YOU can hardly escape Kia these days. From motoring minnows a generation ago, their cars are now a familiar site on our roads, thanks to fresh styling, competitive prices and seven-year warranties.
Picanto, Sportage, Cee’d and - my favourite - Rio are popular with both private buyers and company car fleets.
But there is one model which remains a motoring mystery: Optima. It’s as rare as hen’s teeth.
Why? It comes down to car snobbery, it’s the big cars which pay the price. It seems people are happy to take a chance on a less familiar brand if they’re buying hatchbacks or city cars, but less so if they are choosing a well-equipped saloon.
Maybe a Kia won’t look quite as good as an Audi or BMW in the company car market? Maybe people choosing upmarket cars are more insistant on a suitably posh badge?
Either way, Optimas are a rarity on our roads, which is a shame because it is a car with a lot going for it.
In fact, Kia is a brand on the up. It has just topped the JD Power customer satisfaction surveys in America, becoming the first non-premium brand to do so. New Sportage is out to great acclaim. And sales are rocketing as Kia slowly transforms from bargain basement to premium.
So, how exactly does Optima shape up? Well, it is far from cheap. The range starts at £21,495 and the test model is almostv £29,000, so it better be good. This is priced in Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia territory, and those are two very good rivals.
But Optima is incredibly well equipped and has the feeling of an upmarket executive car. It doesn’t quite have the style of a Sportage but it is nonetheless an attractive car.
This is the fourth-generation car and it has more space for passengers and luggage, plus a fabulous range of engines included, tested here, a 1.7 litre diesel which manages 55mpg around town and 69mpg on a run.
Ride and handling are much improved and while the cabin isn’t quite up to Audi standards, it certainly compares well to Vauxhall and Ford standards.
It is a well equipped model. This is a flagship Optima 4 so it comes with alloy wheels, chrome trim, panoramic roof, black leather upholstery, powered driver’s seat, electronic parking brake, electric windows, alloy pedals, paddle shift gear transmission and heated seats.
It also has a DAB radio with Bluetooth, parking assist systems, USB and AUX ports, reversing camera, a premium stereo with 10 speakers, anti-lock brakes, a lane assist system which buzzes when you drift across white lines and a blind spot detection system.
For me,. it’s the electronic stability control (ESC).vehicle stability management (VSM) and hill star assist control (HAC) which really mark this out as a well-equipped and premium model.
Kia say more than 80 per cent of Optimas go to fleet customers and most of those want diesel because of the tax advantages, so Optima is currently only offered as a diesel.
Sales are modest. In 2014 736 were sold and it was a similar figure in 2015 but Kia say that is down to the fact they won’t offer ‘unsustainable’ discounts to fleets.
But Kia is more optimistic about this model because it will also come as an estate. They estimate 2,200 sales this year - 500 saloons, 1,400 estates and 300 plug-in hybrids.
More versions of Optima are planned including GT and GT line models in the last quarter of this year, with the plug-in hybrid due around the same time.
Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi DCT ISG
PRICE: £28,895. Optima starts at £21,495
ENGINE: A 1,685cc diesel engine generating 139bhp
PERFORMANCE: Top speed 126mph and 0 to 60mph in 10.6 seconds
COSTS: Town 55.4mpg; country 68.9mpg; combined 64.2mpg
INSURANCE: Group 20E
WARRANTY: Seven year, 100,000 miles