We’ve added a Kia Optima Sportswagon to the MR long-term fleet. Should you consider one for your next company car? We’re finding out…
Wagons are cool, right? There’s a definite trend towards practicality among new car buyers in the UK. Just look at the success of crossovers, and we’re increasingly buying more estates than conventional D-segment saloons.
But, until now, Kia has never sold an estate version of its Mondeo-rivalling Optima. And that might go some way towards explaining why it’s never sold particularly well.
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Having cashed in on its seven-year warranty and exceptional value for money, Kia (along with sister brand Hyundai) is gradually attempting a move upmarket. When it revealed its Sportspace concept, it was clear change was on the horizon.
Not only was the Optima-previewing concept absolutely drop-dead gorgeous (something the Optima has never previously been), it was also shooting brake in shape.
When Kia revealed the new Optima at Geneva 2016, it was no surprise, then, to see an estate (or ‘Sportswagon’ in Kia terminology – SW for short) in the line-up. In fact, the firm says it expects around three quarters of all Optimas sold in the UK will be the wagon.
The new Optima SW certainly looks the part, but should you buy one over a rival such as the Ford Mondeo or Skoda Superb? We’re spending six months putting it to the test.
Report 2: everything we rate (and hate) about life with the Kia Optima SW
I’ve done a lot of miles in the Kia Optima since I introduced it to the MR long-term test fleet. I could write a lengthy piece about how good it was for driving to Wales for Christmas duties (hence the picture of it looking filthy above), how a Nordic Fir slotted into the boot and how it copes brilliantly with the daily grind, but you probably know all that. So I thought I’d do one of those trendy listicles about what I like and dislike about the Optima SW.
Good things about life with the Kia Optima SW
The seats are brilliant
OK, it might sound like a silly, minor thing. All cars have relatively comfortable seats, right, especially if you spend more than £30,000 on the top-spec leather-trimmed GT-Line variant? Well, yeah, but I eternally find myself aching after a long stint in pretty much any Volkswagen Group product (I think I’m the wrong shape for German seats). In the Optima, I’m as fresh as the proverbial daisy even after a slog of several hundred miles.
My mates like it
Yeah, this is an odd one. I’m a 20-something car writer type whose mates should appreciate Civic Type Rs and other hooligan specials. But, without fail, they love being driven about in the Optima. That’s probably because it feels safe and I don’t even bother trying to drive it fast. Also…
The sound system is really good
I’m no audio snob, but all grades of the Optima SW from the ‘3’ up feature a Harman Kardon sound system. The speakers (eight in total) do a commendable job of mimicking a premium car’s sound system. Combine this with Spotify through my phone (we’ll come onto that shortly…) and the Kia becomes a mobile disco.
The gearbox is slick
While rivals such as the Mazda 6 and Vauxhall Insignia stick with conventional automatic gearboxes, the Kia Optima gets a more upmarket dual-clutch transmission. This makes for faster gear changes – and it works brilliantly. Just don’t bother with ‘eco’ mode unless you’re motorway cruising (another thing I’ll come onto shortly).
It looks great
Finally, look at it. This doesn’t look like a downmarket offering – it attracts loads of admiring glances, especially in Temptation Red. While I’m not sure about the chintzy grille, the rest of it looks great – particularly from the rear.
Bad things about life with the Kia Optima SW
It likes a beep
Turn the ignition on without putting your seatbelt on and it beeps. Run low on washer fluid and it beeps. Drive in cold conditions and it beeps. Stand near the boot and it beeps (before the electronic tailgate, standard on the GT-Line S, starts opening). I find beeps infuriating yet Korean and Japanese cars love them.
The reversing camera gets muddy easily
At this time of year, cars get filthy pretty quickly. Normally I’m the sort who doesn’t bother cleaning their car over winter (what’s the point when it gets dirty again so soon), but the Optima’s reversing camera (standard on all models) and clever 360-degree around view monitor (standard on the GT Line S) means I’m having to clean the Optima almost weekly. The cameras get covered in the dirt extremely easily, and there’s no washer system like on some models.
