Sportswagon has NZ market potential

Having recently dropped its sportiest car, Kia here is looking at introducing a Sportswagon – but it’s not quite the same thing.


WILL a performance-accented medium wagon work better in the New Zealand new vehicle market than a more fiery compact hatch managed?

It’s a question that might arise with Kia’s distributor acknowledging it is giving serious consideration to a load-all edition of the latest Optima sedan, now coming on sale here.

However, Auckland-domiciled Kia New Zealand has moved swiftly to explain that the name of the new derivative, just unveiled at the Geneva motor show and set to go into production toward the end of the year, should not be misinterpreted.

While ‘Sportswagon’ might suggest something pumped and playful, really this version is primarily about practicality.

Accordingly, if it comes here – and for now, that’s a big ‘if’ - it will not be direct-subbing for a pukka performance car, the Proceed GT, that has been recently dropped after a relatively short stay.

“You are probably reading more into the name - the Sportswagon is a wagon companion to the Optima range,” brand boss Todd McDonald said when asked to elaborate on the seriousness of his office’s interest in the smart-looking carrier – and just what kind of car it is, given that the display car seen here is the top line GT model.

Yet the GT might not be the top choice for NZ; there are also lesser models that eschew the sports-badged model’s direct-injection turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol for other Euro 6 compliant engines, a 2.0-litre CVVL petrol unit and a 1.7-litre CRDi diesel.

Still, those more mainstream models are potentially not without dynamic talent – it’s the first Kia badged car to feature a two-mode electronic variable suspension system, allowing owners to switch between normal and sport settings.

Even so, McDonald has raised doubt whether it’ll pull quite the same customer as the Proceed GT, a three-door manual hot hatchback of the same ilk as the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTi.

“No, it's a completely different vehicle,” McDonald said.

Nonetheless, he agrees the potential for a medium wagon could be somewhat brighter than it was for the Proceed, which according to NZ Transport Authority stats gathered just 42 registrations in the 22 months it was on sale here.

Even though the wagon sector has diminished, as result of a huge consumer swing to like-sized sports utilities, the Sportswagon has style its side. But there’s more to it than a handsome side profile.

The model also has an automatic transmission, which is crucial - as much as anything, the Proceed GT appears to have paid a high price for only being available in manual.

“There is a very limited market for a three-door sports vehicle with a manual transmission,” McDonald said.

“The market for any vehicle with a manual transmission only is very small. Automatics are preferred by the vast majority of buyers today.”

Kia NZ has no concrete commitment to Sportswagon. It simply says it is studying the car’s potential. There’s no pressure to make a decision.

“It doesn't go on sale in Europe until the fourth quarter of 2016 and it's too early to predict when it would be available for other markets,” McDonald says.

Whereas some other Kia product has come to New Zealand from Slovakia, this model will be sourced out of South Korea.

If Sportswagon does gain admission, it would be sold as a full member of the Optima family here however “it's positioning would largely depend on specification availability and pricing.”

However, he concedes it does win with him in respect to its design.

“The Sportswagon is a winner on style and practical features alone, and we will be giving it strong consideration.”

Among its features are pop-up sliding luggage rails to secure individual items that are likely to slide or roll around the cargo area. A low, flat boot lip and a Smart Power Tailgate that opens the boot automatically when the Optima’s smart key is in close proximity to the tailgate allow owners to load heavy items easily.

Highly versatile 40:20:40 split-folding rear seats are standard, so that longer outdoor equipment can be slid through the central seat, while two rear passengers still sit in comfort.

Among safety features is something also expected to be seen on the sedan; a short and long range autonomous emergency braking system that operates at closing speeds of up to 80kmh and has city, urban and pedestrian modes. The wagon also has a forward-facing camera that reads speed limit signs and displays them to the driver in the instrument cluster.

Meantime, the new Optima sedan is 10mm longer, 25mm wider, 10mm higher and offers a 10mm-longer wheelbase than its predecessor, but maintains the same front and rear overhang.

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. 

Kia says more than 50 percent of the body structure is made from advanced high-strength steel, making the Optima 50 percent stronger than before and the maker is claiming major improvements to noise, vibration and harshness levels thanks to the addition of a new under-floor cover, better dashboard insulation, refinements to engine acoustics, a more rigid frame and a cross-member bush.

The same car in Australia has emergency stop signal, hill-start assist, six airbags, vehicle stability management, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, dusk-sensing headlights, high-beam assist and a lane-departure warning system, while our neighbour’s top model adds blind-spot detection, lane change assist and a rear cross traffic alert.