Cars: Kia comes up with Optima balancing act
Estate easy to take for granted
The older I get, the more I realise the influence some small things had on my life. For instance, I once had a Hillman Avenger estate. I've had bad cars in my time, but this only came second to the Triumph 1300 that seized up three weeks after buying it. Yet the Avenger was to cost me more because it had an unquenchable thirst and a remarkable ability to break down when I most needed it.
I never drive an estate without thinking of that accursed green garage-bills-on-wheels, and the lessons I've taken with me ever since.
One of those lessons was that it is easy to be impressed by one outstanding attribute in a car to the detriment of others.
In the case of the Avenger, room and space meant everything to me at the time - I had great need of both. Indeed, I had enough room to land a small plane in its luggage compartment. Unfortunately, I couldn't trust the other end of the car to fulfil its obligations. It was a lesson in balancing priorities (I haven't bought an estate since).
Nowadays, estates are called different things - station/sports wagons - and are far less led by the occupational need for cargo space.
Indeed, they are more often than not the vehicles of lifestyle choice where priorities such as ability to carry paddles, canoes, several golf bags (of course), etc are balanced with smart looks, economy and passenger room.
The Kia Optima SW I drove recently is a good example of the degree of balance now brought to the menu. I can't say it is an outrageously good example of nouveau design. I do stand in something of a minority on this: several people liked the look of it a lot. They felt it outshone the Hyundai i40 estate - with whom it has strong, familial ties.
Be that as it may, I found it to be a large, roomy and robust motor. As I suspected from the start, it is the sort of car you take largely for granted, because while it doesn't do anything earth-shatteringly brilliant, it doesn't dip below high levels of decency either. That's called balance.
I think the cabin is such an improvement. And the sort of materials they used in my test vehicle - thankfully just the one EX trim level to avoid confusion - suggests carmakers generally are realising just how high standards are rising across this family/fleet sector in particular.
It was probably my own fault, but I never quite got my seating-vs-steering wheel reach just as I'd like it, despite trying every adjustable combination.
Don't get me wrong. I was nice and comfortable - the seats are worth mentioning for their breadth and support - but I found myself slightly altering my settings every time I got in to drive. Why, I don't know.
And it got a lot of driving, much of it in stodgy city traffic, a decent proportion on motorway, and more again on ordinary roads.
Boy did we have plenty of room and the long, deep luggage area seemed to swallow up several cases, some shopping and the gym-kit bag.
The most pleasant surprise, perhaps, came with fuel consumption - an important consideration as these cars tend to put up decent mileage. The 1.7-litre diesel is a long-lived derivative and drives many a Kia. It seemed perfectly at home under the Optima EX's bonnet. I covered 654km with the little on-board computer telling me I had 373km still in the 70-litre tank when I was finished. That's 1,000km+ on one fill or, by my calculations, a litre every 14kms. Excellent. And, believe me, I drove it perfectly normally which, in my case, meant shoving it hard for the first three or four gears. Which, of course, is the wrong thing to do because that's when an engine is hardest on fuel. But it was that sort of week; other times I might be a little less urgent.
Overall, I'd have no problem owning or buying an Optima estate; yes the seven-year warranty would certainly be a factor. I'd buy it for its solidity, frugality, space, looks, level of equipment - in that order.
It's not nerve-tingling exciting - there is no great edge to its handling and ride as there can be, for example, with the Skoda Superb. But it would be grossly unfair to dismiss it on that basis because people don't necessarily want mega verve in their estates - though a tauter set of springs and dampers would do a lot for it.
The Optima is all about balancing priorities. On balance, therefore, I can say it's well worth a look for the non-SUV lovers among you. I've driven enough estates to recognise a decent one when I see one.
FACTS & FIGURES
Kia Optima Sportwagon EX, 1.7-litre diesel, 141bhp, 4.4l/100km (61mpg), 113g/km (€200 road tax). Price: from €29,950. Remember delivery/related charges are extra.
Standard spec includes automatic cruise control/speed limiter, dual-zone air con, auto/cornering lights, 7ins satnav/TomTom Wi-Fi, android auto, 18ins alloys, auto wipers, parking assists, rear power outlet/USB, luggage side partition, seven-year warranty, 70-litre fuel tank. Panoramic sunroof optional.