The steering is too light
No, I don’t expect super-direct steering, but the Kia Optima’s steering is so light just keeping it on the straight ahead is a bit of an effort. Feedback is non-existent, while putting in sports mode makes things heavier but not particularly communicative. Talking of which: sports mode holds onto the revs for too long, while eco mode is frustrating – roundabouts particularly (“are you sure you want to pull out rapidly,” the car says, “think of the trees!”). Why can’t I have ‘normal’ mode with slightly heavier steering?
It has a puncture repair kit
I recently got a puncture in the Optima. I can’t really blame the Kia for that, but I can blame it for having a rubbish ‘tyre mobility kit’ that only worked long enough for me to limp seven miles to my nearest ATS Euromaster. Said ATS Euromaster were too busy to fit me in for a couple of days, meaning I had to abandon the Kia in their car park and get the train. Give me a full size spare any day.
There’s no Apple CarPlay… yet
I’m a huge fan of Apple CarPlay, and if I was a company car driver looking for an estate car to cover long distances, CarPlay would be high on the list of priorities. Curiously, the Optima Sportswagon is available with Android Auto but not Apple CarPlay. It’s on its way, apparently, but I do miss it on our long-termer.
Introduction: Kia Optima SW 1.7 CRDi GT-Line S estate
Car company bosses often seem ashamed to admit that they’re targeting company car drivers with a new model. The suggestion that private buyers won’t be stumping up their own cold, hard cash upfront for a car is frowned upon.
Kia’s different. It accepts that business users make up the vast majority of buyers in this segment – no one buys a new Ford Mondeo for themselves. More than 80% of Optima buyers will be business users, and that’s why it’s kept things simple, offering just two efficient engines.
You can pick from a 1.7-litre diesel (emitting 113g/km CO2, meaning 19% company car tax), or a plug-in hybrid (37g/km CO2). There’s no petrol, for now – although a high-performance GT is set to follow in 2017.
We’ve opted for the diesel and, out of the four models on offer, we’ve chosen the top-spec GT-Line S. This comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox as standard (resulting in a rise in emissions to 120g/km). With a £30,595 price tag, is it an overpriced Korean estate or a genuine premium go-getter?
First impressions suggest this could be the car for shedding Kia’s ‘Asda Price’ image – it’s absolutely loaded with kit. Highlights include 18-inch alloys, an openable panoramic sunroof and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system incorporating sat-nav and Android Auto connectivity (but not Apple CarPlay, yet). It even has a wireless phone charger.
Oh, and there are plenty of comforts to make the upcoming winter months more bearable: think heated front and rear seats, ventilated front seats (er…), and leather upholstery with red stitching.
While the inside certainly does a good impression of a premium vehicle, the exterior makes many rivals look bland. With more than a passing resemblance to the concept on which it’s based, we’ve already noticed passers-by taking a second glance. That wouldn’t happen in a Skoda Superb.
Will our positive first impressions continue as we spend more time with the Kia Optima? We’ll be living with it for six months to find out.
Figures released today reveal that 2016 was yet another record year for the new car market, with registrations up 2.3% compared to 2015. Over the year, some 2,692,786 cars were registered in the UK. But it’s not all good news as the organisation behind the stats, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), says we could be in for a rocky ride in 2017.
Still, if you are thinking about buying a new car this year, it might be wise to read one of our reviews before parting with our cash. These are our verdicts on Britain’s top 10 best-selling cars.
- Revealed: Britain’s top 20 best-selling cars in 2016
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Initials: AB (Andrew Brady), SC (Sean Carson), PB (Peter Burgess), JR (John Redfern), RA (Richard Aucock), TP (Tim Pitt).
10. Audi A3: 43,808 registrations
The AudI A3 remains the premium hatchback of choice, with more than 40,000 registrations in 2016. It helps, of course, that there’s no fewer than nine A3s to choose from, plus the introduction of a fire-cracking RS3 saloon in 2017.
Audi revamped its most popular model in 2016, giving it a new face and a pair of new TFSI petrol engines. Prices start from £19,365, but you’ll pay at least £40,670 for the S3 Cabriolet.
