The success that Kia, along with its sister brand Hyundai, has had in the global automotive market over the past decade is nothing short of phenomenal. If Toyota and Honda snatched customers from European and American brands in the Eighties and Nineties with their bulletproof dependability, Hyundai and Kia did it with their well-kitted and stylish cars. With design genius Peter Schreyer at the helm, the Korean duo gave buyers trendier-looking vehicles than what complacent Japanese bigwigs offered. In 2010, when the third-generation Optima came out with its flamboyant lines, it catapulted the midsize saloon from a nondescript box to one of the best-looking in the D-segment.
But things have changed dramatically. Pretty much every contender in class, from the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord to the VW Passat, have updated their looks significantly, and it will take an exceptional design to stand out from the crowd.
Unfortunately, the fourth-gen Optima doesn’t achieve that. Although Kia calls it an all-new model, there’s nothing groundbreaking or bold here stylistically, with changes to the exterior being mostly evolutionary. Despite the redesigned front fascia with the sleeker tiger-nose grille, wraparound headlights and tail lights, and more sculpted bumpers, it’s easy to mistake it for the previous model. The side profile remains pretty much the same with its raked A-pillar and the swooping roofline.
But even though the changes aren’t enough to lend it distinctive looks, the new Optima manages to remain one of the better-looking saloons on the market today. And it’s grown in every dimension, longer and taller by 10mm, wider by 25mm and with a wheelbase that’s been extended by 10mm.
Inside, the changes are more visible, with a redesigned, more driver-focused dashboard, significantly better materials, improved switchgear and obviously more attention to detail than before. The increased wheelbase and overall dimensions result in 25mm more legroom at the back, 20mm and 17mm more shoulder room, and 5.0mm and 15mm more headroom for front and rear passengers respectively. The seats are better contoured and are way more comfortable and supportive than before.
If you don’t find these changes substantial, it points to Kia having matured as a carmaker, realising the importance of going beyond visuals and focusing on fundamentals. That’s why the more significant alterations in the 2016 Optima are the ones you can’t see. Under the mildly tweaked sheet metal is a bodyshell that’s 50 per cent stronger than before, thanks to the generous use of high-strength steel. Kia also points out that 450 per cent more structural adhesives have been used in the construction. All these result in much-improved torsional rigidity and overall passive safety, making the Optima a safer option as a family car than before.
Another area where the new model has improved noticeably is ride quality, which Kia attributes to the sub-frame mounting points being moved further out front and back. These changes, along with upgraded suspension and increased lateral stiffness, have also resulted in better handling dynamics and steering response. The electric power steering itself is nicely weighted with a more precise feel and better feedback.
Although a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine is available, our GT Line spec test car is powered by the naturally aspirated 2.4-litre four-pot that’s good for 180bhp and 231Nm of torque delivered smoothly to the front wheels by the six-speed auto, which can also be controlled via the steering mounted paddle shifters.
Kia has always been known for undercutting its rivals when it comes to pricing and loading its cars with class-leading features. Things aren’t any different with the new Optima. The GT Line, packed with features like Harman Kardon audio system, as many as six airbags, vehicle stability management system, lane departure warning, blind-spot detection and warning, red leather sports seats, and adaptive xenon headlights among others, retails at Dh99,900, and the base naturally aspirated 2.0-litre model costs only Dh63,000. That makes it a heck of a lot of car for your money. And it signals a shift in Kia’s approach to new models, which places more importance on the innards of its cars rather than their looks. Japan needs to be worried.