An Asian upstart to take notice of

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KIA’S Mondeo-sized Optima is the most ambitious car the South Korean brand has yet tried to bring us.

New from the ground up and with a distinctive trademark ‘Tiger Nose’ front grille, this is a contender that European and Japanese brands are going to have to take seriously.

The shape is certainly striking, thanks to the influence of former Audi designer Peter Schreyer who joined Kia four years ago. Put this Optima alongside an old Magentis and the two cars are clearly from different eras.

This, clearly, is no mere overhaul of an ageing model. The goal for Kia has been to inject some passion into cars that have a solid reputation for reliability and value-for-money.

If you can judge a book by its cover, then the prospects here in that score seem promising.

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.

The diesel option is taken care of with the 1.7-litre VGT (Variable Geometry Turbocharger) unit which puts out 134bhp and develops 330Nm of torque – or as much as 160bhp if that’s not enough.

There’s also a 2.0-litre four cylinder CVVL (variable valve lift) petrol unit which delivers 168bhp and 196Nm of torque.

Diesel and petrol options are available with either a six-speed manual gearbox or six-speed auto.

The fresh looks clothe an entirely new platform under the skin. Wider and longer than the Magentis it replaces with a raked roof line, an aggressive nose and a sleek profile, the Optima sits closer to the ground for a more purposeful, sportier stance.

Kia hopes that the coupe looks, underscored by the sweeping chrome arc from the front windscreen A pillar to the rear window C pillar, belie the five-door flexibility of the car and create a premium image. It’ll be interesting to see whether buyers agree.

There’s quality inside too, with a driver-focused dashboard and careful choices of trim and materials.

Prices start at around £18,000, making it clear that Kia are positioning this car as much more than a just a Magentis replacement.

As for rivals, well the Mondeo/Insignia/Laguna/Passat competition that this car will be up against all suffer in comparison to the Optima when it comes to standard equipment.

Here’s a Kia to genuinely get excited about for reasons other than lengthy warranties and dependability.

It looks good, should drive well and will be practical to own. Yet it keeps all the reasons that people like this South Korean brand – high equipment, affordable pricing and back-up peace of mind.

All of this the Optima will need. Establishment brands that won’t take kindly to this Asian upstart. But they need to take this car seriously – an increasing number of thoughtful buyers certainly will.