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Kia's striking-looking Optima has been revised in a bid to win more new friends for the Korean manufacturer in the medium range Mondeo sector. Jonathan Crouch reports.

Kia's Mondeo-sized Optima is the most ambitious car the South Korean brand has yet tried to bring us. Now it's quieter, smarter, better equipped and more than ever, a contender that European and Japanese brands are going to have to take very seriously.

We think differently about Kia these days - or at least many of us do. Those who've taken the trouble to note the Korean maker's increasing excellence when it comes to cutting edge citycars, superminis and SUVs. The broadly business-based market for Mondeo-sized medium range models though, has never taken Kia seriously - but now it needs to. Because of this car, the Optima. Sleek, head-turning looks add the 'want one' factor previously missing from Kia's unremarkable offerings in this sector. But there's plenty of sensible stuff too, frugal diesel power matched with this rising brand's usual attributes of high equipment levels and strong value. All of which is just as well, for products like Ford's Mondeo and Volkswagen's Passat have set the bar high in this segment. Kia says it's fine with that, pointing to the fact that recent revisions to this model have made it significantly quieter and added extra equipment. Will it be enough to enable Kia to break into the domination the big brands' enjoy in our demanding business market - and at the same time, as the Korean brand suggests, offer thoughtful private family buyers a stylish choice that's deliciously different? Let's find out.

It's one thing of course to make a car look sharp: another entirely to make it drive that way. Here, the roadgoing experience benefits not just from a wider, longer platform, but also from the weight-saving bodyshell which uses high tensile steels for strength and torsional rigidity. There's only one 1.7-litre 136PS diesel engine on offer, mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed auto transmission. Extensive work on NVH has significantly reduced noise levels in the cabin by 3.3 decibels. Hydraulic power assisted rack and pinion steering should give responsive input, with under three turns of the wheel lock-to-lock and a turning circle of under 11m. Suspension and damping should be equally assured, thanks to the use of fully independent MacPherson struts with coil springs and twin tube gas-filled shock absorbers, as well as an anti-roll stabiliser bar at the front. There's also fully independent multi-link suspension at the rear. Kia promise that the handling will be complemented by assured braking via vented discs at the front (and solid discs at the rear) that aim to offer crisp response and a confidence-inspiring feel. The U2 engine in the Optima develops similar power and torque to the 2.0-litre units in European and Japanese rivals, but from a smaller capacity. Acceleration from 0-60mph takes 10.2 seconds in manual versions and 11.5 seconds with automatic transmission, while the respective top speeds are 125mph and 122mph.

Created under the direction of Kia's Chief Design Officer Peter Schreyer, the upgraded Optima features smarter headlights, fog lamps, rear lights, bumpers and wheels.a At the front, the LED daytime running lights are moved from the bumper into the headlight - consistent with other Kia models - and the fog lamps are set into a body-colour panel rather than the transverse black panel of the original design. Sleeker four-point LED fog lamps generate a more distinctive appearance and echo the dramatic appearance of the lamps fitted to the Kia's pro_cee'd GT hot hatch. There are also fresh 17-inch and 18-inch alloy wheel designs and a re-styled sharper-edged boot lid.a At the rear, the smarter, larger rear light clusters are available with surface-emitting LEDs and the twin red reflectors are now raised and set on a horizontal plane. Inside, there have been detailed changes to the instrument cluster, steering wheel, centre console, gear selector, door armrests and the seats - refreshing the cabin's appearance and adding an extra touch of luxury. The revised instrument cluster features a larger TFT LCD screen delivering more information with improved graphics.a The restyled steering wheel has the remote controls located on the horizontal spokes. The redesigned centre console houses a 7-inch information screen and is finished in black high-gloss, while the switch panels in the armrests come with satin metal or black high-gloss accents, depending on model.a Interior door handles are now finished in satin metal, rather than chrome. The front seats feature cushions with raised side bolsters and a higher leading edge, increasing lateral and under-thigh support for enhanced comfort.a

As before, prices sit in the £20,000 to £26,000 bracket spread across 1, 2 and 3 trim grades and there's just a single saloon bodystyle. Drivers of automatic models can use Drive-Mode-Select to choose between three driving modes: the default Normal mode; Active ECO mode, which enhances fuel economy; and Sport mode, which delivers more immediate engine response and increases the weight of the steering. Both the audio and navigation systems for the Optima have been improved.a The new audio systems now allow customers to connect an iPod to the car via Apple's regular USB cable whilst the new navigation system features a 7-inch screen. Kia's Blind Spot Detection system will be fitted to certain versions.a As well as alerting the driver to cars approaching closely - by triggering a warning light in the door mirror - the BSD system incorporates Lane Change Assist (LCA) and Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA). LCA monitors following traffic and alerts the driver if changing lane might be hazardous.a Designed to improve safety in car parks, RCTA is activated when reverse gear is selected and monitors the zone at 90 degrees to the car, on both sides, sounding a warning if approaching vehicles are detected.a Both front and rear parking sensors are available.

Kias have always been affordable to run - in every area bar depreciation. The whole idea of the kind of higher quality approach delivered by the more desirable Optima is that residuals will firm up and deliver figures closer to the mainstream class leaders. If this car doesn't manage that, then it's hard to see what more Kia can do. Everything else certainly stacks up. There's a lengthy seven year/100,000 mile warranty and both fuel and CO2 figures across the range look more than competitive. The manual can achieve 57.6 miles per gallon, with CO2 emissions of 128g/km, while the figures for the automatic are 47.1mpg and 158g/km. Both attract vastly lower company car taxation rates than any previous Kia D-segment model. In fact, the new car with automatic transmission matches the CO2 emissions of the previous manual version.

Kia has to aspire beyond budget brand status if it's to avoid being steamrollered by emerging Chinese manufacturers and this improved Optima is another step on the road to respectability alongside the Ford's Vauxhalls and Peugeots of this world. That's guaranteed. Strong sales aren't in a sector crammed with so many excellent alternatives. But for those willing to give it a try, this improved model has much to offer. It looks good, it drives well and will be practical to own. Families will enjoy the space and it'll certainly be a very smart set of wheels for the middle-ranking managers who sweep backwards and forwards across the country, from motorway service areas to shiny industrial estates then home again. As for the established brands, well if they're smart, they'll be taking this car very seriously indeed. Because that's what an increasing number of thoughtful buyers will already be doing.

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