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Preview: Kia has a hit on its hands with 2011 Optima

The 2011 Kia Optima is on display for the duration of the Canadian International AutoShow at the Metro Convention Centre.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA — Kia held a very exclusive press preview in Melbourne for the new Optima mid-size sedan (I was the only Canadian invited).

Not at all coincidentally, the Australian Tennis Open was on at the same time and Kia just happens to be a major sponsor.

Funny how these things work out.

Not that Australia needs to be anything but itself to make me want to visit. The tennis I could take or leave. What couldn’t be missed was the chance to drive the Great Ocean Road, one of the best stretches of twisty two-lane blacktop in the world.

Optima replaces Magentis in our market — I gather Kia has resolved the trademark issues it had with General Motors over the Optima name.

Optima had a somewhat unexpected and short-lived Canadian debut during the tail end of last month’s Montreal Auto Show. It is on full display now for the duration of the Canadian International AutoShow at the Metro Convention Centre.

Optima goes on sale in Canada this spring. Prices haven’t been announced, but given the car’s mechanical similarity to its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, which starts at $22,649 and tops out (with the automotive navigation system, SatNav) at $30,999, you’d have to expect it to be in that ball park.

And before you complain about Canadian vs. U.S. prices, understand that this car runs $36,990 Australian dollars and the Oz buck is about dead-on par with both the Canadian and American dollars.

Now, down here, Optima only comes in the so-called “Platinum” trim, i.e., loaded with everything except, interestingly, SatNav. The closest comparable Sonata is the Limited at $28,999, so suck it up; someone is worse off than you.

One thing you can learn from an event like this is how a car company is viewed by journalists from other countries.

Okay, maybe you don’t care — you’re only going to drive the car in Canada. But I was paired here with José Clopatofsky, the leading automotive journalist in Colombia. From his perspective, Kia is trying to be more of an international company, while corporate sibling Hyundai seems to be aiming more at the American market.

A friend of mine once commented, upon seeing the old and somewhat ungainly “Amati,” Kia’s first attempt at a sort-of-luxury car: “I guess Kia can only afford to hire the tenth-placed graduate of the Art Centre School of Design.’’

Very perceptive.

Today, Kia makes a Big Deal about having pirated away Peter Schreyer from the Volkswagen group to be its Chief Design Officer.

Very good idea.

Like all new Kias, Optima is striking, yet restrained — quite European — while I agree with José that Sonata is more flamboyant, aiming for the more extroverted American customer.

Optima had been unveiled in Australia just days before my drive, but lots of people knew what it was and would cast admiring glances its way.

Those who didn’t know what it was typically said: “That’s a KIA??!?’’

It didn’t hurt at all that my tester was painted “Santorini Blue,’’ an extra-cost ($450 AUS) gorgeous deep blue metallic that just glows.

I particularly like the wheels on Optima, looking like they came straight off an Auto Show Concept Car. We’ll get them back home, too — lucky us.

Schreyer couldn’t have spent all those years at VW and Audi without learning something about interiors. Optima’s again is very stylish, and — an indication of just how far the Koreans have come — very nicely built from what appear to be quality materials.

There’s only one interior colour choice — well, a non-choice: it’s black.

Again, very European.

But several luxury touches add some flair, especially at night, when low-level red mood lighting creates a peaceful ambiance.

The seats are big, comfortable yet supportive, and lushly trimmed in leather, which manages to be grippy in quick driving.

Loads of room front and back, and a big trunk too.

Right-hand drive, of course.

Some manufacturers just cut-and-paste the left-hand-drive steering column over to the “wrong” side of the car; others mirror-image-flip the control stalks.

Kia does the latter, so every time I wanted to signal a turn I flipped on the wipers; when it started to rain, I signaled a righty.

Three days in and I still hadn’t completely “converted.” I only walked to the left side of the car a couple of times to get in, though, and did manage to stay on the left side of the road.

The Aussie Optima comes with only the 2.4 litre direct injection gasoline four cylinder engine (Kia calls it GDI).

In Canada, Optima (and Sonata, too) will also get a turbo and (a bit later this year) a Hybrid.

The GDI is rated at 200 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque, about the same as our Sonata.

The main benefit of direct injection is more complete combustion, hence more power on less fuel (DI is one reason why Diesel engines are so thrifty).

The main downside is engine noise. But you really only notice this in the Optima should you step outside the car while it’s idling, or if someone else is driving the car nearby.

Down here, Optima is only offered with a six-speed automatic with steering column-mounted paddle shifters.

The 0 — 100 km/h time is given as 9.0 seconds, which (a) doesn’t sound very fast, and (b) is a lot slower than the car feels on the road.

Throttle response is crisp, and you can massage the transmission as your mood strikes you.

Despite the authorities’ Draconian efforts to remove all the fun from driving down here, Aussies still like their cars to handle.

So Kia Australia brought down a senior engineer from the German Sachs company, which manufactures the shocks and struts for Optima’s MacStrut front/multi-link rear suspension, to work with internal staff and a consulting engineer to find the right combination of damper, sway bar and spring rate settings.

Said Senior Product Manager Nick Reid: “We completed dozens of test drives, and rebuilt the shocks 20 times’’ before finding the ride/handling balance they sought.

I’d have to drive theirs and ours back-to-back to comment definitively. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those tests were conducted on the Great Ocean Road, because it sure worked well out on it.

The hydraulically-assisted steering (no electric system yet) is decently weighted, and the front-drive car responds well.

Understeer is minimal; the full complement of chassis electronics is on hand to bail you out if you over-cook it.

Failing that, a strong structure, airbags all over the place, and those lovely active headrests that should be standard on every car but aren’t will help mitigate the damage to your personage.

There’s not much doubt in my mind that Kia has a hit on its hands here. As Japanese mid-size sedans seem to be striving to be ever more bland and forgettable, Kia (and Hyundai too, it must be said) are really stepping up, delivering products with comparable features, performance and — yes, quality — with excellent warranties, at good prices, although they’re no longer necessarily low-balling everyone in sight.

What Kia has to do is to get prospects to put its larger cars on their shoppers’ radar screens (most people get it that Kia is a good option in the smaller segments).

Kia knows this. The company is expending great effort to put the brand name on the map, to establish a positive brand identity, and to raise the residual values so customers don’t end up — well “upside down” (owing more than the car is worth) in their cars after a year or two of ownership.

Kia also knows it won’t happen overnight, at least not for everybody.

All it can do for the moment is build the best cars it can, and wait for the world to beat a path to its door.

The new Optima is a large step toward that goal.

Travel was provided by the automaker for freelance writer Jim Kenzie.

jim@jimkenzie.com

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