Monday, 12 November 2012

The Japs and Czechs better watch out

Cruising down the highway in the morning just as the sun begins to climb over a mountain ahead. The first few rays pinch me in the eye and just as I pull down the sun visor the bright reflection of the chrome rings that encompass all the meters and dials has me thinking of the Ford Mustang. The heat begins to rise pretty quickly so I reach for the air conditioner controls at the centre console and I feel like a king.
The music system, central A/C vents and all the primary controls are already facing me much like they do in the Dodge Viper, it’s like the car is flirting with me and saying “ I'm all about you babe.” Up ahead a signal turns red and I stop next to an 18 wheeler and catch the cars reflection. The overall look of an Audi A6, the headlamps of a Honda Accord with a humongous black front grill and interiors of any American make,  but more subtle. While “The YMCA” begins to play in my head as background music, I suddenly realize that this car isn't American. Flattering upholstery and immaculate quality, but it isn't German or Japanese either. It’s Korean and it’s not a new Hyundai.
It’s from a sister car maker called Kia Motors. Kia has won over the hearts of millions world over, but remains unheard of in India. So you’re probably wondering why I’m doing a review about a car that comes from a manufacturer that isn’t even here yet. Well, I am in Muscat, Oman driving the Kia Optima, a car that could be coming to India in the next 3-5 years and attack the Accord, Superb and even the Sonata. Rumors are that Kia has already done a road test of its hatchback the Picanto, which is a good sign because Kia has a line-up that is perfect for the whims and fancies of Indian buyers. Much like Hyundai, their cars aim to provide affordable cars but throw in a fair amount of features as well.
 The 2012 Optima is a complete paradox to its previous generations. Luxury boasting used to be limited to smooth floor mats, now has features that the German power 3 would offer on cars that cost twice as much as the Optima would. This has brought about a change in the very segment that the Optima falls into.

The car is available in both manual and automatic transmissions. I managed to get my claws on the automatic. Considering how massive and heavy the Optima is, you’d expect a dull reaction, but wait till you hear what makes the leopard in sheepskin move. The drive on this car is extremely smooth and lift off is effortless.  
 The 6 speed automatic gear box is very responsive and is almost unnerving how it shifts exactly when I want it to. Gear shifts are quick and you won’t even realize when you touched 120 kph. Not a good thing if the speed limit is less than that, but always good to know that the car would serve you well if you were being chased by a T- Rex. The short gear ratios result in a 0-60 time of under 5 seconds, but that doesn't translate to heavy jerks with every shift. Behind the steering are the two flappy paddles and, I feel like a kid again. One little flick of these and I feel like smirking at Jason Statham, but then again he did drive an S8 among other cars so I draw my attention back to my Kia. 

The gearbox also comes with a sports mode. Up or downshifting is like playing a SEGA arcade game. Still not as fun as a real manual, but it is fun to use.
Never before have I driven a car that had such stability, irrespective of the speed. One hard tap at the gas pedal and the car down-shifts with a vengeance and the speedo climbs like roadrunner escaping wily coyote.

Powering the Optima is a 2.4 litre, DOHC, in-line 4 cylinder and the cherry on top is that direct injection which means extra oomph in the cylinders and boy does it show. Power output stands at 200 bhp @ 6300rpm and 190 lb. ft. of torque @ 4300 rpm. The turbo charged edition pumps out a devastatingly tasty 274 bhp. Performance isn't the primary criteria when you buy this Kia but it looks like they want us to remember the fun of driving without making us sell our soul for it, by shelling out cash of Pam Anderson hooter proportions.  The fact that this car will get around 11 kmpl is all the more astonishing, not only because of the large engine but with a host of features resulting in quite a bit of car to move.


If the Optima is launched in India it will be a car priced above the 20 lakh bracket, which obviously means that the USP of the Optima has to be luxury as it will largely be a chauffeur driven car.
Beginning with the most elementary uhhh element i.e. space. I am 6.4ft tall and a tough man to please, but for the first time in my life I almost sunk into the seat and flung my legs into the car. Let me tell you the opportunity to fling your legs into a car when you’re this big is rarer than a rickshaw with lane discipline. With the front seats pulled back to the maximum there’s still enough room to comfortably sit behind another person as tall as me. The under-thigh support is brilliant and the seats are well padded, wide and just glamorous. The head room is almost unbelievable and so is the width. It 
wouldn't be going too far to say that this 5 seater could comfortably accommodate 4 people in the back alone.

An optional panoramic sunroof enhances the ambience all the more and the cabin feels like a science centre. The boot space is almost built for your mother in-law and even if you did throw her in there she would have the time of her life. The space can fit 2-3 full size bags and if you need more room, there are 2 levers that let you put the rear seats down from the boot itself. Even inside the driver arm rest is quite large and can store a lot of stuff and of course the cup holders, sun-glass holder as well.

Obviously when you’re buying a car like this, space isn't your only criteria or you could've just bought an MUV. The Optima doesn't disappoint. As a matter of fact, this is where Kia has tried to make the Optima its game changer. It takes the trend of bringing high end car features in more affordable segments to a whole new level.

The information screen displays your average speed, fuel economy, outside temperature,range and even tyre pressure, but this is pretty common even in hot hatches these days. Being a family sedan you’re probably going to need something to make the kids shut up and they are not stingy with the entertainment system. Even on the base LX variant, Bluetooth connectivity enables you to play songs, receive and make phone calls. An Auxiliary port, USB, CD all come standard. An optional satellite radio package is also offered.


Rear parking sensors, 6 airbags, ABS, EBD, ESP, all four disk brakes and 16’ alloy wheels all come standard. In all honesty, apart from all this I feel the thing that will really keep you safe is that build quality. Everything from the chassis to the body panels and doors are durable, heavy and reassuring. Simply closing and opening the doors will tell you how heavy and rock solid the Optima is which makes it a testament to the engineering. The car is heavy yet the fuel economy figures, handling and brakes are astonishing. The EX has a few more features like a smart key, push button start, 17’ wheels, front and rear parking sensors and cameras, few more features that just add that little something to the niche.
Great features, greater space and the greatest performance make for a brilliant car, but it obviously can’t be all good.

The Optima is a complete driver’s car. The entire centre console is angled towards the driver and the rest of the car seems a bit barren in comparison. At the rear seat there isn't anything apart from the controls to the rear A/C vent and an arm rest in between.
The Optima is a very large car. It’s larger than a Mercedes C-class in fact, but the dash board rises at the driver’s end. This makes the driver’s seat like a cockpit, but your view gets very narrow because it’s squished between the dash and the sun visor to the point that it gets quite dangerous. Judgement is very important with cars as large as this and while the interior makes you happy, the poor visibility overshadows all else. The ergonomics get a thrashing because of this one aspect and will take some time getting used to. Kia also needs to include a seat height adjuster. I had no issues driving the car, but anyone below 6ft of height is going to have a hard time.  

The Kia Optima is however a brilliant car. There is no compromise on build quality and though it is a driver’s car, a few tweaks here and there could see this car winning over several Indians looking for a back seat luxury sedan. Something as simple as a remote for the entertainment system can do wonders. If the car does come to India as it is, it could see a similar fate as the Lancer and Hyundai Elantra. The problem is that with petrol prices this high, the driver’s car always seems to get rejected.

The Kia Optima is easily one of the best cars I have ever driven. It is a benchmark in the continued efforts of car makers to provide high end performance and features without the “kick-in-the-gonads” pricing.

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