The car market used to be so much easier to understand. You used to be able to make a brand table that looked like a ladder, with value brands at the bottom and premium brands at the top. As a manufacturer you either made a lot of cars and sold them for less profit per unit or you built smaller numbers of more expensive, more exclusive cars, for wealthier individuals, on which you made more money on each car.
The German premium brands including BMW and Mercedes-Benz made large cars for wealthy people. Ford and Vauxhall made average cars for average people. Then Japan entered the market and sold cheaper cars. Then they sold cars that were more expensive because they were made well. Then they introduced rival luxury brands Lexus and Infiniti. Then Audi sold gazillions of expensive premium cars at an enviable profit. Then Korea came along and built and sold some of the cheapest cars of all, cheaper cars that didn’t look great and which weren’t always that great to drive.
But now the Koreans are making really good-looking little cars with a market-leading warranty and which are sold at a great price. And trying to work out “who goes where” in terms of brands is getting trickier and tricker.
So if you’re in the market for a decent car at a decent price what do you buy? Ford, Kia, Vauxhall? What do these brands mean to you? What do these brands stand for? I find that difficult to answer and I’m supposed to know.
Nothing is off-limits, everything is in flux. The premium brands are building small cars as well as large ones; value brands are selling whopping leather-lined SUVs as well as tiny city cars. Kia is known for its small cars, cars like Picanto and Rio, which have been so successful in Europe. But now it’s also bringing over its large Optima saloon, which has been super-successful in the US. That it’s been such a barnstormer over there probably won’t resonate much to us, because we know that Americans have so little appreciation of quality that they eat Pop Tarts. Which means we’d be right to be cynical. Seriously how can the Kia Optima be any good? Erm... Actually, yes, it is. Calling it class leading may be too strong but it’s certainly good enough to poach sales from some of its competitors.
The exterior design of the Optima is striking. It is contemporary and quite elegant. This is something of a “wow” car in the sense that I lost count of the amount of people stopping to confirm that the car they were looking at was a Kia.
The interior quality is generally good. There’s leather and chrome trim and even some mood lighting. The cockpit is driver-focused, a lot like Saabs used to be. It’s also spacious and, at 505-litres, the boot is big.
We were driving the 1.7-litre CRD diesel-powered Optima, which is the only option on sale. This turbo diesel engine somehow manages to be both powerful enough (at 134bhp) and very frugal (64.2mpg combined). The Optima is satisfactory rather than exciting in terms of how it drives as it doesn’t have the most powerful engine. But the handling is good and the car is troubled by little wind and road noise. At times, however, the diesel engine can sound a little tractor-like and, foot-down, the engine takes a beat to pick up; not quite as refined as its overall aspirations.
For people who aren’t shopping in the premium car segment, the Kia Optima is as good a car as they’ll need. The pioneering seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty means it’s a safe bet as well as an attractive proposition. If you drive one away, you can feel extremely smug that you’re driving a good car that offers great value for money.
THE FACTS: KIA OPTIMA
0-60MPH: 10.2 secs
TOP SPEED: 125mph
CO2 G/KM: 128g/km
MPG COMBINED: 64.2mpg
VALUE FOR MONEY ****