Audi A3: what we said
“It’s not the sort of car that necessarily appeals to the heart, but the A3 is a really well-polished contender in the popular premium C-segment. There are body styles to cater for everyone: three- and five-door hatches (the latter a ‘Sportback’ in Audi lingo), a cabriolet and even a saloon.
“Buy one (or, perhaps more likely, consider one as a company car), and you’ll be treated to the best interior in its class, a plethora of new tech to keep the iPhone generation happy, and sensible running costs. If you’re a keen driver, though, you might want to check out the BMW 1 Series.” AB
9. Mercedes-Benz C-Class: 44,181 registrations
It’s not hard to find evidence of the popularity of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Simply head along the M4 corridor during rush hour and every other car appears to be a C-Class. It’s the only compact executive car to appear in the top ten.
Prices start from £28,545 for the saloon, but you can also opt for an estate, cabriolet and coupe. Oh, and let’s not forget the bonkers AMG versions.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class: what we said
“The 2014 Mercedes-Benz C-Class firmly bats the ball back into BMW’s court. Appealing styling, a high quality interior, myriad clever systems and a much improved driving experience means the Merc gets closer to the 3 Series than ever.
“As we said, it can’t ultimately match it dynamically, but in most other areas the C-Class bests the BMW. With prices starting at £26,855, it’s around £300 more expensive than the equivalent 320i SE, but that’s really not that big a difference. Honours even on price, then.” SC
8. MINI: 48,328 registrations
Sixteen years since the launch of the first BMW MINI rolled off the production line at Plant Oxford, it remains as popular as ever. More than 48,000 registrations in 2016 represented a commendable rise from the 47,076 registrations in 2015.
Adding a five-door version to the range was a stroke of genius, while sun-seekers can order a new MINI Convertible. Back in February, we flew to Los Angeles to try it out. Life can be tough…
MINI Convertible: what we said
“Logic tends to pay only a minor part in buying a car like this. No one needs a convertible, but if they want one, it had better look good. The new MINI Convertible certainly hits that target. It may be indistinguishable to some from the earlier versions, but that’s no bad thing. The design is timeless.
“And there is lots more to entice buyers who want just a bit of logic in their decision. The additional space for passengers and luggage is very welcome, there’s plenty of pleasing touchy-feeliness about the MINI, and as always, it’s great fun to drive.” PB
7. Volkswagen Polo: 54,448 registrations
Objectively, the Volkswagen Polo is one of the best superminis you can buy. It might not be the most exciting car on the planet, but it’s favoured by those who put safety, practicality and dependability at the top of their list of priorities.
Surprisingly, it’s also cheaper than the ever-popular Ford Fiesta, with prices starting from just £11,635. Even the desirable Polo Match comes in at £13,070, while the Beats special edition could be yours for £14,020.
Volkswagen Polo GTI: what we said
Our very own John Redfern is a fan of the Volkswagen Polo, and he added a Flash Red GTI to his fleet in 2015. He said: “The Polo GTI has often (unfairly) had to live in the shadow of its bigger Golf brother, but I’ve always been a fan of the underdog.
“Plus, with the ever-increasing size of cars on our roads, the latest Polo GTI is virtually identical in dimensions to the hallowed Mk2 Golf GTI. Could that make for an interesting matchup?!” JR
6. Vauxhall Astra: 60,719 registrations
Once upon a time, the loudest noise you’d hear at a car rental check-in desk was the collective sigh of disappointment as the keys to a Vauxhall Astra were handed to the unlucky tourist. Today, all that has changed, as new Astra is properly good.
No surprise, then, that Vauxhall registered more Astras in 2016 than it did in 2015. LED Matrix headlights, a so-called ‘wellness’ seat and in-car wifi are just some of the features that would have been alien to Astra drivers of old.
