if you happen to be an erstwhile Japanese brand loyalist, even though the latter will undoubtedly still be flung this way.

For Kia, the pathfinder has unquestionably been the Forte, at least on these and nearby shores. This one proved once and for all that you could get a Korean offering that had the drive to match the looks. In many ways, it has helped alter the poor perception from all this while, stuck on with some pretty nasty glue.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

The likes of the new Sorento, Sportage and Optima – all displaying the new design language set about by Peter Schreyer – are the next wave, set to capitalise on this little foothold on the beach. It is with the Optima that our story unfolds here, and what a neat little tale it has turned out to be indeed.

Continue reading after the jump.

It certainly wasn’t like that in the beginning, a decade ago. The original MS Optima, essentially a rebadged Hyundai Sonata, could hardly be called exciting; as a Jag rip-off, it wasn’t too bad, but on the whole felt like a bit like soggy toast.

The next one that came along, the second-generation MG, which arrived five years later, proved a far better proposition, and after its mid-life facelift, where Schreyer gave the car a new face, it even started to look like it was getting serious about things.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

In truth, the MG was a proper car, proper being that it drove fairly well and displayed all the necessary and appropriate manners for a sedan. In all, the vehicle was hardly a poor offering, but it wasn’t eye-catchingly good, and it never had quite enough panache to catch consumers’ attention.

Third time should be the charm, then. Designed from a clean slate at Kia’s studios in Frankfurt, Germany and Irvine, California, Schreyer and his team have come up with what really is a stunning looking car in their interpretation of the TF, which is longer, wider and lower than the one it has replaced. If the new Sonata is all about verve, and fluidly so, then the Optima plays a suitable counterfoil, its muscularity and boldness simply fetching. The grand thing is that it’s never once shouty.

Yes, you’ll find hints of the familiar – the rear lamp assy of the A4, the front shoulder of the E60 5er and a rather Saab-ish rear upper deck, but the entire amalgamation of lines hangs together so organically the profile just works.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

It looks simplistic upon initial glance, all that contouring, but you have to admire the complete manner in which the lines are so fully resolved on this one, and it takes a moment beyond the first few glimpses to realise that – witness the sculpturing from the C-pillar back on to the tail and you’ll get an idea of how the complex seems simple.

It’s quite the achievement, really, and this is a shape that will arguably have better appeal retention over a long haul than something which is dramatic and full of flourish. Schreyer says that this car looks better each time you clap eyes on it, and I’d have to say he’s spot on that dot.

The initial media drive for the car was in Dubai last year, but the Malaysian motoring press wasn’t on that one, so first dibs for us came only a couple of weeks ago, in Australia, coinciding with the Optima’s national launch Down Under. Special mention must go to Kia Motors Australia’s efficient handling of the drive event, which was held in Melbourne.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

The car goes on sale in Australia in a single variant form at this point – with a 2.4 litre Theta II GDI D-CVVT pot and what is tagged as a Platinum variant, with just about all the bells and whistles you can strap on it. It’s not too badly priced either, rolling in at AUD$36,990.

For the money, you get a whole lot of kit with the Platinum spec level, starting with the flash-bang stuff – dual exhausts with chrome tips, a black chrome two-tone front mesh grille, new front and rear bumpers, sculpted side sills, rear lip type spoiler, LED daytime running lights (located above the fog lamps, and set into the front bumper) and LED rear combination lamps, not to mention a very, very bling looking machine-finished 18-inch, 10-spoke flush-faced alloy wheel.

With the wheel, you’re either going to love it or think it’s all over the top, but the point is that with Kia now looking like it’s openly adopting the peg of being the sportier sibling of the Hyundai/Kia pairing, such a display of brazenness fits perfectly into the scheme of things. It does sit well on the car the more you look at it.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

Inside, the black interior is unfettered, and is actually quite cosseting as you spend more time in it. The centre stack instrument panel goes back to being driver-centric, contoured towards the driver at a 9.6 degree angle, and on the whole the interior projects an acceptably sporty outlook, in line with what’s happening outside. The dash also features soft-touch material, which feels great to the touch.

Standard kit on the Oz issue are full-leather seats (with 8-way and 4-way powered adjustment for driver and front passenger respectively) with cooling ventilation for the driver and seat warmers on both front seats; a four-spoke leather steering wheel with paddle shifters and function controls; dual-zone, fully automatic temperature control and a three-piece, full-width panoramic glass sunroof.

Elsewhere, there’s a six-CD changer, seven-speaker Infinity Premium Sound System, replete with a four-inch centre speaker, eight-inch subwoofer and an external amplifier, with MP3, USB, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity; cruise control and a twin-cylinder Supervision instrument cluster incorporating a 3.5-inch TFT-colour LCD screen for core information display

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

Other standard features include push-button engine start/stop, LED side repeaters, electric door mirrors, and a tailgate-mounted reversing safety camera with interior mirror display monitor as well as illuminated door scuff plates.

Safety-wise, there’s ESC, which incorporates ABS, EBD, TCS, brake assist and hill-start assist control, as well as active front headrests and six airbags (dual front, front side and full length-curtain).

