Kia's new Optima proves the Korean brand has come of age, and we certainly put it to the test. We got lost on the Manawatu launch and our accidentally extended route took in gravel farm roads, gnarled rural views and some spectacularly remote scenery, as well as the well-travelled highways that saved our bacon as our return flights loomed.
What's new Forget any lingering nightmares about the original Optima for this car is much more than just a handsome face.
It is is longer, lower and wider than the Magentis it replaces, with a longer wheelbase delivering a more spacious cabin and a 505-litre boot.
The 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine is shared with Hyundai's i45 and matched to a six-speed auto, with MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension.
This is the first Kia to get direct fuel injection, which boosts power to 148kW at 6300rpm and torque to 250Nm at 4250rpm while keeping thirst pinned to a claimed 7.9l/100km with the power-sapping eco button pressed.
The company line General manager Todd McDonald is aiming for 200 sales this year, mainly to private buyers - a conservative target mandated by a worldwide shortage as demand exceeds supply.
Global Kia sales increased 24 per cent last year and, as McDonald says, "you can't just turn on a new factory in such a short period".
However, United States production moves from Korea to America in July and Britain has delayed its launch to 2012, when increased supply will see 2.0-litre and diesel variants here, thus allowing Kia NZ to start a marketing push to fleets.
Meanwhile, the $46,990 EX specification, which will be our only model, includes a "sports pack" that brings with it uprated brakes, a rear spoiler, and show car-inspired 18-inch alloy wheels.
That price just undercuts the similarly focused Toyota Camry Sportivo, Hyundai i45 Elite and Mazda6 Limited.
What we say Optima looks handsome, the Peter Schreyer-penned lines and accents just right from grille to tail. The Kia is roomy enough to rival buyers accustomed to Falcon-sized cars and its cabin is as smart as its skin.
Kia has loaded it to suit, with leather seats, front fog lights, dual-zone climate air-con, push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, LED running lights, a 420W 12-channel eight-speaker sound system, and Bluetooth connectivity alongside stability control as standard, six airbags, and a rear-view camera plus park warning sensors.
On the road Optima is nicely balanced, well-damped, comfy and inspiring confidence. The steering feels slightly lifeless but is accurate enough. The clincher came first while tackling narrow gravel roads, then U-turning between steep ditches and trying to make up time through rural swervery leading to our intended route. The Optima never put a foot wrong.
Why you'll buy one You want a car that looks and feels a cut above.
Why you won't Kias are Korean and you remember the war - or drove an original Optima and can't get beyond the name.