Vauxhall Astra: what we said
“If you’re familiar with, and unimpressed by, today’s disappointingly old-Vauxhall Astra, prepare to be surprised: the new one is a huge improvement. It’s nicer to look at, nicer to drive and much nicer to sit in. With the extra infotainment tech Vauxhall’s launched on it, the new Astra can even claim sector-unique appeal.
“There’s still a bit of an image problem to overcome, but the new car’s considerable additional appeal should help enormously here. From being a meek also-ran, it’s now a much more competitive alternative to the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus – with the ability to edge them in some key areas that could sway buying decisions.” RA
5. Nissan Qashqai: 62,682 registrations
Britain’s most popular crossover is – thanks to the absence of the Vauxhall Mokka from this year’s top ten – the only one of its kind to appear on the list. It might not be the first crossover (sorry, Nissan), but in the space of a decade, the Qashqai has become the brand generic.
Subjectively, it’s no longer the best in class. We’d consider the likes of the SEAT Ateca, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage before the Qashqai. Come next year, it’ll also have the new Mazda CX-5 to contend with.
Nissan Qashqai: what we said
“A Qashqai doesn’t make for an exciting purchase, but it is a really easy-to-live-with crossover that will tick all the boxes for many families. There are more interesting rivals out there, but the Qashqai is a quality all-round package.” AB
4. Volkswagen Golf: 69,492 registrations
A top four finish puts the Golf in the same position it achieved in 2015. But read behind the lines and you’ll discover that the 69,492 registrations recorded in 2016 is around 4,000 short of 2015’s total.
The Mk8 Volkswagen Golf can’t come soon enough. Meanwhile, we drove a rather tasty Golf GTI Clubsport S…
Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S: what we said
“Realistically, we’d probably be swayed at the last minute by the Golf R and its passenger-carrying and greasy-road tackling abilities over a Clubsport S. Alternatively, if it’s a track car you’re after, £33,995 (before options) buys you a myriad of more focussed possibilities.
“But if you’re a hardcore Golf GTI fan – and can somehow get on the waiting list (good luck with that) – the Golf Clubsport S is arguably the ultimate fast Vee-dub. We’d be mighty jealous of your purchase.” AB
3. Ford Focus: 70,545 registrations
Wow. If you thought the Golf had a bad year, the Ford Focus has fallen well short of its 2015 total of 83,816 registrations.
On the plus side, we started the year by driving the new Focus RS, which set the tone for a vintage year of performance cars. Meanwhile, in the autumn, we drove the new Focus ST-Line…
Ford Focus ST-Line: what we said
“Everybody loves a fast Ford. And while the Focus ST-Line isn’t technically, um, fast, it looks the part. For many, that will be reason enough to buy one.
“Importantly, ST-Line trim doesn’t detract from the Focus’s traditional strengths: agile handling, decent comfort and practicality, and an attractive price-tag (especially after discount). If you’re in the market for a C-segment car, it should definitely be on your shortlist.” TP
2. Vauxhall Corsa: 77,110 registrations
In 2015, some 92,077 Corsas were registered in the UK, so Vauxhall’s most popular model fell well short in 2016. Frankly, it’s been a miserable year for the cars in the top four.
Which is a tad unfair on the Vauxhall Corsa, as the current version is streets ahead of its predecessors. The 1.0-litre turbocharged engine is a peach, while the interior is a league above the cabin you’ll find in the Fiesta. You’ll also discover that the supermini has some rather grown-up features.
Vauxhall Corsa: what we said
“The new Vauxhall Corsa is a very likeable car. We were worried at first that it’d be too similar to its predecessor, and certainly a bit more on the design front would have been welcome, but to drive it feels all-new.
“As such, we’d have no hesitation recommending a Corsa to anyone looking for a supermini – something we’d have struggled to say in the past. While it may still not quite have the edge over rivals like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo, it’s closer than ever before.” AB
1. Ford Fiesta: 120,525 registrations
No prizes for guessing the best-selling car of 2016. It is, of course, the Infiniti QX30. No wait, not that, it’s the Ford Fiesta.