The 2.4 litre gasoline direct injection block offers 198 hp at 6,300 rpm and a maximum torque of 250 Nm at 4,250 rpm (an extra 20hp and 21Nm over what’s on the MPI 2.4 litre block), working with a six-speed automatic transmission. An Active ECO system button reoptimises the ECU and transmission control unit as well as the AC’s compressor to offer better fuel economy – the company claims up to 9% improvement can be had. Performance specs include a 0-100kph time of 9.0 seconds, and a 210 kph top speed.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

The GDI lump is especially noteworthy. We won’t be getting the unit, of course, what with our fuel being what it is, but that’s our loss. In use, the unit proved willing and meaty, especially in the lower midband – it’s still a bit lazy at the start of the jump, but there’s no shortage of pull once you’ve stated your intent that you want to hustle along.

Elsewhere, front seat comfort levels are quite high over an extended duration, and the seat cooler function is quite the trick (it’s summer in Australia, so that proved a handy thing indeed) – it’d have been nice to have it for the front passenger seat as well. The boot wasn’t used except to store a picnic cooler bag, but the 505 litre trunk looks like it should pass muster for all but the most extreme cargo-carrying demands.

The Optima isn’t arriving in Malaysia until the third quarter of the year, so there’s really no information at present as to what the outfitting and specification levels will be (in likelihood, the 2.0 litre and 2.4 litre Theta II pots, in EX and SX variant guise, should be the ones, I’m speculating), but there are some things from the Aussie version that I’d argue are virtually a must for the inbound car, when it comes.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

The big ticket item here isn’t the block, which is a real kitten, nor is it so much the level of trim and kit, which is nice to have around. No, it is the revisions in the suspension that make for the deal with the Optima, revisions that make for a vastly improved – and easily perceptible – difference.

In its stock form, the Optima’s handling and ride would fall right beside that of the Sonata. Having driven the 2.0 litre Sonata here, the car represents a significant leap forward from the previous one. It’s a winsome beast with a lot of flash, but it does vacillate when it comes to handling.DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

In a straight line, the Sonata offers a firm-ish ride, arguably with a bit too much roll into corners. Nothing that’ll go amiss if you amble along, but push things and you’ll find that the front and rear don’t talk to each other, or for that matter, to the driver. Coupled to a light steering with a completely vague feel (which is of course a boon in day to day traffic, in counterpoint), one’s left with just what’s coming off the butt in feedback when charging into corners. Exhilarating, certainly, but there were moments when it was all left to faith, and faith will only take you so far.

Some reports from the Australian motoring press have been rather critical of the Sonata’s handling, working along very similar lines, and with the Optima’s standard tune being identical to the Sonata, Kia Motors Australia went about reworking that particular equation.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

Working with its local ride and handling partner, GTS, the company has come up with a revised tune that distinctly separates it from not just from its Hyundai cousin, but the same car with the global tune.

New Sachs high performance dampers, with floating pistons compared to the stock damper’s fixed ones, revised spring rates and thicker 24 mm front and 18 mm rear swaybars were plugged on, and the hydraulic steering on the car was reworked to offer a weightier feel, up by 20%.

Quite a bit of work went into achieving this – using a mobile workshop with a shock dyno, the KMA team, working with a Sachs engineer who flew in for the job, conducted around 10 rebuilds at each end of the vehicle. Dozens of test drives and more rebuilds later, the team finally arrived at the optimum damper settings, sway bar and spring rate combination.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

In use, the revised stock suspension offers an excellent balance of firmness and compliancy where ride is concerned, with the car being closer in deportment to an European offering, with enough nuggets of information coming off the steering to prevent it from being too humdrum.

Having a media test drive in Australia does present some limitations, of course; for one, I can’t tell you how things behave past the 110 kph zone, which is as fast as anyone could get to. The only negative thus far would be with the level of tyre noise which, while not jarringly intrusive, is there.

As for handling, the drive route took us well into the scenic Yarra Valley and surrounding areas, so when we could get off the beaten track and well into gravel and significantly quieter B-roads, the chance to try out if everything was as well sorted as suggested was never refused.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

The Optima responds to thug-like behaviour quite splendidly. It’s not an all-out bruiser in this regard, for sure, but the front/rear unity is solid, and the car tracks cleanly when pushed, never wavering or hesitant in the middle of things, with no fuss in the follow through. Nicely integrated, and very well sorted, there is everything to suggest that it is now the definitive form in handling (with this particular tune level), easily more than a measure for the Honda Accord, which has been the class-leading performer in that area for the segment over here.

All in all, KMA has achieved a sterling plug with the car’s R&H, and the argument is ripe that we should grab that same tune, something that was pointed out to the Naza Kia people. There’s also a UK/Europe tune, which is coming about; it’d be interesting to see how different that one is.

DRIVEN: Kia Optima 2.4 GDI sampled in Melbourne

We’ll have to wait to see how it eventually shapes up in Malaysia, but certainly, the first impressions of the Optima have revealed a car that has thrown down the gauntlet at the status quo, more than itching for a scrap (and oh, wouldn’t that 274 hp, 365 Nm 2.0 litre turbo running in the US be a right devil?).

Handsome to a fault, robust and willing, it’s definitely a revelation, and all that stands against it will inevitably be perception, here at least (the word is that it will be priced competitively, with the 2.0 in the RM140,000 region). Still, notwithstanding the local front, in the larger scheme of things, the Optima is very much proof that the revolution is not only well and truly underway, but irresistibly so.