Kia Optima GT needs some more kimchi

Optima GT looks the part. But what you're mostly paying for is under the bonnet: a 180kW 2.0-litre turbo engine.

Optima GT looks the part. But what you're mostly paying for is under the bonnet: a 180kW 2.0-litre turbo engine.

Back in 2003, the Los Angeles Times made the bold declaration that Koreans are often high achievers because of what they usually eat as a side-dish every day.

It's a spicy little number called kimchi, a mix of fermented vegetables (usually cabbage) and lots of garlic, ginger, and other seasonings. On average, a Korean adult will consume 50kg of kimchi annually, and the food is rich in carotene and vitamins. It is also considered one of the factors behind the low incidence of bowel cancer amongst the Korean population.

It's little wonder then that China and Japan have both tried to claim this super-food as their own by asserting that kimchi is merely a variation of dishes found in their own cuisine, and attempting to secure the international copyright for it. There probably hasn't been such an outrageous attempt at a national recipe heist since the Aussies stole the pavlova.

Speaking of recipes, Kia could have added a bit more spice to the Optima GT, a new order-only variant of the likable and accessible Korean four-door saloon. The GT lists for $53,990, five grand more than the incumbent Optima flagship, the Limited, and comes stacked with similar equipment.

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Rack-mounted motor for the GT's steering system helps handling. Alloy pedals don't, but they look nice.

Rack-mounted motor for the GT's steering system helps handling. Alloy pedals don't, but they look nice.

What the extra buys is mostly a new 2.0-litre turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder engine instead of the more introverted, unpressurised 2.4 litre four. This ups power and force outputs to a healthy 180kW and 350Nm, and the GT is definitely an Optima that's eaten its full quota of kimchi for breakfast. Torque flows freely through the six-speed automatic gearbox to the front wheels at the merest push of the go-pedal, and the GT feels more eager in every driving scenario. Steering, suspension and tyres all get upgrades to better handle the extra performance of the new powertrain.

In comes a new rack-mounted motor for the electric power steering system, retuned shock absorbers with beefier damping rates, and the 18-inch alloys of the GT come shod with quality Michelin Pilot Sport tyres of a suitably sporty width. A body kit adds a bit more pizzazz on the outside of the alpha-Optima, and the brake calipers are now painted a daring shade of red instead of less sexy grey. Alloy driving pedals are a further cosmetic upgrade that lift driver expectations without adding anything to the GT's performance.

It's a car that's dressed to impress, but can it do so when the perspective is from the driver's seat?

That depends on how easily said driver is impressed. There's nothing outstanding about the way the GT operates, but plenty to appreciate. It goes about its business like the lightly-enhanced Optima Limited that it essentially is. The French rubber goes secure it to the road more confidently as expected, and the new steering system adds extra precision to the act of cornering while not greatly increasing the agility of the car. The suspension retune does allow the front tyres to hang on a bit longer before they start to slip, but all are incremental improvements.

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The powertrain too, is still a little too polite for a car with sporty aspirations. There is a sport mode that makes the engine raise its voice a little, but the effect is ultimately a little too contrived. Best then just to enjoy this car for what it is – the Korean equivalent of either a Ford Falcon XR6 or a Commodore SV6. We'll lament the passing of those affordable Aussie large car models most, particularly as they came with chassis dynamics that felt ideally tailored to our roads. But they never were proper GTs, just driveable family cars that offered brisk overtaking qualities and weren't afraid of either decreasing-radius corners or towing the boat.

The only real difference is that what those cars did with larger capacity engines driving the rear wheels, the Optima GT does with a turbo, and leads from the front.

So, if you want a spacious saloon in the mould of the Universal Aussie Six, and equipped with 21st Century technology like the autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warnings, and blind spot monitors, the Optima GT could be the car for you. But only if you don't venture into a Volkswagen showroom first. There, you might stumble across one of the last of the Passat TSI R-line sedans available (now dropped from the NZ range in favour of a wagon-only lineup), an arguably classier offering that costs just $1000 more at $54,990. Both the Dub-ya and the Kia will do the 0-100 boogie in seven seconds and change despite the Optima GT appearing to hold the performance ascendency when comparing their brochures. And although the Kia is highly refined, the Passat is even more so.

Meanwhile, Kia should get its sports-saloon act fully together when it releases its twin-turbo V6-powered, rear-drive Stinger missile later this year. That car should be the fully-fermented, extra-garlic, kimchi GT when it arrives here in spring.

 - Stuff


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