Numbers might be down compared to 2015, but with a new model waiting in the wings, Ford won’t be feeling too glum this January. The new Fiesta range will feature an upmarket Vignale trim level and a new Active crossover. In 2016, we drove the Fiesta ST200…
Ford Fiesta ST200: what we said
“We’ll make no bones about it – we’re huge fans of the Fiesta ST200. We nearly stopped off at a Ford dealer on the way home, that’s how much we enjoyed driving it.
“It’s the ultimate Fiesta ST, which itself is the ultimate affordable hot hatch (and arguably more fun than bigger hot hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI). It looks great in Storm Grey, and you’ll be given a great deal of kudos turning up at fast Ford meets in one. You could almost look at it as an investment.” AB
This is what the future looked like in 1999. A future that, in Audi’s view, relied on clever packaging, lightweight aluminium construction and, er, diesel engines. The 90hp 1.4-litre TDI, introduced in 2003 and tested here, could return 65.7mpg. That was groundbreaking 12 years ago.
What are its rivals?
The Audi A2’s biggest rival was from fellow German manufacturer Mercedes-Benz, with its supermini-on-stilts A-Class. You could compare its MPV/supermini design with the likes of the Honda Jazz, but you probably shouldn’t.
What engine does it use?
Buyers had a choice of two four-cylinder petrol engines: a 75hp 1.4-litre three-cylinder, which has a tendency to feel underpowered, or a 1.6-litre 110hp unit – which is a tad feistier. The 1.4-litre TDI diesel was better regarded in its day, however. It was available with 75hp, or the more powerful 90hp (tested here) after 2003.
What’s it like to drive?
Its low weight means the 90hp diesel Audi A2 feels a lot quicker than you’d expect – and faster than its 10.9-second 0-62mph time would suggest. It’s a clattery old three-cylinder diesel by today’s standards, though – noisy at idle, but getting more characterful as you give it some beans. It likes to be given said beans, too; its narrow power-band is higher up the rev range than you’d expect if you’re accustomed to modern diesels.
It’s a really fun car to drive around town, with light steering and a tight turning circle. Our biggest criticism, and the biggest issue in its day (apart from price), is its ultra-firm ride. But that does translate into a car that can handle surprisingly well out of town. On motorways, it’s still sprightly enough, if not particularly quiet.
Reliability and running costs
The A2 has typical Audi build quality, so there shouldn’t be a lot that goes wrong with it. The cambelt needs changing every 60-80,000 miles, so budget £500 for that, and make sure it’s serviced regularly.
With its official 65.7mpg fuel economy figure, the A2 should be cheap to run – and its 42-litre fuel tank should equate to more than 600 miles before you have to fill up. Insurance might be costlier than you’d expect, as the aluminium body panels are expensive to repair.
Could I drive it every day?
Absolutely. If long motorway miles are your thing, you’d find a bigger Audi of the same age much more agreeable. But the A2 offers a fun drive for those who do more miles in urban areas. At less than 1.7m wide, it’ll squeeze through tight gaps, while it’s also a doddle to park. Its clever packaging means it’s surprisingly practical, and the rear seats fold down if you need extra boot space.
How much should I pay?
The Audi A2 was always expensive. The list price of this model was more than £16,000, while some owners apparently payed more than £20,000 with options. The relative rarity and timeless looks mean the A2 held onto its value well for a while, but they are now starting to approach banger territory. You can find one for less than £1,000, but you’d be wise to budget double that if you want a fairly tidy diesel.
What should I look out for?
The usual stuff – has the cambelt been changed, has it been regularly serviced? And look out for any that have been repaired badly. The aluminium construction is tricky (and thus costly) to fix, so watch out if corners have been cut.
Should I buy one?
Very few cars have resulted in as much classified browsing in the Motoring Research office as the Audi A2. It’s a flawed car by today’s standards, but its design has aged so well. There’s no doubt that it’s a future classic, so buy a good one and look after it.
Audi decided the A2 could go without an old-fashioned bonnet, so instead fitted a service hatch for easy access to essential fluids. If you want access to the engine, you have to unscrew two catches and lift off the 8kg bonnet. It’s easy enough, but in reality most owners will have little need.
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