2016 Kia Optima primed to pick up sales pace

The medium mainstream sedan sector is a shadow if its former self, but Kia still sees opportunity for its Optima.

NO matter how the numbers crunch, the medium sedan sector has increasingly become one of increasing desolation and despair for most contenders.

Over the past five years consumer shift to crossovers, proper sports utilities and hatches has been killing large and medium sedans: The latter sector was once good for 7000 sales per year but now reaps about half that.

The survival strategy is total reliance on fleet business, but that’s not easy street for any brand that isn’t called Toyota.

The market leader’s Camry volume has dropped, but its excellent business connections reflects in that car achieving around 70 percent of sales. It could be said that they alone dine well and all others fight over the crumbs.

Is that enough to survive? For Kia, yes. Actually, the Korean’s factory shop here doesn’t paint as pessimistic a picture of the situation as that outlined above.

Kia New Zealand believes the market condition, though rather different now than in 2011 and prior, has hit a plateau point. It also considers that recent increased activity by the Ford Mondeo, in particular, show there is still potential for ongoing survival, if not growth, for its Optima.

This thought is driving the local market positioning and make up of car whose name is surely a derivation of the word ‘optimism’.

The Hyundai sub-brand’s car is, as always, related to a parent company product, the Sonata which has been here since the start of 2015.

Even though the near-sister models have always had staggered launch cycles, this new Optima has conceivably been available to Kia NZ for some time (Australia has had it since November) but there’s no explanation as to why it has just arrived now.

Anyway, the strategy is quite different than before, with prices having been lowered, content increased and the choice reduced, with just two models, an EX and a Limited, sharing a common 2.4-litre four-cylinder and six-speed automatic.

All in order to raise the model’s stature with fleets? Essentially, yes. Well, at least from now on.

It’s a strategy that makes sense because 70 percent of all cars in the class are bought by companies. Obviiusly that’s a relatively new trend for Kia here to pick up on, because the outgoing Optima was pushed toward private buyers.

Those owners should feel ostracized going forward. Obviously, yes, they’ll continue to take your cash for an individual family car sale, but really they’re more interested in sending out an invoice for a fleet deal.

Hence why the brand’s presentation set out to show how attractive this model is for business: To the point where the new sticker prices - $45,790 for the EX and another $3200 for the Limited – seemed secondary to the lease prices they allow: From $608 on a 36 month/45,000km for the EX.

So what’s new? A bodyshell that maintains styling similarity with the old car, but is a touch larger, and platform are. Not so the powertrain. This carries over from the old car but with degraded outputs and economy - 138kW and 241Nm now against 142kW/ 242Nm previously (and 8.3 litres per 100km against 7.9) result from changes requisite to it meeting the next-step Euro Six emissions standard.

Where’s the more involving turbocharged 2.0-litre that Hyundai offers as a Sonata flagship temptation? It is available to Kia (the Australian-market Optima has it) but has been sacrificed to make a saving.

NZ boss Todd McDonald reckons buyers – in the main being businesses – won’t be keen on the service intervals: 7500km or six months versus 15000km or 12 months for the older, less engaging 2.4. When it comes to the bottom line, there’s no place for performance excitement apparently.

That might seem ironic, given that the one competitor McDonald upholds as a good example of ‘how to’ survivability in this fraught sector is a car that has always been traded positively on the strength of its dynamics.

However, Kia’s boss reckons the Mondeo has been able to claim extra sales of late more because it has achieved high visibility to fleets through being a good value-for-money proposition offering decent residual values. Strengths he suggests the Optima will build on, too.

Anyway, down to business: The EX is the front-runner for general employee space in the company carpark whereas the Limited – with its sunroof and leather trim - is more for middle to top level management. They say. When you consider the kit, it does seem to be be the better buy for all and sundry.

McDonald figures the general Optima appeal is that it has more features than any equivalent competitor; though there’s a small print caveat in that statement. When they’re talking Mondeo, for instance, it’s the mainstream Trend and Ambiente they’re referring to, not the Titanium which has even more kit than the Kia models: Albeit at a higher price.

Anyway, Korea’s car now offers autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, Adaptive cruise control, sat nav, HID headlamps, cornering lamps, high beam assist, front fog lights, navigation and a smart key in EX form. The Limited adds in blind spot detection, lane change assist, ventilated front seats, tyre pressure monitoring system, a wireless phone charger and its navigation system upgrades to a bigger screen.

Is that enough to tear you away from a Camry, Mondeo, Volkswagen Passat, Holden Malibu, Skoda Octavia, Nissan Altima, Mazda6 or Sonata?

Potentially, it’ll count more than the dynamic side. We didn’t do anything too adventurous in the Optima – basically, our host ran gave us 90 minutes’ wheel time; not really enough to break out of the Auckland urban area. So it was mainly driving motorway and city streets for the first taste.

Some might say that’s the environment in which it will feel most at home. I’m not so sure.

True, it doesn’t impart immediate impression of being an especially athletic car. A Kia spokesman here sought to claim 0-100kmh in around 7.1 seconds, but Australia has the same engine and cites 9.2s. That’s how it feels.

There is potential for driving fun because once again Kia has used the services of its Australian suspension tuning people. In the past their ANZAC spring and damper mixes, being generally firmer than the factory’s, have delivered some good result. And this time, too, the car divests its silly Flex Steer – that allows the driver to self-adjust the power steering assistance. That’s a good thing.

Kia says more than 50 percent of the structure is made from advanced high-strength steel, making the Optima 50 percent stronger than before, and they’ve added autonomous emergency braking with City, Urban and Pedestrian modes as standard across the range. An Australasian NCAP crash test has yet to be staged. The maker is expecting a good result.

It’s a relatively roomy car. Interior space has also grown in every area from headroom to legroom and shoulder-room and the cargo space has lifted by five litres to 510 litres with the rear backrests in place, matching – unsurprisingly - the capacity of the Sonata. 

Kia is also claiming major improvements to noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels.

As for sales volume? They’re predicting it to do a lot better than the outgoing car. Yet the predicted annual count is still just 250 units per annum. Nationally.

Like I say, it’s a small space these days.