THE tide has turned for the Korean contingent.
Once confined to the cheap and cheerful, the company has entered a brave new world.
Together with Hyundai, Kia has moved up and successfully changed buyer perceptions.
Pricing has risen but so has quality.
While the Chinese car makers have moved in to steal a slice of the bargain basement, Kia and Hyundai are stealing from the premium end of the market.
The Kia Optima is a prime example. Its good looks and specification belie its price.
Originally selling for about 37 grand, the classy sedan sold well despite supply constraints.
But an entry-level Si model was added earlier this year which undercut the Platinum model by about $6000 and it has helped propel sales growth. During June, Kia had recorded 24% improvement on sales compared to the same time last year while Optima volumes more than doubled.
Soft-touch materials across the dash, along the with fit and finish, are what we've come to expect from more illustrious Europeans.
The primarily black dash is slightly skewed towards the driver, with buttons and dials well labelled and simple to operate.
It's fast to connect your phone via Bluetooth, the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel are easy to use.
Up front there is also good allocation for the important stuff like phones and coffee cups (two holders in the centre, bottles in the doors) along with a good-sized glovebox.
Front and back there is reasonable space for adults with ample head and elbow room.
On the road
Vague steering was our biggest criticism when the Optima was first launched, and this latest model felt like there has been improvement, perhaps that's due to the Si running on 17-inch alloys (Platinum has 18s) and the tyres having larger walls.
It's still extremely light, at times lifeless, but it is probably something most drivers can live with for day-to-day travels.
The 2.4-litre petrol engine is a zesty performer with a reasonable sprint away from standstill and enough grunt for overtaking and tackling hills.
The Si retains good features, including a reversing camera built into the rear-view mirror, rear parking sensors, Bluetooth with audio streaming, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, CD player with MP3/USB port, trip computer, six airbags and stability control for a maximum five-star ANCAP rating.
A couple of sleek options come from Hyundai with the new i40 sedan ($31,990) and i45 Active sedan ($31,090), while there is also the Subaru Liberty 2.5i ($32,990), Mazda6 ($31,450), Ford Mondeo ($31,490), Toyota Camry Altise ($30,490), Honda Accord Euro ($30,340) and Volkswagen Passat ($38,990).
Four adults can be carried in comfort; five a stretch but achievable.
The child seat anchorage points are simple to access on the back parcel shelf.
Boot space is good despite having a full-size spare, and the back seats fold in a 60-40 configuration.
Insurance or servicing should be reasonable, while fuel consumption at about 8L for every 100km is what we have come to expect from four-potters.
You can spot the difference between the SI and the Platinum with the absence of LED daytime-running lights, sunroof and the lack of sports bumpers and a rear lip spoiler.
Kia has taken another big step in the right direction. The Platinum Optima was good value, but some baulked at the price.
This Si derivative maintains solid specification levels and good looks, but is much friendlier on the budget against stiff competition.
Model: Kia Optima
Details: Four-door front-wheel-drive sedan
Engine: 2.4-litre in-line four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 148kW @ 6300rpm and peak torque of 250Nm @ 4250rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with Sportsmatic-style and paddle shifts mounted to the steering wheel
Consumption: 7.9 litres/100km (combined average)
Emissions: 189g/km (combined)
Bottom line: $30,490
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